Tuesday 11 December 2018

First it was points, now Irish students need passports

Higher education bosses want more Irish students to spend time studying abroad.

Violent incidents have led to calls for better security at schools in a country were many couples only have one child.
Violent incidents have led to calls for better security at schools in a country were many couples only have one child.
Katherine Donnelly

Katherine Donnelly

Internationalisation is a word that is bandied about a lot in the context of higher education.

In Ireland, it is usually taken to refer to students from countries outside the EU coming to study in third-level colleges in this country. It is often associated with those from countries such as China or Malaysia, travelling to develop English-speaking skills, although the benefits are much broader than that.

But, what about Irish students taking on an "international" dimension by studying abroad, either for a semester or a year, and immersing themselves in another culture as part of their education?

Ireland has a long tradition of young people leaving its shores for all the wrong reasons, most notably for work. In more recent years there has also been the phenomenon of the "gap" year, where graduates backpack their way around the world, from Patagonia to the beaches of Thailand, while they contemplate their next life move.

But, this country has a poor trackrecord of students broadening their horizons by taking advantage of international exchanges, either for a semester or a full academic year, as part of their degree programmes.

Where it does happen, it is more likely to involve students on courses with an obvious international dimension, such as languages or marketing.

The EU's Erasmus student exchange programme is probably the best-known vehicle in Ireland for study abroad, and accounts for over half of all undergraduate students participating in such schemes. Even at that, the number of Irish participants is relatively low - at about 3,000 a year - only three Irish students go to study in other European countries for every six who come here.

A recent study on the impact of Erasmus shows that graduates with international experience fare much better on the jobs market.

The Higher Education Authority (HEA) is seeking to double the proportion of Irish third-level students going abroad for a semester or a year. At the moment, it is about 6pc, but they want that to increase to 12pc by 2020.

HEA chief executive Tom Boland says: "The world is a smaller place and Irish students need to understand firsthand how to engage with other countries and cultures. We need to work strategically in this area especially with significant global political and economic players".

Some Irish colleges are ahead of the curve, including the University of Limerick where its co-op undergraduate work placement programme boosts the number of its students going abroad.

In Ireland's biggest university, UCD, about 18pc of students avail of study abroad opportunities at one of 400 universities in Europe and around the world. That's about 700 students from any given undergraduate year.

According to UCD Director of Communications, Eilis O'Brien, the benefits of going abroad are enormous.

"Certainly, their education is enhanced as they take course modules designed by another university that complement their studies at home. If they stay in Europe, usually on an Erasmus Exchange, they perfect their language fluency, which gives them an enormous advantage in job applications overseas or with companies here who operate internationally.

"In addition, they get to live in another country, generally under the care of a university international office, who make sure they are happy and safe".

She says in UCD, students of business, law, engineering and arts are most likely to travel. Science students go in much smaller numbers.

She thinks it would be a great help to plant the idea while students are still at school, so that they are better prepared to take a decision when they confront the issue in college.

Despite all the benefits, money has been identified as a real obstacle to Irish students making the move.

While students pay the normal Irish university fee for the year or semester they spend abroad rather than the tuition fee of the host country, they do have costs in terms of living and travel expenses.

The Erasmus Programme provides a grant, which varies depending on where the student is going and for how long. The average amount for an academic year is approximately €1,500. In general, students to non-EU countries don't receive grants.

Tom Boland, who earlier this week launched a new Erasmus Ireland-Germany Traineeship project, is conscious of the costs involved. He says colleges must make a particular effort to support and encourage students from backgrounds where the culture or costs of travelling abroad were seen as barriers.

Mr Boland is also asking guidance counsellors to point out the exchange opportunities to students when discussing third-level options.

Irish Independent

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