Irish colleges prepare for an influx of fee refugees from Britain
Universities in England will begin charging students over €10,000 next year
Irish universities could face a surge in applications from Britain next year as cash-strapped students flee soaring fees.
Annual fees at many English universities will be increased to over €10,000 a year. The new charges will come into effect for new entrants to college courses in 2012.
The fees hikes will mean there will be a huge difference in charges between English and Irish universities.
As EU citizens British students are entitled to study here for the same fees as their Irish counterparts. That means that their annual charge, as things stand, will be a student contribution of €2,000.
Lower fees could also be a magnet for Northern students. In Northern Ireland tuition fees are capped at €3,682, but a consultation process is under way, with proposals ranging from abolition of fees to an increase to over €10,000.
NUI Galway said it is already seen a 163% increase in applications from British and Northern Irish students.
The university's schools liaison officer, Grainne Dunne said: "NUI Galway has experienced a huge increase in interest and in applications from students in the UK and Northern Ireland. This demand is driven partly by the increase in tuition fees but also by a better understanding of the full range of programmes offered by universities in the republic.''
According to the latest figures from the CAO, the number of UK students applying to Irish universities has increased by 10% to 1,589 this year.
That rise is not dramatic, but the real effect is unlikely to be seen until 2012 when the higher fees come into effect.
Malcolm Byrne, a spokesman for the Higher Education Authority, said: "It's too early to tell what the effect of the English fee increases will be. We will be looking at this very closely.''
John Gill of the Times Higher Education Review said any big increase in numbers crossing the Irish Sea is likely to happen in 2012.
Those who apply for English universities this year will be the last to be charged under the lower fees regime.
As the best-known Irish university, Trinity College is likely to be the first port of call for English applicants.
Awareness of the university will have been heightened by the recent visit of Queen Elizabeth.
Already up to 7% of applications for admission to the university come from Britain and Northern Ireland.
At Trinity and other Irish universities, British students tend to target courses linked with professions such as law, medicine and dentistry.
Trinity College admissions officer Sue Power: "So far there has not been a significant rise in the number of applications, but that may change. We have had huge interest from the British media and that may have an effect in 2012 when the new higher fees are introduced.''
British applicants take A-Level exams and their grades are benchmarked against the Leaving Cert.
"Obviously if there was a very big increase in the number of applicants it would be a concern,'' said Sue Power.
Trinity already gets such a high volume of applications from Britain that it could fill its places in courses such as law and medicine with British students, according to Sue Power.
The university limits British numbers in certain courses.
They do so using a principle known as proportionality.
This means that the number of places reserved for A-Level applicants on certain courses is determined based on the proportion of eligible applications from the A-Level and Leaving Certificate systems.
The two exam groups are separated and places allocated proportionally. Ultimately this limits the number of UK admissions.
A massive influx of British students has the potential to throw our third-level system off balance. However it could also bring economic benefits.
College authorities have estimated that students from abroad spend an average of €10,000 each every year on their living expenses on top of their fees. However, our Government has to cover most of the cost of each student's tuition.
Ireland will not be the only destination for British college fee refugees.
The Daily Telegraph recently reported that foreign universities were actively campaigning to sign up British fee refugees.
American, German and Dutch institutions have been mounting high-profile recruitment drives recently.
The colleges may not just be interested in fees.
Beatrice Merrick, director of services and research at the UK Council for International Student Affairs, said: "Increasing diversity in the classroom improves the learning experience for all students, and there is an element of soft diplomacy: people who know your country and become informal ambassadors for you."
Our bargain-basement fees may prove highly attractive to British students, but there is no guarantee that they will stay low in the medium to long term.
Before the election, Labour promised it would not increase fees or charges, and would also reverse a €500 increase in the student contribution due to be introduced this September.
Ruairi Quinn has already announced that the increase in the student contribution will go ahead, and has hinted that students will be charged additional fees in the future.