Ireland's reputation as a quality location for international study leaves much to be desired: as a result it is failing to take advantage of quite a special opportunity. Why special? Because international students are increasingly seeking out English-speaking countries, and, of course, the only two options available in Europe are the UK or Ireland.
But the UK is winning hands down. It is one of the world's most sought-after locations. Over 300,000 international students are enrolled in the UK and spend some €5bn a year there.
The British Council sees international education as a major growth business and estimates it will almost triple by 2020. In addition to the immediate financial returns there are also significant long-term commercial and diplomatic benefits: many students who come to study are likely to rise to leadership positions after returning to their own countries.
A good 'study abroad' experience can lead to a range of longer-term indirect benefits, from trade and tourism to the creation of useful international networks.
Ireland has yet to organise itself to avail as it might of these opportunities. While Irish universities and institutions, and many private English language schools, are active in the market and have acquitted themselves well, the overall situation is not good. Ireland has not got its act together in a co-ordinated way and as a result, its reputation in international education is being tarnished.
Because Ireland, unlike many of its competitors, has lax regulatory and quality control arrangements for international education, some disreputable operators continue to damage Ireland's reputation.
Stories of bad experiences circulate among the international agencies that advise on study abroad. There have been problems at home also, with some organisations permitting themselves to be used by illegal migrants posing as students to gain entry to the country.
The Department of Justice has not been amused by this and applications for student visas tend to receive lengthy scrutiny. As a result, while the UK can respond within 48 hours to a straightforward student visa application, delays of six to eight weeks are quite common in processing similar applications in Ireland.
Students and agencies are reluctant to wait weeks for a response from Ireland when they can receive a course offer and a visa within a couple of days from the UK.
As a result of concern about Ireland's failure to compete effectively, an interdepartmental committee was established and in 2004 recommended some helpful initiatives, including the establishment of a body called Education Ireland. Despite ministerial assurances that Education Ireland was going to be established to regulate and promote the development of Ireland as a high-quality location for international education, this has not happened. Nor is it likely that it will, given the Government's currents dilemmas and policies. It is generally perceived that the Education Ireland initiative is dead.
What should be done? Well, what should not be done is wait any longer in the hope of Government action. With acute funding problems elsewhere, the international education opportunity appears even more attractive, and there is now good reason that the universities should come together, perhaps under the umbrella of the Irish Universities Association, to do much of what was recommended in 2004.
But, rather than establishing Education Ireland as a statutory body, it could be created without delay as a company limited by guarantee that would promote the sector, certify eligible institutions, establish a quality mark, undertake competitor analysis and strategic planning while providing a forum to secure a co-ordinated response from public bodies and agencies.
Experience in New Zealand would suggest how such a body could be funded. There each recognised institution pays a small annual fee and a percentage of tuition (0.45pc) to support an organisation that regulates and fosters the development of New Zealand's export education industry.
One of the benefits of the current public financial crises is a growing awareness that waiting around for government action is not a good idea and getting on with the job is.
If Ireland is to benefit as it should from its special English-speaking position in the global market its current incoherent and deteriorating international education position needs attention.
Ireland's seven universities, perhaps in partnership with the two in Northern Ireland, are in a good position to provide the leadership and drive necessary to fill the void and secure the benefits that will inevitably flow from a well-regulated and developed international education sector. Ireland has the prospect of becoming one of the worldwide locations most favoured by international students, but only if action is taken to address the issues and reach for quality.
Dr Edward Walsh is founding president of the University of Limerick