Will post-Covid Ireland still be a study abroad hotspot?

Group of students on Irish cliffs looking across the ocean nearing sunset

Tested by the pandemic, the response of state and society shows us why Ireland should be top of your list for program development in the 2020s

This article was written Big Pond Education. Big Pond is a custom and faculty-led study abroad provider, with all programming in Dublin, Ireland. We partner with universities to build cost effective, supportive programs.

It’ll be grand. 

Three words uttered by every Irish person on a daily basis, and often in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. It’s a state of mind as much as it is a throwaway remark. Work is overwhelming? You’re running late for your flight? The economy has collapsed?  It’ll be grand. 

This easy-going optimism has always been part of the allure of Ireland. The charm associated with phrases like this has served Ireland well as an attractive destination for US study abroad students and those organizing their programs for years. Ireland is one of the major players in US study abroad and sits in first position for the number of students hosted per capita anywhere in the world. The country is the seventh most popular destination overall. When it comes to choosing a study abroad destination, what's not to like? Ireland is the fifteenth happiest country in the world according to the 2021 World Happiness Index, with the US coming in at nineteenth. As recently as 2020, Conde Naste listed Galway and Dublin as the two friendliest cities in Europe, which also happen to be the two most popular destinations for international students in Ireland. The Institute for Economics and Peace ranked Ireland fifteenth out of 169 countries in 2021’s World Peace Index.  For context, the US occupied one hundred and seventeenth place. 

"Ireland remains the only country in Europe where travelers can go through US passport clearance before getting on the plane. "

Looking at Ireland from the outside, the country occupies an enviable sweet spot between exuding a breezy demeanor and being a highly successful modern economy.  The IMD World Competitiveness Center has Ireland thirteenth in the list of most competitive countries ahead of China, the UK, Canada and Germany. The island boasts several universities of international acclaim, with plenty of STEM, business and social science options geared specifically towards international students.  The country has become a thriving business hub for some of the world’s largest companies such as Google, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft.   At the same time, it is renowned for its literary and ancient past and people from America to Australia wear their Irish roots with pride.  Ireland remains the only country in Europe where travelers can go through US passport clearance before getting on the plane. 

Nevertheless, to the Irish themselves, even the staunchest follower of the ‘it’ll be grand’ outlook has had their faith severely tested since Covid arrived in Spring 2020. No matter what field they might be in, decision they’re currently mulling, or hobby they practice, Covid has taken its toll on the Irish people.  That also goes for the institutions of state, which have been acutely stress tested. International education in Ireland is no different. Up until 2020, US students were flocking to Ireland in record numbers. In the 2020/21 academic year, that steady stream of students completely dried up. Things certainly haven’t been grand.

Black and white barrels of Guinness showing Ireland's heritage to study abroad
Resting on the strength of its heritage for too long? Has Covid been the wake-up call study abroad in Ireland needed?

Paradoxically, while the events of 2020-2021 have seriously impacted Ireland, the education sector is now arguably heading in a better direction. In short, this is because the strains of the pandemic have catalyzed beneficial changes within Irish society and its institutions which will make Ireland more of an engaging, supportive environment even than before.  To any international educator looking to get a handle on Ireland’s post-Covid landscape, the future is rosy.  The longer form narrative is far more interesting, and gives valuable insights into a country more three dimensional than some often assume. 

International student life during the pandemic

Despite some recent bumps in the road, such as the financial crash and the uncertainty surrounding Brexit, for more than a decade the inbound US-student sector in Ireland has proven itself remarkably robust. However, even the most steadfast of industries have been shaken by Covid, especially those relying on air travel. Ireland had one of the world’s longest lockdowns in place to stem the spread of the virus. The handful of students who took the decision to study abroad in Ireland during Spring 2021 did so against the advice of the CDC and State Department. Students ‘lucky’ enough to spend the start of the year on the island spent the entirety of their program taking online classes, having no access to shops or leisure activities deemed non-essential and being restricted to within a 5 km radius of their domicile. Not exactly the brochure version of rolling green hills, friendly faces and famous nightlife they had been looking forward to. 

The 2021 National Survey on Student Engagement also doesn’t paint a glittering picture of life under Covid as a student in Ireland. While the report doesn’t focus specifically on the international student market, the findings for first year students make for interesting reading. First year university student feedback saw significant drops when it came to the quality and level of interactions with fellow students and academic staff from previous 3-year averages. Only 12% of respondents reported that their university/college was emphasizing any social opportunities, down 23% from the previous 3-year average. Of course none of this is hugely surprising given we’re living under the cloud of a virus that thrives in social settings. However, it still doesn’t bode well for a field that emphasizes the value of cross-cultural, in-person academic exchange.

The last decade of higher education in Ireland

Surely this is just a Covid-related blip in an otherwise growing and sturdy field? It’ll be grand, right?  Well, perhaps not. Funding for education has suffered in Ireland since the 2008-09 financial crash. According to the 2020/21 European Universities Association report there were 19,300 full-time staff in Irish universities in 2008 with 155,000 students on a budget of €1.5 billion. By 2020, the sector had 37% more students, no additional staff and was working off a smaller budget of €1.4 billion. Budgets across the sector have been paper thin. Irish universities have since dropped down the illustrious international ranking lists of which both providers and consumers of education are all so obsessed. Figures from the recent OECD Education at a Glance report show governments around the world pumping an average 4.9% of GDP per year into education. Ireland, however, is bottom of the class at 3.3% of GDP going towards education. The EU average is 4.4%.

So, was this overstretched higher education system already in trouble and only exacerbated by the pandemic? Was Irish higher education and its seemingly robust international education sector sleepwalking into crisis? Possibly. But that’s why the Covid pandemic may have come at exactly the right moment for the international education sector in Ireland.

Covid 19 - a catalyst for change. A moment for continuity

A new dawn in the education sector?

Street scene in central Dublin, Ireland. Flags and bunting across the street and people in pubs on either side
Culture, friendliness and ancestry: mainstays of the draw of Ireland

As part of the response to the pandemic, in 2020 a new Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science was created in Ireland. The government made clear its commitment to the new department by moving Simon Harris, seen as a high-ranking steady hand, from his role as Health Minister into this new portfolio. The Irish Universities Association (IUA) continues to put significant pressure on the new department to implement a €900m+ spending package in additional core funding and capital expenditure. This includes a €37.5m international fund to promote Ireland as an international education destination.

The IUA isn’t fighting a losing battle either. In 2021, the Taoiseach (Prime Minister) signaled his intention to make the increased funding of higher education a major theme for the rest of his government’s tenure. The government’s last higher education strategy ran its course in 2020. A new strategy is currently undergoing a consultation process with the sector at large. The interests of international students in Ireland will be well represented in this new strategy, particularly via the government’s specialist High Level Group on International Education, which comprises both public and private sector stakeholders. It would seem the pandemic may have been the caffeine shot the sleeping juggernaut of Irish international education needed.

Putting the pandemic and the funding crisis to one side for a moment, we already know that Ireland has a lot going for it when it comes to incoming U.S. study abroad. The most commonly cited reasons for choosing Ireland to study abroad are English language, ease of travel to Europe, safety, friendliness, culture, ancestry and a well-aligned academic system. None of this has changed. In fact, the Irish response to the pandemic has arguably bolstered its standing as a top tier country when it comes to health and safety. Brexit too may eventually work in Ireland’s favor given its position as the only other recognized native English-speaking country in Europe, coupled with confusion surrounding the immigration implications of Britain’s withdrawal from the EU. 

The response of the higher education sector

Third level education took a business as usual approach at the start of the 2021/22 academic year by inviting students back to campus with sensible measures in place in relation to mask wearing and social distancing. Clubs and societies are meeting again, sports teams are back training and playing games, indoor pubs and cafes are open and thriving and the live music scene has the dancefloors heaving once more.. Student life in Ireland has resumed. The Winter 2021/22 rise in infection rates and subsequent strain on the healthcare system was challenging, but Ireland again proved itself a standard bearer in terms of health and safety in a time of crisis. Very high vaccination and booster rates are testament to a civically-minded people. Community spirit is alive and well.

Another string to the bow of Irish international higher education is the fact that the universities and colleges successfully and rapidly pivoted to online modes of learning. If the future of education incorporates either blended or hybrid teaching, Ireland’s digital infrastructure is in a good place to manage this transition. Ireland’s success wasn’t just about survival, it was about innovation too. Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) opportunities and partnerships proliferated, and online and hybrid academic interning models took off. 

The timeless forces of continuity and community in Ireland 

The underlying strength of Ireland as a study abroad destination has improved during the pandemic in relative terms. International students have been looked after.  Public health was prioritized over all else. The pivot to remote and hybrid versions of learning was managed quickly and efficiently. The population has proved itself widely compliant with the rules, regulations and restrictions that are in place to stem the spread of the virus. Let’s look at this more closely.

The Irish response was one of prioritizing public health over the economy.  Tellingly, the Irish response to the pandemic also emphasized the importance of community over commerce. This highlights one of the continuing pull factors of Ireland. Namely, a culture rooted in a sense of community, including a friendly response to newcomers.

typical Irish pub old oak tables showing continuity and warm atmosphere
Continuity in the midst of change: a typical pub in the heart of Dublin.

The Irish public have also played a large role in maintaining Ireland’s attractiveness as a study abroad destination, showing themselves to be widely compliant with the rules and regulations around Covid health and safety protocols. From an initially slow vaccine rollout due to supply issues, Ireland now has one of the highest vaccination rate in the European Economic Area, with the booster campaign enjoying similar success. Vaccinations, mask wearing and other associated risk mitigation strategies have enjoyed wide support and have remained non-politicized issues unlike in some other English-speaking countries. While the Irish have been historically associated with an ‘it’ll be grand’ attitude, the pandemic has demonstrated that the Irish are actually a people willing to roll up their sleeves - both to get their vaccinations and to get things done. 

International students as a constituent community within Ireland were not a forgotten demographic during the crisis. In fact, the importance of the US-student market to the economy is relatively well understood within this small, open country.  And important it is: a 2018 study on the economic impact of U.S. study abroad in Ireland found that the field contributes €220m and accounts for nearly 500 full-time jobs annually, not insubstantial figures for such a small economy. The Irish Council for International Students (ICOS) and Association for Study Abroad Providers in Ireland (ASAPI) are just two of the organizations that advocate on behalf of  international students in Ireland. Post-study work eligibility for international students studying remotely due to Covid was extended. Those unable to find work due to strains on the job market were able to avail of extensions. Some international students were able to claim the same temporary wage support mechanisms as Irish nationals and full time workers during the crisis. Eviction moratoriums announced during the pandemic also covered international student renters in designated student accommodation. For anyone looking for a candidate country, who in its response to the pandemic showed its finest side, surely Ireland would make the shortlist.  

"Tellingly, the Irish response to the pandemic also emphasized the importance of community over commerce."

A young, vibrant society

View of the River Liffey and Samuel Beckett Bridge in Dublin at night, with the reflected glow of the city in the water
Dublin: a modern, youthful European capital

Ireland represents a microcosm of what a successful, multicultural nation looks like in the twenty-first century.  To many visitors, expecting to see only a green island held together through village life, this rapid expansion to ‘booming open economy’ status often comes as a surprise.  So too does a quiet revolution in Irish society.  Specifically,  a liberal renaissance that has seen this once relatively homogeneous, closed off, catholic country transition into a culturally open one. 

In recent years, referenda in favor of same-sex marriage and reproductive rights were passed by overwhelming majorities at the ballot box, almost unimaginable events twenty years ago. An openly gay man with an Indian father became Taoiseach (Prime Minister). Both freedom of movement within the EU and non-EU immigration have changed the demographic landscape of the country. In 1996 only 1.5% of residents were born outside of Ireland. In 2016 that figure had increased to 11.3%. The 2022 census will likely show a further increase in that figure. Cross-cultural empathy and understanding exists today in Ireland in a way it never had previously. A young, open minded, empathetic society is the perfect breeding ground for the creation of programs that teach students the life skills needed for academic and personal progress.

Beyond teaching - study abroad as an education

For any educators who have seen the benefits of education abroad, it’s a given that true international education isn’t best served by confining students to their bedroom. The job of the international educator is to build programs that encourage students out of their comfort zones in order to help them develop a sense of purpose, international citizenry and cross-cultural empathy. Even before the pandemic, life behind the screen was contributing to an increasing sense of isolation among today’s students and the job of the international educator is in part to combat that. 

Study abroad providers should encourage local exploration and encourage students out of their comfort zones through organized, engaging local social connection. This promotes a much-needed sense of engagement, resilience and grit among students who have been confined to their screens over the last two years. 

Study abroad in Ireland - leading the way

Ireland is well positioned in this regard. Local, meaningful community engagement should be a cornerstone of any study abroad experience. Irish cities have always been renowned for their big village feel.  The traits the Irish demonstrated during the pandemic are testament to the singular capacity of Ireland to provide a unique education abroad experience.  That is, an experience grounded in an environment where a strong community is recognized as important to both societal and individual well being. 

The changes within the Irish higher education system since Covid have strengthened a national study abroad offering which has always boasted community involvement as a key trait.  This rests on study abroad providers and universities working together to disincentivize a study abroad model which takes a relaxed approach to regular, weekend intra-European travel.  Host countries shouldn’t just be a hub from where to reach other destinations. This idea of international education promotes a voyeuristic, consumer-driven model that has a negative impact on the local population, as well as the environment and ultimately doesn’t serve a student’s development. 

"The changes within the Irish higher education system since Covid have strengthened a national study abroad offering which has always boasted community involvement as a key trait."

Programs that welcomed international students back to Ireland during Fall 2021 had a choice to make - business as usual or a time for change? Underpinned by a conducive study abroad environment, a number of values-driven and socially-conscious universities and providers in Ireland chose the latter. Frequent In-semester international travel was heavily discouraged, local exploration and travel was subsidized, local meaningful community engagement was prioritized.  Those increasingly concerned with the effect of the industry on the global climate have implemented carbon literacy measures among their students and staff.  More providers and universities have begun sponsoring local schemes such as reforestation and other carbon offsetting measures. 

Ireland was a study abroad hub for U.S. students before the pandemic, but was showing signs of creaking. The pandemic may have been the wake up call needed. The response of the government and sector has supercharged the field of international education in Ireland. Funding is increasing and the lessons learnt from the crisis are bolstering Ireland’s reputation as a safe, student-friendly, innovative destination. For anyone looking to develop study abroad in Ireland post-Covid?  It'll be grand.

Big Pond Education is a custom and faculty-led study abroad provider, with all programming in Dublin, Ireland.     

We partner with universities to build cost effective, supportive programs.  We set universities apart and make a real difference to students.  

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