Corona and Third Level’s Financial Circuit Breaker

The interruption of lectures twinned with a sharp decline in international students has precipitated a cash flow problem for the majority of Irish universities, Trinity not least among them. With Queen’s College Belfast chartering literal planes to fly in foreign students and societies seeing corporate sponsorship dry up, the business model by which Irish universities have coasted on appears to be hitting a fork in the road.

For the decade after the ‘08 crash while being engines of progressive power, the majority of Irish universities have survived only through a hybrid of foreign students paying inordinate fees as well as private sector donations. With the cessation of foreign travel this equation is shattered, the number of international students tanking in the region of 50% in some institutions, with many pondering the sector’s viability.

While the majority of Irish students enjoy heavily subsidised third-level education through the medium of the CAO system, keeping fees in the €3000 region per annum, international students cough up normally in the region of over €10,000 up to €55,000 depending on the course,  making them a lot more attractive punters for Irish colleges. 

This time last year, Trinity was considering cutting 3,000 places for Irish students in order to improve its student-staff ratio, cutting no places for its lucrative international applicants. No response was heard from the Trinity’s Student Union against this plan for anti-Irish discrimination.

Partially driven by this incentive, the number of international students at Irish colleges has spiked the past decade particularly from non-EEA countries, with overall numbers more than doubling over the past ten years.

The relationship between international students and general patterns of migration was mapped out by a 2019 study by the European Migration Network which noted ‘of the 47,901 first residence permits issued in Ireland in 2017, 13,519 were issued for ‘study’ purposes to non-EEA nationals’ in higher education.

Of these non-EEA nationals, 25% were of American origin, 17% India, 15% Brazil and 14% Chinese citizens. In addition, the report highlighted abuses of labour laws which restrict students working more than 20 hours per week during academic term with many students working more than legally permitted.

Not just for college education Ireland is also comparatively unusual in a European context, due to the high proportion of visas handed out for educational reasons relative to the total (57%) as opposed to general European averages lower than 30%.

According to Eurostat figures, the past ten years has seen the near tripling of first time resident visas sought for educational purposes from the years 2010 to 2019, with over 34,000 residence visas being issued for students last year. 

This has fueled claims that Irish visa laws are being abused using the nation’s lax rules around educational acquisition, buoyed on by the need to keep the educational sector afloat.

While most colleges are attempting to grapple with the new reality through a combination of online courses and reduced fees, it’s becoming more and more apparent the model nurtured the past ten years is punctured with the borrowed time educational institutions have been living under coming to an end.

Ireland’s Language School Fiasco

Regardless of the goings on in higher education, it is agreed by many that the elephant in the room when it comes to education and immigration is the issue of language schools and their contribution to mass immigration into the country. A visible feature of the past half decade in Dublin’s cityscape is the surge in English language colleges sprinkled throughout the urban area, oftentimes drawing controversy as being little more than visa mills, and with a tendency to leave their students short-changed.           

According to the representative body Marketing English in Ireland (MEI), an excess of 150,000 language students are attending courses in the Republic in a given year, with numbers expected to at least halve with coronavirus. This includes younger students under the age of 18 largely from the Iberian peninsula, as well as older students largely from South America.

In July 2011, visa regulations for non-EEA students were heavily liberalised by the Department of Justice following a two year consultation period with educational providers and other lobby groups. With the maximum time allowed to stay in Ireland expanded to 3 years, non-EEA students must provide proof of acceptance at a registered language college as well as to attend 15 hours of tuition in a given week before they are allowed residence.

This arrangement has caused criticism due the apparent lack of regulation resulting in many language students merely doing the bare minimum in hours before engaging in the low-wage economy. In addition, in an era of the Internet, transporting students halfway across the world to learn a language they can learn online for free is rather inefficient at its most mildest.

In the rental market, the spike in language students being sucked into the country for cheap low-wage labour has resulted in notorious incidents of de facto slums being created in Irish towns. In February of this year 15 Brazilian tenants were found to be domiciled in a 4 bedroom Blackrock house, paying rent to an unknown vulture fund who owned the property.

Similar to the conversion of housing stock into tourist accommodation, the effects of international students on the market has been an increasing feature of the housing debate prior to the corona crisis, with feelings that short-term profit is being placed above creating a supply of long-term housing.

With stories of abusive landlords, miserly labour conditions and many language students being left in limbo, the reality of Ireland’s overly liberalised migration laws play themselves out daily on our streets and in our communities. With swathes of the inner city being cannibalised through an unwarranted population spike, it brings home the stark realities of migration in the 21st century.

While the death of Brazilian delivery driver Thiago Cortes brought many on the political Left to the streets in protest last month, few hard questions were asked about the circumstances that led to the rampant abuses of migrant labour. While certain noble attempts are ongoing towards the unionisation, organising transient migrant labour is notoriously difficult in the age of the platform economy. While many progressives talk a good game on workers rights, it is nullified by failing to examine the clear structural flaws in the visa process which allows for sudden spikes of non-English speaking cheap labour.

A decade since the consultation process by Minister for Justice Dermot Ahern that led to the lazing of visa laws the mismanagement of migration policy is being felt in Ireland’s housing market and through the mistreatment of workers. Despite the marketing euphemisms it is clear chunks of the so-called educational process are mere rubber stamps to facilitate an expansive and myopic neoliberal economic model and one on which the music has begun to slow down on.

With education retreating to a world of Zoom meetings and online learning, the role of bricks and mortar institutions will gradually take a hit and so with it the business model embraced by Irish education since the late noughties. After being prostrated by the Global Financial Crash, educational institutions like the rest of the country fostered an addiction to quick fix immigration to make up costs and keep up the ghost of high growth low planning economics.

The educational sector going effective cold turkey with the collapse of international travel is perhaps an apt metaphor for the future state of the Irish economy should the tap of immigration be turned off. Getting your economy dependent on cheap migration flows is the economic equivalent of being a heroin addict.

The winners from our diabolical visa scheme system are a tightnite set of language schools, landlords as well as colleges and students who have avoided the hard choice of raising fees to make up for lost revenue. In 2019 the Republic issued 34,735 first time visas to students to study and potentially work in Ireland, slightly larger than the total population of Bray (32,600). While ignoring simplistic arguments blaming immigration for the housing crisis it’s hard not to see this as a contributing and largely unnecessary factor.

While parts of our economy bleed white beneath the weight of the current crisis, be grateful the language school sector and Irish educational system in general is hitting the wall. Perhaps, when the dust settles, the Irish elite may begin to ask themselves some serious questions with regards to migration instead of acting surprised when populists start doing it for them.

Posted by Ciaran Brennan


  1. Still waiting for the ordo side of the equation…lads…lads?


  2. Portobello Observer 18/10/2020 at 2:27 pm

    It was fun for the first 2 seasons but it’s clear that entire industry primed for an immigration fuelled crash

    when are people going to learn, sudden influxes of cheap labour and students wrecks your economy long-term?


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