The 21st Century’s deadliest pandemic has halted life in all aspects, from the way we work to the way we interact. Ireland’s economy and society speak of our current situation, with pillar industries such as hospitality and education being hit the hardest. It seems that between Brexit and the pandemic, the Emerald Isle is facing the perfect storm.
Education and international students in Ireland
As I sit writing this article on Saint Patrick’s Day, I can’t help but recall my own experiences when I first came here as an international student a few years ago, cherished memories as they are. Like many others, I arrived with the hope of establishing myself academically and going on to work in my preferred field. However, with a global pandemic that has left the world struggling, it now seems a far fetched dream. Instead, a dreaded reality is in prospect not only for me but for thousands more who came tantalisingly close to the dream of improving their lives only to be pushed back by a catastrophe that is not of our making.
Contributing a staggering €10.6 billion to the economy, the higher education system welcomes over 32,000 students every year. While a recent analysis commissioned by the Australian federal government and published by The Age and Sydney Morning Herald listed Ireland among countries that have “provided much more support to international students during the coronavirus pandemic than Australia.”
A €20m international student recruitment fund is being sought to drive the recovery of the international student business with €10m to go to an Education in Ireland promotion campaign and €10m to institutions for their individual recruitment campaigns. Accountability and competition are sources of increasing pressure for higher education institutions and the government has intensified performance monitoring.
However, the reality on the ground for thousands of international students is extremely challenging. Students have reported difficulties in accessing the Covid unemployment payment and other schemes set up by the government. 21% of third-level international students who took part in a recent ICOS survey reported having lost their job and being unable to access state support.
ICOS Executive Director Sarah Lennon says that recently-arrived students are in a particularly vulnerable situation with many having difficulty getting a PPS number, without which they cannot access the pandemic or jobseekers payments.
“It is really tricky for international students,” noted one Malaysian student respondent.
In many cases, recently arrived students find themselves in a most precarious position due to not being able to work and not being able to access the emergency supports. They are also arriving in an unfamiliar country, sometimes with limited English. These students would have come to Ireland with a realistic expectation of getting work relatively easily, but due to COVID-19 this has not been possible, and many are facing financial hardship.
“We are unsure about returning home due to the risk…at the same time, we know that staying here for long would not be a rational choice, as career prospects pose a lot of uncertainties,’ said Julia Silva, an English student who came to Ireland in March to pursue her studies.
Increasing pressures – keeping up and holding on
Another major worry is the increase in mental health issues as students encounter many pressures, including the transition to college, costs, loan debt, examination stress, and a competitive job market. Student suicides have hit a record high globally, while a 2019 survey by the Union of Students in Ireland found that 38% of students reported experiencing extreme anxiety and 30% reported symptoms of depression. The survey highlighted pressures arising from difficulties with accommodation and the need to take on jobs to pay fees and rent.
As noted earlier, international students represent a significant source of income, but they will now be less willing or able to travel. The Irish Universities Association has calculated a loss of revenue of €374 million for Irish universities in the 2020 and 2021 financial years, while one commentator estimates that it will take five years for international student numbers to return to 2019 levels globally.
For international students in Ireland, 49% of third level students who reported working part-time were able to access the Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP). 21% reported having lost their job, without qualifying for the fund, while 19% continue to work as normal. 37% of students reported that they do not work.
Third level students were also asked about how they funded their studies. 59% said that they self-financed, 18% were on a scholarship, and 24% selected ‘other’.
Authorities derelict: accountability and action
A recent petition on change.org demanding a response to this crisis from the Irish government has garnered considerable attention from the international community in Ireland. The over 5000 signatories petitioned the Department of Justice to extend the visas of all graduate students for one more year. Such an extension would not only be beneficial for students, but also for the Irish market by retaining a qualified workforce in the country.
Sign the petition here
While the government has understandably worked to extend visa renewable dates since the start of the pandemic, I still wonder is this the most our government can do for a community of individuals who contribute over millions of euros to the Irish economy per annum? Are we all just rungs in the Irish economy’s financial ladder? Are our unseen struggles even felt by the leaders of the country we all hope to call home?