The return of all universities in autumn could see no large lectures, “blended learning” between virtual and on-campus, large cutbacks in numbers of on-campus accommodation, and a rota for students on when they can be on campus with first years prioritised, according to Jim Miley, Director General at Irish Universities Association (IUA).

Speaking with Brendan O’Connor on RTÉ Radio on Sunday, Miley said the IUA expects international numbers to be down for the next couple of years. There will be a “substantial hit” due to a fall in international student revenue. The IUA is predicting a potential drop in revenue of €181 million between this year and next year on its member universities, including University College Dublin (UCD). UCD has already predicted a negative impact of up to €100 million by the end of the year.

Miley discussed the financial fallout from a drop in international students attending Irish universities, saying that “the international student business is now a very substantial export earner for Ireland.” He said they bring in “probably over a half a billion euro a year” between fees and the spending from students in the country.

He said that the IUA expected international numbers to be down for the next couple of years, emphasising a potential drop in revenue of €180 million in the IUA’s seven universities between this year and next year.

Almost 25% of UCD students are internationals, and due to significantly larger fees incurred to them, international student revenue makes up a large portion of the total.

Since the 2008 financial crash, third level institutions have seen a considerable drop in state grants, pushing universities to seek alternative sources of revenue. Miley said that “non-EU students pay substantially more than Irish or EU students, so the income loss is substantial”. He continued: “The irony of this is, in the financial crash, the universities went and tried to compensate for the drop in state funding by driving their international business and also driving commercial revenues.”

Miley admitted that as a result of this new business model for universities, “international student fee revenue was in effect cross subsidising the education for Irish students within the system”, feeding the widespread criticism by student groups that internationals are “cash cows” for universities.

The IUA has proposed a €20 million advertising campaign to attract international students to Irish universities, calling on TD’s to make it a priority in the next government.

Moving on to ‘study abroad’ programmes, the Director General said, “in the autumn […] very many Irish students, including my own daughter who had been planning to go to France, they won’t be able to travel overseas in many cases either.”

He expressed his hope that the universities can hold on to internationals currently pursuing degrees in Ireland but went on to admit that “the big challenge is taking on first years.” He said although it will be difficult in getting Irish students in to first year, it will be “very difficult” to get internationals to come. Now that colleges have tackled the initial rush to make the switch to online learning amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, Miley says they are looking ahead to see what next year will look like logistically.

“It will have to have, and certainly within the first semester this calendar year, a very substantial online [element]”, said the Director General, “blended learning is what people are calling it.” He believes “there will be a greater shift to online and digital” learning, saying that although universities have been making that shift in recent years, the pandemic is “certainly going to accelerate it.”

“If there are students on college [campuses] it will be on some sort of limited rota basis probably. I think colleges are looking at giving priority, particularly to first years. I think its important to get first years on campus and give them some sense of what college is about, but the details of that are being worked through. We’re working closely with the department of education and the Higher Education Authority on that and we’d hope within the coming weeks we’d hope that finalised.”

Speaking on how social distancing may work when students return in the Autumn, Miley says there will be “certainly no large lectures. […] A typical 500-seater teared lecture hall on two-meter distancing, you can put 50 people into it, 10%. That means essentially, you won’t be having large lectures. But I think we could look at some lab-based activity, […] smaller classes and tutorials can be accommodated” but Miley said this will vary based on college and course. “Older buildings with narrow corridors are particularly challenging, and many of the buildings in some of our universities are quite old.”

In relation to on campus accommodation next year, Miley said “there would be nothing like 100% occupancy,” saying students would have to be more dispersed than normal. There would be “much more limited accommodation on campus” as a result of adhering to the national health advise next year. Since March, over 75% of students have left UCD’s on campus accommodation, according to figures revealed to The College Tribune. Students have been reimbursed for their accommodation per week missed.

Earlier this week, UCD suspended all Erasmus+ and Non-EU Exchange programmes for the Autumn Trimester 2020.

In the 2017/18 academic year, UCD welcomed over 1,000 Erasmus+ and Non-EU students on exchanges. In the same year, almost 800 students studied abroad in partner universities around the world. It is understood that these exchanges are a source of significant income for the university.

The university has been adversely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, with UCD projecting a negative impact of up to €100 million by the end of the year.

Last year, UCD had 8,428 international students on the main campus, 3,984 students in overseas operations and a total of 33,285 students enrolled worldwide. Non-EU undergraduate students can pay between €10,000 and €55,000 for tuition fees alone, while postgraduates tend to pay between €10,000 and €35,000. With thousands of internationals likely to stay in their home countries next year, the loss of income for UCD may prompt cuts in services, supports and capital projects on-campus.

Outlining that students will not be expected to suffer financially, President Deeks has told The College Tribune: “We do not expect to impose any additional costs on students beyond the increases already communicated,” referencing the rent increases on-campus next year, going on to suggest, “there are likely to be delays in continuing our improvement in student: faculty ratio, in implementing additional student support measures and in executing some elements of our capital programme.”


Conor Capplis – Editor