Coming Home to Ireland


During the last 6 months, Dr. Charles Larkin and I have been working together on a project commissioned by the Irish Chamber of Commerce in Singapore. Essentially, it is a study into the potential for further student recruitment opportunities with the Irish expatriate community in Asia.

It is set within the wider context of internationalisation of higher education. Ireland, together with almost all advanced economies, has been promoting the agenda of internationalisation which involves attracting a large number of international students who can pay a substantial level of fees.

Ireland, in percentage terms, is internationalising rapidly. More practically, the Irish system continues to have relatively small gross number of international students when compared with the UK. In part this is a function of capital assets. The Irish Third Level sector requires approximately €500m in capital investment over the next decade to keep pace with domestic Irish demographics and depreciation.

This figure was based on estimated made prior to the UK Brexit vote, which will undoubtedly direct more international and EU Erasmus students towards Ireland but also many Irish students (approximately 13,000) that currently choose to study in the UK.

The Survey

As part of our research we conducted an online survey distributed by private fee-paying international Asian secondary schools from the beginning of October 2016 to end November 2016. The survey was targeted towards Irish nationals residing abroad with children nearing the traditional age for higher education matriculation.

The population of Irish nationals located in Asia with children was not known with any precision. We would state that this is an accurate picture of behaviour for Irish emigrants with non-adult children in Singapore. The results for other Asian countries, though informative, would require a larger sample size to be robust.

This study is one of the first to directly look at Irish emigrants and can be considered a building block in a larger superstructure of market research.

In the end, a total of 172 complete responses were obtained. Irish citizens constituted 90% of the respondents. Around 61% of the respondents were male, while 39% were female. 95% of the demographic was between 30 and 59 years of age, with the majority between 40 and 49. 68% of the respondents graduates from an Irish university. University College Dublin and Trinity College Dublin are the primary institutions with alumni located in Asia with 52% of the respondents as graduates of these two institutions.

Survey Results

Below are some stylised facts about the Irish Asia-located expat with school age children: (1) They tend to have more than one child; (2) Mother and father have high educational attainment levels; (3) The family household income tends to be high, with 54% earning over 180,000 USD per annum (average earnings in Ireland are equal to approximately 39,000 USD); (4) Their children tend to be part of an International Baccalaureate or A-Levels school curriculum; (5) Their children tend to be high performance students with their cohort; (6) A large proportion of potential students and their parents are unsure about what they will study at university; (7) 83% of parents do know that their child will most likely not be attending university in their current country of residence; (8) Parents remain the primary decision maker for which HEI a child will matriculate into.

Figure 1

Figure 1 above shows the importance of criteria considered by the respondents. It is obvious that career opportunities, academic programme choices and university rankings all rank as key decision points for parents.

When asked whether or not they intend that their eldest pre-university child study in Ireland, only 42% of the respondents said yes, while 58% said no. Ultimately, Irish emigrants in Asia are not convinced they want their child to come “home”.

Figure 2

For those who indicated they want their children to study in Ireland for higher education, we asked them to specify reasons in an open word entry. Figure 2 shows the histogram of open responses to reasons for studying in Ireland. It is primarily for reasons of family and “home bias” brought about by a personal knowledge of the Irish education system.

Figure 3

And for those who indicated they do not want their child to study in Ireland for higher education, we asked them to specify where they want their child to study. The UK and the US remain the primary locations for Irish expat parents to send their children. See Figure 3 above for the histogram.

Furthermore, while parents cite a desire to have the option of an “expat discount” (i.e. 90%) they tend not to be overwhelmingly keen on sending their children to Irish HEIs. Only around 42% of non-medical student parents intend on sending their children to Irish HEIs.

Nevertheless, medicine matters. 10% of respondents indicate children intending on studying medicine, but 80% of that cohort of potentially matriculating medical students are considering Ireland.

When asked in an open question as to the reasons why parents will not be sending their children to Ireland they primarily relate to two matters – engagement by official Ireland with the expatriate community and the perceived low and declining quality of Irish HEIs relative to the top US and UK institutions.

Discussions of Findings

The survey results, even with the various caveats, provides some insight into a specific subset of Irish HEI international customers – the children of Irish emigrants. The results highlight that within the Asian region, Irish emigrants are very well educated with undergraduate and postgraduate awards. They work in highly remunerative sectors given the outsized proportion with incomes over 180,000 USD and they tend to have more than one child.

Irish emigrant parents are the primary decision maker for their children with respect to education pathways. They tend to be focused on career prospects and education quality issues and are aware of the many pitfalls of the Irish higher education system and Irish culture. Importantly, parents place a high premium on career prospects.

Given the nature of the Irish labour market and that Ireland regularly experiences near-decade long cycles of net emigration parents would view the education of their children as being the first phase in the process of becoming part of a global labour market, not an Asian, American or Irish market.

In such a context, it is not just the acquisition of academic knowledge that is the priority but the signalling effect of the final degree and the social capital associated with the higher education experience that matters. The global high education brands and the ability to leverage individual graduate human and social capital via an exercise in brand extension has been highlighted repeatedly, especially in the areas of business studies and MBA programmes.

Emigrant parents not only have concerns about the global labour market but also about Ireland. These parents are mostly unsure or confirmed with respect to the prospect of returning to Ireland. Many of the open comments highlight the alienated and frustrated views of parents with respect to Ireland’s position with respect to expatriates. The following comment is indicative of their views:

My child does 3 A levels that can get him into TOP Unis in UK. The Irish point systems are unforgiving and not taking into account the fact that 3 A levels are studied in great depth. To have a shot at entering Irish system you would need at least 4 A levels . At least 3 must be A-A*. I would have loved my boys to have gone to Ireland as they have Irish passports and go home every summer and winter but system does not a lot it plus the fees are horrendous. It’s cheaper for us to send them to the UK and we managed to European home status as well whereas Ireland see us as international. I have a house and all in Ireland. The British accept us based on that but the Irish Unis won’t. So sad as you are missing out on a lot of talented expatriate kids who want to touch base with their roots!!

This feeling of frustration is not unknown to policymakers in Ireland. The Citizens’ Assembly (which convened to look at modifications to the 1937 Constitution) is currently considering ways of extending the vote to the diaspora, initially for electing the President but discussions with respect to the altering the Seanad to provide a voice for the diaspora continues.

Ultimately, from the point of view of the higher education system, quality is the primary problem. Irish HEIs are just not good enough. An average product with premium pricing. Addressing the sliding rankings and perceived quality problems will be difficult for the sector since decisions on resource sustainability rely on actions taken by the political system and will take time to implement.


This survey, the first of its kind, has attempted to look at small subset of the diaspora – expatriates with children in Asia. While the results must be reviewed with an element of caution they provide a worrying picture. Asian expatriates are well educated and wealthy. Cost is not a major issue, value for money is the issue. Parents wish to see higher education as a career springboard and for their children to be receiving an excellent education. Their children can largely benefit from this education since they excel at their schoolwork using objective measures. Expatriates also feel cut off from official Ireland, the imposition of non-EU fees on their children is considered an affront, especially when more flexible arrangements exist in the UK.

In summary, Irish expatriate parents consider Irish universities but do so without illusions. They will not pay high fees for what they see as an inferior product. They see an unengaged and bureaucratic system of education attached to a state they have a limited affinity for in their current stage of life. They view engagement with Irish universities as part of a wider reconnection to their families and cultural heritage. Essentially the willingness to matriculate their children is driven by a weak kinship attachment that shatters under cost-benefit analysis.

(Note: The majority of the post is based on the project report which has mainly been written up by Dr. Charles Larkin, who leads the project.)