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.)

The Connected University: Ireland’s Higher Education Institutions and their Knowledge Exchange Activities

In this blog, I provide a summary of the working paper we have done on measuring the intensity and diversity of academic engagement with stakeholders in knowledge exchange activities in Ireland. The full paper is available at SSRN:

In this article, we focus on the wide perspective of knowledge exchange, and we analyse the outreach activities involved by academics based at HEIs in Ireland. We draw on the innovation studies and knowledge networks literature to explain the intensity and diversity of knowledge exchange activities.

Our main claim is that, academics in Ireland are much more actively involved in ‘conventional’ activities than in newly emerged ‘third mission’ activities, and Irish HEIs might have gone too far recently in attempting to meet the needs of industry.

Based on survey data collected from both universities and institutes of technology (IoTs), we investigate the current state of knowledge exchange that takes place between academics from all disciplines with partners in both the private and public sectors.

Modes of interactions

Figures 1a and 1b show how intensively respondents were engaged in a total of 24 types of activities within the past three years. In particular, Figure 1a illustrates the activities which were reported by at least 30 per cent of respondents, while Figure 1b displays the activities indicated by less than 30 per cent of respondents.

The two figures combined tend to suggest that staff in the Irish higher education sector were actively engaged in a wide range of external interaction activities with their partners. More importantly, knowledge transfer activities were much less frequently engaged by Irish academics, who were instead heavily involved in activities such as attending conferences, informal advice, participating in networks, giving invited lectures and joint research and publications. On the lower end of the spectrum were external secondment, community based sports, and standard setting forums, which were reported by less than 10 per cent of respondents.

Figure 1a: Academic external interaction activity (% of respondents)1a

Figure 1b: Academic external interaction activity (% of respondents)1b

Types of partners

Figure 2 illustrates how academics in Ireland’s higher education institutions interacted with various types of partners. When all respondents are considered, 57 per cent of academics stated that they engaged with private sector firms, while less than 52 per cent of the responding individuals reported interactions with public sector organisations.

There are some variances between academics in the six disciplines engaging with different types of organisations. While staff in engineering, mathematics and computer sciences, natural science, and management and business were intensively engaged with private sector companies, staff in arts, humanities and social science were most closely involved with public sector organisations. Arts, humanities and social science were the disciplines where staff were much more likely to engage with the public sector than with the private sector. An interesting note to make is that staff in human medical were engaged with partners from the two sectors at, more or less, the same level. In the pharmaceutical sector, although industry supplies the bulk of the funds devoted to research and development, the public sector supports most of the basic research which in general requires a large amount of investment and faces a high risk of failure.

Figure 2: Activities with private sector companies and public sector organisations (% of respondents)2

Constraints on knowledge exchange

Figures 3a, 3b and 3c compare the constraints identified by the respondents when engaging in their knowledge exchange activities.

Constraints in Figure 3a were indicated by more than 25 per cent of respondents, while Figures 3b and 3c include constraints identified by more than 10 per cent and less than 10 per cent of respondents respectively.

The most important constraints cited by academics include a lack of time to fulfil all university roles (62 per cent), insufficient resources devoted by the institution (34 per cent), bureaucracy and inflexibility in the institution (33 per cent) and insufficient rewards from interaction (28 per cent).

By contrast, cultural differences between universities and firms were the least frequently cited constraint by academics, which, in line with the UK evidence, seems to contradict the conventional wisdom that cultural barriers limit interactions between academics and firms (Lambert 2003).

Figure 3a: Constraints on interactions with external organisations (% of respondents)3a

Figure 3b: Constraints on interactions with external organisations (% of respondents)3b

Figure 3c: Constraints on interactions with external organisations (% of respondents)3c

Mission of higher education

The survey asks the respondents how they perceived the role of higher education in the economy. In particular, academics were required to indicate to what extent they agreed with each of the six statements about relationships between businesses and the society (Figure 4).

A 1-to-5 rating scale was used to measure the differences, with 5 referring to ‘agree strongly’ and 1 referring to ‘disagree strongly’. The most important factor is that academic freedom is of fundamental important to the future wellbeing of society (4.4). To a large extent, academics stated that higher education has a key role to play in increasing the competitiveness of business, which might positively influence the interactions between academics and firms (3.9). Nevertheless, academics were also more likely to consider that, over the past few years, universities have gone too far in attempting to meet the needs of industry (3.2). In general, academics tended to disagree that academia should focus on basic research and should not be concerned with its actual or potential application (2.4).

Figure 4: Extent to which agree with statements about relationships with external organisations (mean score)4

Concluding remarks

In this paper, we have examined the current state of university knowledge networks in Ireland, with the aim to understand the intensity and diversity of interactions between academics and business and the community.

Staff working at Ireland’s HEIs showed differences in how intensively they engaged in various types of networks, and IP-related activities were the least frequent type of interaction.

Our respondents were more closely engaged with the private sector firms than with the public sector organisations, showing that university-industry engagement in Ireland is in a relatively good position. Nevertheless, university and IoT staff were much more closely engaged with national and regional government bodies and much less intensively engaged with international organisations, many of which are important sources for competitive based research funding. In the architecture of world science, a major change has been the expansion of the global networks, and thus getting closely integrated into them becomes an important factor of maintaining research excellence.

In general, university staff were positive about the role higher education should play in supporting business development and regional growth, but they were, at the same time, concerned about the detriment of their core teaching and research roles as a result of ‘too much’ focus being put on meeting the needs of industry.

Our findings could also be of relevance to policies in higher education, innovation and knowledge-based economy. As argued, the policy focus, which has mainly been on capacity building of HEIs and on collaborations between HEIs, has recently shifted towards engagement between the higher education sector and the wider society. What this paper has found could be used as a first step to build a more comprehensive understanding of knowledge exchange activities between Ireland’s HEIs and their external partners.

A Reflection on the Irish Education System (1965-2010)

A Reflection on the Irish Education System (1965-2010)

In one of the first blogs posted here, I looked at the history of Ireland’s higher education sector, starting from the establishment of Trinity College Dublin in 1592.

There is no doubt that the rapid expansion of the third level education did not begin until the 1960s, when the founding of institutes of technology (IoTs) significantly increased the number of HEIs in the country. Meanwhile, Ireland has seen its HEIs evolve from being concentrated in a few large cities to being dispersed throughout the country. In 1960, a total of 11 institutions were situated within five Irish counties, while within the next two decades, the number of HEIs more than doubled to 24, spanning across 12 counties.

Whilst there is much interest in the expansion of the higher education sector – as tertiary or equivalent education attainment level is a key factor of fostering productivity, innovation and competitiveness – this blog examines the education sector in Ireland as a whole since the 1960s. In particular, it is interesting to know if there are different growth patterns shown by first, second and third level education respectively.

Figure 1: Persons in full-time education by level (1965/66=100)

image (16)

Source: Department of Education and Skills.

As Figure 1 shows, the number of students in first level education has been relatively constant during the last five decades, with slight declines during 1995/96 and 2005/06. The number of students in second level education has been increasing since 1965/66 and peaked in 1995/96, after which year the number decreased sharply. Nevertheless, the third level sector is the one with persistent increase of the number of students, which took off at a much faster pace since 1995/96. A possible explanation could be the introduction of the Free Fees Initiative in Ireland at that time, under the terms of which the Irish Exchequer will pay tuition fees to the University on behalf of students registered for the first time on qualifying, full-time, undergraduate degree programmes.

Figure 2: Relative size of first, second and third level education (%)

image (17)

Source: Department of Education and Skills.

Figure 2 shows how the size of second level students compares to that of first level students and how the size of third level students compares to that of second level students. It should be noted that the figures here do not directly correspond to the entry rates into second level or third level studies in the years, though they strongly imply that information.

Although entry rate into third level in Ireland has been improving significantly and is now over 40 per cent, that number was relatively stable between 1965/66 and 1985/86. More importantly, the relative size of second level students to that of first level students has been dropping since 2000/01 after 35 years of increase. In 2000/01 the number of second level students was nearly 80 per cent of that of first level students, while that share was just under 70 per cent in 2010/11.

What the above findings suggest is that, Ireland actually does well in getting more second level students into third level, but it has been facing some difficulties in getting more first level students into second level.

The Potential of Philanthropy to Support Irish Higher Education

I still recall the international symposium held in Dublin on a growing crisis in Irish higher education which I attended in the end of September 2014. One of the many interesting presentations I enjoyed listening to was given by Ms Liesl Eler, Director of Development at Oxford University, who talked about the potential of philanthropy to support higher education sustainability.

Besides from sharing the successful story of Oxford University, Eler showed a comparison of fundraising results for UK universities in 2012/13 sorted by age of university, with the conventional wisdom thinking that the older a university is the larger the number of its alumni could be.

Table 1: Fundraising results for UK universities, 2012-13

Oxbridge Pre-1960 1960s 1990s
New funds secured (£000s) 178,349 6,142 2,113 639
Addressable alumni 208,928 105,968 93,895 77,429
All donors 40,155 2,763 1,583 208
Fundraising spend (£000s) 12,368 981 540 184
Number of fundraising staff 150 16 9 3
Cost per pound raised £0.07 £0.21 £0.33 £0.48
Note: All figures refer to medians for the group.

Source: Ross-CASE Survey 2012-13.

Copied from Elder’s presentation, Table 1 explains why philanthropy is much more successful in Oxford University than in the others. Obviously, Oxford University, as well as Cambridge University, invest heavily in fundraising through capital investment and human resource. On average, the two universities employed 150 fundraising staff in 2012-13, while the number for the rest pre-1960 institutions was only 16. Furthermore, Oxbridge seems to have a more efficient operation in terms of fundraising, costing just 7 pence to raise 1 pound, about one seventh of the cost of the 1990s institutions.

I have been wondering about the situation in Irish higher education, but did not have much time to look into the topic deeper. A few days ago, I came across a good paper – The Role of Philanthropy in Funding Irish Universities – written by Dennis O’Connor and Ruth Millar in 2012.

Table 2: Philanthropic income among universities in terms of GDP, per capita and per student

Ireland all third level UK all third level UK Oxbridge US all third level US research & doctorate level institutions
Total philanthropic donations €50m €856m €329m €23.1bn €15bn
As a % of GDP 0.03% 0.05% 0.20%
Per capita €11.14 €13.67 €74.14
Per student €258 €342 €8,226 €2,300 €3,075

Source: O’Connor and Millar (2012).

The authors, in Table 1, compared the level of philanthropic income among HEIs on a GDP, per capita and per student basis, and showed that Ireland lags far behind both the UK and the US. Whilst current Irish third level philanthropic income is comparable with the UK in terms of its share of GDP, it lags considerably when benchmarked based on all the other measures.

It was found by the authors that the information regarding philanthropic income in Ireland is, to a large extent, unavailable with one or two notable exceptions, which led the authors to argue that the amounts receivable are insignificant relevant to other forms of income. In the concluding section, the paper sets out the targets for each university if the sector in Ireland would like to catch up with the levels of Oxbridge, the UK, the US, and US research & doctorate level institutions based on per student basis.

Table 3: Targets for each university based on Oxbridge, the UK, US and US research & doctorate

UK Per Student Oxbridge Per Student US Per Student US R&D Per Student
UCD €8.5m €205m €57.3m €76.6m
UCC €6.5m €155m €43.3m €57.9m
TCD €5.7m €138m €38.5m €51.5m
DCU €3.8m €91.5m €25.6m €34.2m
NUIG €5.8m €92m €39.1m €52.3m
UL €3.4m €82.7m €23m €30.1m
NUIM €2.8m €69m €19m €25.8m

Source: O’Connor and Millar (2012).

The sub-totals of the targets under any column are considerably larger than the current level of the philanthropic income received by Irish third level institutions (which include both universities and institutes and technology). Although without the exact numbers for each individual institution, it suffices to say that if Irish HEIs seek to expand philanthropic income they need to consider it as a long-term strategy, have strong commitment from the board, and be prepared for the great challenges ahead.

A Note on the Diversity of Income Sources for Irish HEIs

Faced with a government budget constraint, there has been a lot of talk in Ireland about the search for new funding models in universities and other third-level institutions. The issue was also addressed in the Dublin Economics Workshop in Cork last week, at which I gave a presentation. My presentation, an output of the Tionchar project funded by the Irish Research Council, was on the economic impact of Irish HEIs.

Although focusing on a different research question, our analysis has the potential to contribute to the current policy debates about the future financial sustainability of higher education in Ireland.

With the use of a number of data sources, both secondary and primary, we examined the total income of each Irish HEI and how it was divided between intermediate sales to other production sectors and sales to final demand sectors such as households, government and exports.

It is clear that income from the Irish Government account for a large share of total income for both the university and IoT sectors. Nevertheless, there are considerable differences between the two sectors in that universities were more successful than IoTs in sourcing international funding. In other words, IoTs were more reliant on state support than universities, and displayed a limited diversity of income sources. Figure 1 below shows in more details.

image (8) (1)

The limited diversity of income sources should be paid much attention to, as it clearly affects the so-called ‘Balanced-Budget’ multipliers of Irish HEIs (after netting out the impact of government support from the conventional ‘Type II’ output multipliers). See Figure 2 below.

image (9) (1)

Obviously, Irish HEIs are not at the same level of resilience, or difficulty, in the context of the fiscal crisis starting from 2008. Nor do they have the same capability to diversify the income sources to maintain the financial sustainability. No matter what decisions will be made by policy makers, they should avoid a ‘Broad-Brush’ approach across all the HEIs but develop a more ‘Tailored’ approach which takes into consideration the different features existing between universities and IoTs.



Comment on HEA’s “Towards a Performance Evaluation Framework: Profiling Irish Higher Education”

In Ireland, government policies have given increasing importance to knowledge transfer activities in the higher education sector, as means of driving the knowledge-based economy. There lacks, however, much empirical evidence showing the width and depth of interactions between Irish universities and businesses.

Efforts such as the Community Innovation Surveys are essential to help us understand how enterprises in Ireland source knowledge and build innovation. Nevertheless, these surveys are mainly focused on the business sector and not designed to reveal the full picture of university-industry interactions. An urgent issue which needs to be addressed now in Ireland is to start building empirical evidence on the university side, i.e. how academics engage with businesses and the wider community.

Furthermore, when focusing on university-industry relationships, there has been a shift of research focus from the knowledge transfer of intellectual property (IP) to multifaceted channels and mechanisms of knowledge exchange. As many studies have asserted, IP-related activity is too specific and narrow, a wider view of interactions between academics and businesses is better capable of capturing the comprehensive roles of universities.

In the U.S. and Canada, the Association of University Technology Managers (AUTM) has been releasing its annual surveys for a couple of decades, with its special focus on licensing, patenting, and establishing spin-out companies. The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), on behalf of all UK HEIs and the national funding bodies, has been publishing the Higher Education-Business and Community Interaction Survey (HE-BCI) since the academic year 1999/2000. In comparison to the AUTM surveys, the HE-BCI surveys take a more holistic approach and consider the following types of engagements: collaborative research, contract research, consultancy research, facilities and equipment related services, courses for business and the community, and IP-related activity.

Even so, there are critics that these six types of activities only account for a small share of partnerships through which knowledge is exchanged between organisations. More recently, a large research project conducted by the Centre for Business Research (CBR) at the University of Cambridge in 2009 grouped possible modes of interaction into the following categories: people based, problem solving, community based, and commercialisation. In total, the research team considered 27 types of knowledge exchange activities.

As mentioned earlier, there has been little research compiling these data in Ireland, except for a recently report released by the Higher Education Authority (HEA) in December 2013. Entitled “Towards a Performance Evaluation Framework: Profiling Irish Higher Education”, the report represents a milestone in Irish higher education policy. This study, the first of its kind in the country, has attempted to profile Ireland’s higher education sector in the three dimensions of its core mission: teaching and learning, research, and engagement.

The main strengths of the report lie in two aspects. First, it appreciates the diversity of higher education institutions in Ireland and groups them into universities, institutes of technology, and colleges. To develop a framework in which to evaluate the quality of engagement, this is an important step to take as it takes account of institutions’ historical, geographical, socio-cultural specificity and diversity, which would to a large extent determine the type (width), intensity (depth) and locationality (length) of academic engagements.

Second, it puts much effort in collecting data from a variety of sources, in the aim of building a comprehensive performing evaluation framework. In particular, it presents data on topics such as student enrolment, research funding, staff profile, as well as knowledge transfer activities. More importantly, it indicates, in its framework, which data is currently available, under development, or needs to be articulated in the future, the last type of which is what much of the engagement dimension has been labelled as.

Whilst the report has an intensive literature review, in which it searches for and describes the indicators used in different countries when evaluating research, the framework it proposes in the end still has many limitations. In particular, the indicators proposed in the knowledge exchange section are not quite clearly defined. For example, it calls for data collection in joint research programmes with enterprise, but does not specify the nature of those programmes, such as whether they are collaborative research or contract research. The nature of research programmes could have a big impact on what type of knowledge is exchanged, and how intensively that knowledge is exchanged. Also, the framework suggests HEIs to report their involvement in the community, which, again, is too broad and may be really difficult, if not impossible, for all HEIs to provide effective and comparable answers.

All in all, this work has pointed us in the (right) direction of building evidence-based practice in Ireland’s higher education sector by, at least, showing some evidence.