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Joyce Zhao flew from Shanghai into Dublin on a wintery night in February 1999 at around 11pm, and realised there was no one at the airport to meet her.
“My arrival was actually forgotten by the college,” says Zhao.
She had enrolled in a private college, settling for Ireland after two failed attempts to get a US study visa, she says. A rep was supposed to pick her up.
She called around. A college staff member finally came to get her, she says. It wasn’t clear where they were headed, though.
“As we’re sitting in the car, he is looking for host families for me. I’m not even joking,” she said, laughing during a video interview last week.
Zhao wasn’t just troubled by the scare of no one to meet her or the eleventh-hour effort to find her accommodation, she says.
She was also troubled by the fact that she was paying much higher fees than Irish citizens for the same education and support.
Zhao is now the college registrar at International College Dublin (ICD) Business School, a private institution that overlooks South Great George’s Street in Dublin’s south city centre – and one that, unusually, charges all students the same fees, regardless of nationality or residency.
Set up in 2001 by her husband Vincent Barry, the college today has roughly 400 international students from 45 countries and somewhere between 50 to 100 Irish or European students.
Equal fees, a “non-discriminatory fee policy” is central to their vision, he says.
Private Schools, Public Fees
Zhao’s time as an international student has shaped how Barry runs the college, he says. “We saw international students being abused, being ripped off.”
He especially takes issue with private colleges that set higher prices for international students from outside of the European Economic Area (EEA) than for students from the EEA. “They have no excuse,” he says.
Public universities have a “semi-excuse” for charging students unequally as they lose state and EU funds for every seat offered to a non-EEA student, says Barry. (They don’t get financial supports for non-EEA students.)
How much more non-EEA students are charged than their Irish or EEA peers varies by college and course.
In Griffith College Dublin, a private college with campuses in Cork and Limerick, undergraduate courses for non-EEA nationalscost up to €12,000 per year.
They charge Irish and EU students about €5,500, although prices are lower for Cork and Limerick campuses and the exact sum depends on the course.
A spokesperson for Griffith College did not respond before deadline to two emails asking why they charge non-EEA students more.
Meanwhile, fees at some public schools diverge even more.
Trinity College Dublin (TCD) charged between €18,000 and €36,000for undergraduate courses in 2020. Dublin City University (DCU) charged €14,000 to €15,000 for its undergraduate programmes in 2020.
Irish and EEA students paid €3,000 or a little over for most undergraduate courses in those colleges.
A spokesperson for Trinity College Dublin (TCD) says a variety of factors influence non-EEA prices. Among them is “the need to ensure that programme remains financially sustainable”.
EU fees are funded by the Irish exchequer but “there has been a reduction in exchequer funding over the past decade”, the spokesperson said. EU fees do not reflect the full economic cost of course, they said.
“Non-EU fees should reflect the full cost at least and arguably contribute to making up the shortfall,” they said.
TCD has a “fee certainty” policy, capping annual fee increases at 3 percent, to ensure that students can estimate a course’s cost for the duration of their study, the spokesperson said.
Most governments take a similar approach to fees, said the TCD spokesperson. “With significant differentials between fees for domestic and international students.”
In 2014, however, Germany abolished tuition fees for all undergraduate courses at public universities, including international students. In 2016, one German state re-introduced non-EU fees.
Laura Harmon, executive director of Irish Council of International Students (ICOS), says most colleges in Ireland bank heavily on non-EEA students’ contributions.
It “is unsustainable and there needs to be a change across the board”, she says.
“A Boutique College”
ICD Business School has four “visa-eligible” courses, meaning that non-EEA students can get permission from the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Office (INIS) to enrol.
Courses have to meet requirements such as promising to refund applicants who don’t get student visas.
INIS warns students, though, to pay close attention themselves to colleges’ reputation and facilities. “Be aware that the lowest price may not necessarily be the best deal,” its website says.
At ICD Business School, students who need a visa to enter Irelandhave to pay €7,500 for the first year to cover visa admin costs, says Barry.
For non-EEA students from countries like the United States, who don’t need a visa to enter the country, the first-year fee is the same as for EEA students.
After the first-year, tuition fees are the same for all – €5,500 for an undergraduate degree in accounting and finance and €4,500 for business studies.
ICD Business School haspledged not to raise its prices more than five percent each year from 2020 to 2023. They also have waived some fees for students who may be struggling financially but have excelled.
To balance the books, Barry and his wife say they don’t spend money on advertising or expansion, and focus their attention on providing quality services within their means. Their courses focus on business studies, accounting and finance.
Private colleges may rely on international fees to sponsor advertising campaigns or to expand campuses beyond their means, says Barry.
As he sees it, “if you need to advertise a college on the back of a bus you have a problem. You don’t sell education, you deliver it.”
Some backers of private colleges are business people, who may pressure colleges to reach unrealistic profit targets year after year, says Barry. Non-EEA students pay for such expectations, he says.
Their institution, which offers Level 8 and 9 courses – undergraduate and postgraduate qualifications which make students eligible to apply for a graduate scheme visa – is what Zhao describes as a “boutique college”.
“It means that we’re a small college, and if we become a big college, we lose the original family-oriented feel,” she says.
A Family Feel
Brian Walsh opened his Zoom lecture on unfair dismissals last Thursday with small talk.
“Between the virus and bad weather, it hasn’t been the best January,” said Walsh, a corporate and business law lecturer .
“Yes, I’m from Dundrum,” he said, with joy, to another student.
Most of his students are from non-EEA countries. They teach him too, he says. “I learn from international students too about the laws in their own country.”
Walsh says he’s happy to work for an institution that treats students equally. He hopes his class become solicitors in Ireland, a profession that he believes lacks diversity.
He doesn’t believe the college’s fee policy has hurt his salary, he says. “I don’t think there is any difference between what other colleges are paying, I would say some of them might even pay less.”
Zhao says lecturers are paid €80 an hour. “Usually, you’re talking about 48 hours per subject if they’re doing a ten credits’ subject.”
Barry and Zhao say they have gone to past students’ weddings. The college is small, with about 30 lecturers, so they can get to know students well.
Zhao says she makes sure to check on international students during lockdowns.
“I think in some ways they should be treated better than students who have their whole family here or Irish mummies who’d look after them,” she says.
“They have no one,” says Zhao, “and sometimes they have to work two or three part-time jobs to pay their fees.”