Britain has long been the university destination for Irish students wishing to study outside of the Republic. The quality of its education system and the obvious advantage of a shared language make it an attractive option for Irish students.
A recent study jointly commissioned by British Council Ireland and the British Embassy in Dublin analysed patterns and trends in higher education mobility between Ireland and the UK.
This article analyses the findings of the report and asks what drives Irish students (both undergraduate and postgraduate) to choose the UK as a university destination?
Common Travel Area and Education
The Common Travel Area gives Irish and UK citizens the right to access all levels of education and training, and associated student support, in each other’s state.
This means that Irish students wishing to study in Britain have access to the same education rights as citizens of the UK, subject to residency criteria.
You must be resident in Ireland or the UK for 3 years before the start of your course to be eligible under the CTA.
Declining numbers of EU enrolments
Despite assurances provided by the Common Travel Area agreement, Britain’s departure from the EU seems to have slightly impacted the number of enrolments by Irish students at UK universities.
In the 2014/2015 academic year, there were 10,980 Irish students in UK universities, accounting for 2% of all international students and 9 percent of all students from the EU.
Fast forward to 2021/2022 and there was a decrease of 0.5% in the number of students from Ireland. This number of 9,855 accounted for 1.5% of all international students and 6 percent of all EU students.
According to ICEF Monitor, EU students in UK universities fell by 21.4% – and 53% fewer first-year students came from the EU compared with the previous academic year.
The report further revealed that enrolment decreases from top markets Italy, France, Germany, and Greece have been particularly acute.
Since Britain formally left the European Union, changes to visa requirements and uncertainty around employment rights for EU citizens coupled with increased costs for students have had a negative impact on the number of EU students enrolling in the UK since 2021.
Ireland bucking the trend
A HESA report revealed that Ireland is bucking the trend when it comes to newly recruited students in the UK.
Ireland now stands as the 5th most important sending country amongst EU states.
Figure 1 Total student EU enrolment in UK universities 2021/2022
|No. of Students
A recommitment to the Common Travel Agreement by both the governments of Ireland and the UK, reaffirmed in May 2019, provided clarity on pertinent issues for Irish students.
In particular, students from Ireland continue to qualify for ‘home fee’ status in the UK and the non-requirement for a visa or related paperwork is contributing to the continuation of Irish student applications to UK universities.
Figure 2 Irish Students studying in the UK 2014 -2022
2014/15 2015/16 2016/17 2017/18 2018/19 2019/20 2020/21 2021/22
All undergraduate 5915 5700 5685 5555 5460 5080 5340 5650
All postgraduate 5065 4635 4475 4180 4275 4055 4400 2275
TOTAL 10980 10335 10160 9735 9735 9735 9740 9855
Where are Irish students studying in the UK?
The British Council Study revealed that in line with the preferences of students from other countries of the EU, Irish undergraduate students favour England as a destination.
Students studying in England are spread throughout with concentrations in the following regions
- London 26%
- The Southeast 15%
- The Northwest 15%
Over 80 percent of students from the EU favour England as a destination. Given the popularity of Northern Ireland and Scotland for Irish students, England as a chosen destination amongst students from Ireland stands at only 50%.
The number of Irish students in Scotland has decreased slightly in the last year which may be attributed to the fact that fees were introduced for Irish students from 2021/2022 onwards.
In the same period (2021/2022) the number of students studying in Northern Ireland increased slightly. Students from Ireland account for 89 percent of EU students and 13% of international students in Northern Ireland.
The latest figures for the number of Irish students studying in Wales stand at 4% and show a decrease from 575 in 2014/2015 to 335 in 2021/2022.
Postgraduate students from Ireland also prefer England as a destination with 58 percent choosing to study here.
London is the most popular area with 20% concentrated here. Also mentioned as significant cluster areas were the North-west, Southeast, and East.
The study also revealed that 21% of postgraduate students from Ireland studying in the UK are studying in Northern Ireland and account for 86% of the region’s EU postgraduate students.
18% of postgraduate students from Ireland are studying in Scotland, having increased in 2020/2021 and dropping slightly in 2021/2022.
2014/15 2015/16 2016/17 2017/18 2018/19 2019/20 2020/21 2021/22
England 5950 5715 5690 5300 5155 4585 4830 4940
Scotland 2110 1885 1880 1890 1970 2100 2375 2275
N. Ireland 2345 2195 2095 2120 2254 2085 2170 2305
Wales 575 535 490 430 365 360 365 335
Figure 4 where Irish students are studying in the UK
The most popular Higher Education Providers in the UK for Irish students 2021/2022
For both undergraduate and postgraduate students from Ireland, there has been little shift in the choice of UK Higher Education providers over the last three years.
Figure 5: Top UK Higher Education Providers 2021-2022
Ulster University 1,215
Queen's University Belfast 1,035
Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh 385
The University of Edinburgh 345
Robert Gordon University 265
The University of Stirling 265
Edinburgh Napier University 255
University College London 165
Glasgow Caledonian University 160
The University of Glasgow 145
One can see from the data provided in Figure 5 the popularity of Northern Ireland’s two universities. Indeed, Ulster University and Queen’s University Belfast have remained the most popular HE providers over the past three years for undergraduate and postgraduate students from Ireland in the UK.
For undergraduate students from Ireland, Scottish universities also feature highly with Queen Margaret University (Edinburgh) and Robert Gordon University (Aberdeen) featuring in the top 5 for that category for the past three years.
For postgraduate students, Scotland is also a popular destination of choice with the University of Edinburgh and Queen Margaret University consistently ranking in the top five over the last few years. University College London also featured in the top 5 for postgraduate students in recent years.
Some interesting findings from the interviews revealed that although the choice of location is primarily driven by the reputation of a particular institution and program of study, the following also became clear drivers:
- Northern Ireland’s geographic proximity is seen as ‘closer to home’ and thus is a strong driver of choice
- Scotland’s perceived strong cultural links to Ireland is a strong factor in choice.
- England is perceived to offer a strong variety of choices in terms of vibrant cities with diverse cultures.
- Wales is less popular due to a lack of knowledge by students in general about the country which explains lower enrolment volumes.
Why do Irish students choose the UK?
So, what drives higher education choice for Irish students in terms of mobility from Ireland to the UK?
According to the British Council survey, many students cited the cost of accommodation in Ireland and in particular Dublin as a motivating factor to study in the UK. This raised the overall cost of studying in Ireland, making the UK a viable alternative for many.
Additionally, for many students, the uncertainty of the CAO (Central Applications Office) points system in Ireland compared with the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) in the UK was a significant factor in the decision-making process.
Other factors include:
- Reputation and Quality: UK universities have a strong global reputation for academic excellence and offer a wide range of high-quality courses across various disciplines.
- Diverse Course Offerings: UK universities provide a broad spectrum of courses, including specialized programs that might not be available in Ireland, giving students more options to pursue their specific interests.
- Proximity and Familiarity: Geographical proximity and cultural similarities make the UK an attractive option for Irish students. The ease of travel and the familiarity of the language and lifestyle can be appealing.
- Personal connections: Many students mention family already residing in the UK and friends who recommend the UK from experience as pull factors in the decision to study there.
- International Exposure: Studying in the UK offers exposure to a diverse student population, providing opportunities to interact with individuals from various backgrounds and cultures.
- Employment Opportunities: The UK’s strong economy and numerous internship and job opportunities, especially in cities like London, can be enticing for students looking to gain practical experience and enhance their employability.
- Reputation of Specific Universities: Some UK universities are highly specialized or renowned in particular fields, attracting students interested in those specific areas of study.
- Historical and Cultural Significance: The rich history and cultural heritage of the UK, along with access to numerous museums, galleries, and historical sites, can be an enriching experience for students.
Useful Resources for Students considering study in the UK:
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