While Australia, Canada, and the UK are tightening policy settings around international students, Ireland has been quietly working to position itself as a destination of choice. The results of various international education surveys over the past year show that these efforts may be paying off.

Emerging student interest in Ireland

In the most recent INTO survey of agents, Germany and Ireland emerged as the European destinations of most interest for students according to agents from South Asia.  Similarly, IDP’s 2024 Emerging Futures Survey showed that while the ‘Big 4’ destinations (US, Australia, the UK and Canada) still attract the most interest, Ireland was in sixth place behind New Zealand, with 2% of prospective students saying that Ireland was their most desired destination.

ApplyBoard reports a significant shift in interest towards Ireland, noting that:

Ireland continues to catch the eye of more students, a trend continuing from our Fall 2023 survey. Over the past year, the near-majority of student interest shifted from negative to positive: in Spring 2024, 48% of respondents were “extremely” or “very” interested in Ireland. Comparatively, the same percentage was “slightly” or “not at all” interested in Ireland in Spring 2023.

Increasing international student numbers

Ireland has been working for several years to increase its links with South Asia and has already seen significant growth in its international student population. According to figures from Ireland’s Higher Education Authority, the number of international students studying at Irish higher education institutions reached record levels in 2022/23, with 35,140 international students. This represents a year-on-year growth of just under 11% and surpasses the 29,855 international students studying in Ireland in 2019/20, the last ‘normal’ year prior to COVID-19. In 2022/23, international students accounted for 14% of all students studying in higher education in Ireland.

The United States, China and India are Ireland’s three largest sending markets. Students from the United States accounted for 14.5% of all international enrolments in 2022/23, while India was the second largest sending market, with 13.5% of international students. In 2022/23, students from China accounted for 11.3% of the international student population.

International education growth plans

In January 2024, Ireland announced that it aims to increase the number of non-EU students in higher education by 10% by the end of the decade as part of its new Global Citizens 2030: Ireland’s Talent and Innovation Strategy, which aims to cement Ireland’s position as a destination of choice for study, research and work. In support of this strategy, the Irish Education Office has been working to promote Ireland as a destination for international students attending fairs in Pakistan, the Middle East and North Africa.

Student Accommodation challenges

The Talent and Innovation Strategy is not blind to Ireland’s accommodation challenges, noting that capacity concerns and constraints to growth, such as a lack of availability of student accommodation, need to be addressed if the goals of the strategy are to be realised.

Over the past few years, countless headlines have highlighted Ireland’s student housing woes, with stories of exploitation of students, overcrowding, student housing affordability issues, lack of student housing stock and stories of students couch-surfing or facing long commutes to university.

Ireland’s student accommodation woes are long-standing. However, the government has been steadily working to resolve its student housing issues. The Irish Government launched a national student accommodation strategy in 2017 aimed at growing the number of PBSA beds, and while this was successful, it has been criticised for primarily delivering new beds at the “high-end” international student market. In April this year, the Irish Government announced funding of €100m to deliver more than 1,000 student accommodation beds on the proviso that 30% of these new beds be made available at below-market rates for students who need them the most.

Knight Frank‘s assessment of the opportunities in the Irish market is one overall optimism based on strong fundamentals but planning delays and a degree of political uncertainty add a degree of caution. Knight Frank’s analysis shows that the student-to-bed ratio in Ireland’s four main university cities is currently 2:1, and it is expected that there will be “between 39,500 and 48,900 additional full-time undergraduate and postgraduate students in higher education by 2030/31 compared to 2021/22”. Knight Frank note that there is a limited pipeline of PBSA bed spaces – partly impacted by inflated construction costs and planning delays. However, in spite of these challenges, Knight Frank say that they expect PBSA to be a key target for investors in the Irish market – “some churn in existing portfolios is expected, but the majority of activity will come from new site purchases and planning applications.”