ICOS marked International Students’ Day on November 17 by hosting a webinar to discuss the challenges faced by international students in Ireland as well as celebrating the importance of international education.

“Non-EEA International students are feeling the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic as much as their peers”

Executive director of ICOS Laura Harmon chaired the webinar, and shared the importance of making sure international students “have the best student experience they [can] have when they are here”.

“International students are ambassadors for Ireland when they leave,” she said.

However, in the same week as the event, ICOS has decried a decision by the Irish government to exclude non-EEA international students from a €250 rebate scheme as “deeply unfair and a missed opportunity”.

The one-off payments are aimed at compensating students over a move to greater online learning in 2020, the Irish Times reported, but ICOS highlighted non-EEA students will not be eligible – a move Harmon described as “highly disappointing”.

“Non-EEA students who work part-time, many of whom are in front line roles, were included in the Covid-19 relief payments earlier this year and the same equal relief should be afforded to all those in education, regardless of where they come from,” she said in statement.

International students “should be treated the same as other students and offered the same support during the pandemic as all other students”, she added.

“Non-EEA International students are feeling the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic as much as their peers and it is important that we stand by them.”

In this tumultuous year for everyone involved in the Irish education system, perhaps it has been most difficult for students who have taken the brave decision to enrol in courses far away from home.

Two international students from Mexico and India, who arrived in Ireland not long before the first lockdown, shared personal testimonies about their struggles ranging from issues surrounding mental health to financial difficulties at the event.

President of Union of Students in Ireland, Lorna Fitzpatrick, identified roadblocks that the pandemic has created and said that although it is important to recognise that the universities are doing their best, they have to learn from their mistakes from the first lockdown and take particular care of them during this difficult period.

“No international student should be treated as a funder for institutions,” Fitzpatrick said.

“They should be viewed as an integral part of our higher education system, not relied on as a source of funding but encouraged and supported to attend and engage because the benefits that [they] have for our society, our higher education system and our economy.”

She recognised that although the “extravagant cost” of fees cause a significant risk to the reputation of Irish universities looking to attract foreign students, their reputation is at risk “in relation to student experience as a whole”.

Institutions need to balance their “optimism with realism” going forward as overpromising can have a damaging effect for students ahead of the upcoming Christmas period which poses its own unique challenges for international students, Fitzpatrick continued.

Despite concerns, participants praised the work that universities have done in this most challenging of years.

“It is extremely impressive how institutions and staff have adapted in this environment”

“It is extremely impressive how institutions and staff have adapted in this environment, I think it is really important we celebrate that, it is often work that is carried out with limited resources,” Harmon said.

Louis Staunton from the International Office of Trinity College Dublin stated that higher education institutions responded very swiftly to the pandemic by putting in place a wide-range of student supports.

Staunton’s own institution supported students by actively updating students with key information, as well as creating “tonnes of virtual events” in which students could connect 1-1 with each other using breakout rooms.

However, Staunton admitted concerns around online teaching impacting students’ motivation, citing anecdotal evidence that people are attending lectures from the comfort of their beds.

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