Dublin as a foreign city: understanding international student experiences on and off campus

Image Credit: Andrew Butler

In light of a report by the Irish Council for International Students which suggests there are major issues facing international students in Ireland, Caroline Kelly speaks with UCD international students and their experiences on and off campus.

Patricia González Garza moved to Dublin from Mexico for her masters degree in August last year. Already sure about her course, she started researching master programs first as opposed to universities. She typed ‘international development masters in Europe’ into Google, and UCD was the first option. “I looked at the course description, fees, and application process and I looked at the university next. I applied here because of how easy it was to apply and it is not as expensive as other European universities I looked at,” Garza noted. “I wanted to be in an English speaking country since Spanish is my native language, and Ireland was a great choice for me.” 

For Anna, another international student, UCD visited her school’s College Night, promoting their Summer Programme for students in their Junior and Senior years of high school. In 2017, Anna decided to apply for the programme and spent two weeks in Ireland where she stayed in Ashfield Residences, and were introduced to the different schools within the university and went on day trips around the country. 

rent in Dublin skyrocketed to an average of €750 per month, and UCD accommodation had increased its rent by 12%, with €14,000 for a 9 month lease.

“After spending two weeks in Ireland I didn’t want to leave and decided that UCD was where I wanted to go to college,” Anna said. “It was about the same as attending university in the US but had greater opportunities for travel and experiencing new things.” 

Helen* began her studies at UCD in 2018 after moving from Canada. With an interest in international business, she applied to UCD’s Commerce International course. Speaking about her decision, Helen said “Ireland felt right. I have a handful distant relatives all around Ireland, and a long line of Irish heritage, which helped me settle into a new country.” 

But it was complicated. Moving overseas was alluring, and she couldn’t deny the appeal of cheaper tuition and better educational systems. But by then, rent in Dublin skyrocketed to an average of €750 per month, and UCD accommodation had increased its rent by 12%, with €14,000 for a 9 month lease.

Furthermore, Helen suffers from chronic illness and requires extensive healthcare services. As a Non-EU international student, she could not qualify for healthcare through the Irish government. “I spend anywhere from 2,000-3,000 euros a month just on medications I need to get through the day. With rent, tuition and living expenses, I struggle every day to make ends meet. It makes it hard to stay on top of my studies, but I feel lucky to avail of support from UCD Global,” said Helen. 

International education can be very expensive. As with many state-funded universities, Irish higher education institutions have one rate for domestic and EU students, and a much higher one for international students. In Ireland, the government grants universities financial assistance for Irish and EU students, but not for their international counterparts—which is reflected in tuition. As of 2022, Non-Eu Undergraduate Fees at UCD range between €20,500 and €26,400, and upwards of €14,700 for Non-Eu Graduate Research Fees. Although many avail of scholarships and grants, a great deal of international students work part-time jobs, with some forced to take loans out, to make ends meet. 

Besides being located in Dublin, a cosmopolitan city with a global community, UCD is home to nearly 8,500 international students from more than 140 countries. Students often find themselves in a bright and diverse environment, where their peers usually have had very different lives than their own. Such differences help bring new cultural perspectives to the conversation. While these perspectives are usually intriguing and help connect students, they can also be incredibly frustrating for international students. 

With rent, tuition and living expenses, I struggle every day to make ends meet

The Irish Council for International Students (ICOS) is the authority for the universities, institutes of technology and a number of designated higher education institutions in Ireland and provides international students with numerous resources, advice and general information. In a report posted by the ICOS in December 2021, Executive Director, Laura Harmon, the major issues facing international students include racism, mental health and overpriced accommodation. Nearly 750 international students from 75 countries participated in ICOS’ research, “which was conducted using an online survey in several languages, as well as two in-person focus groups,” according to the ICOS website. “Respondents were asked about topics including immigration, medical insurance, online learning and support, employment, wellbeing, accommodation and racism.” 

According to ICOS, key findings set out in the report include: 

- 40% of respondents said that they have either witnessed or been victims of racism in Ireland, with only 5% reporting the incident. 

- 79% of respondents have seen their mental health suffer because of the pandemic, with many citing experiences of isolation, depression and anxiety, as well as difficulties accessing adequate mental health supports. 

- 63% of ELS students and 28% of HEI students share a room with at least one other person, and the low availability and high cost of accommodation are reported by students as significant challenges.

- When asked about their student experience overall, 50% of respondents indicated a positive experience, however, more than a quarter (26%) of respondents reported a negative experience and 24% gave a neutral response. 

- Restrictive visas and employers’ poor understanding of different types of work permits heavily impact the ability of international students to gain relevant work experience and to support themselves financially. Limited employment opportunities were further reduced because of Covid-19. 

Commenting on the findings, Ms Harmon said: “While the pandemic has negatively impacted the entire student population in Ireland, our report shows that restrictions have hit international students particularly hard.” 

In addition to these challenges, the research carried out by ICOS also points to a range of broader issues facing international students in Ireland. “We are particularly concerned about the high instances of experiences of racism, most of which go unreported,” continued Ms Harmon. In the report, over 40% of students said that they had experienced racism first-hand, often from adolescents, and expressed their frustration at “the apparent lack of consequences facing young perpetrators of racism.” 

the attacks of racism have often made her rethink her decision to live in Ireland

The racism faced by many international students, especially those from non-English speaking countries, is especially felt by Mia*, an international student from India. She said that the attacks of racism have often made her rethink her decision to live in Ireland. 

“I’ve had comments ‘go back to your country, mother f***ers’ thrown at me, unprovoked, from across the street by two kids who couldn’t have been older than 13 years old” she continued, “the fact that there are no laws against this kind of behaviour coupled with the leniency shown to juvenile criminals acts as an incentive for these children to misbehave to this extent. Just being ‘not-racist’ is not enough, parents have a responsibility to sit their children down and talk about being actively ‘anti-racist’.” 

Such issues—from overpriced accommodation to a high cost of living to instances of discrimination—can produce long term effects, especially along the lines of academic wellbeing. According to the ICOS report, a great deal of international students “are facing hugely challenging conditions that negatively impact their academic performance, their ability to work and live adequately, their mental health and their overall wellbeing. Many of these problems, although not new, have been highlighted and exacerbated by Covid-19, and additional challenges have arisen as a direct result of the pandemic.” 

However, the end of the pandemic will not put an end to these issues. Ms. Harmon concluded her remarks following the ICOS report in December with plans to reform the issues faced by international students: "Based on our research findings, ICOS has developed a series of recommendations, which we urge policymakers and the higher education sector in Ireland to consider and implement."

Such recommendations include the construction of student accommodation, changes to immigration policies and visa permissions, and the implementation of anti-racism policies by all higher education institutions in Ireland. 

*Name(s) changed to protect identity