Is UCD prioritising its 'Global' reputation over its Global Students?

Image Credit: Sinéad Mohan

International students find themselves facing a more challenging year than usual, is UCD rising to their needs? Caoilfhinn Hegarty reports.

This autumn the normally bustling campuses of Ireland’s universities and institutes have been largely deserted. For the country’s approximately 225,628-strong student population this will be a semester of adapting and compromise, perhaps for no one more than international students. 

UCD has long prided itself on being ‘the number one 'university of destination' for international students coming to Ireland’, with 30% of its student-body coming abroad, from 136 different countries, to earn their degrees at its Dublin campus. Given that the figure for international student’s value in export earnings for Irish universities closes in on €400 million a year - and that UCD has a predicted a loss of up to €100 million for itself in 2020 as a result of the pandemic - it comes as no surprise that the university has been making serious efforts to keep its global students engaged this year despite the complications and uncertainties. But has it been enough? 

In a statement given over the summer, UCD Students’ Union President Conor Anderson expressed concern that the university’s plans for this year’s Autumn trimester were "overly ambitious in the hopes of attracting international students and filling on-campus accommodation". This was a line of thinking that also appeared to occur to a large number of international students themselves. A Students’ Union-supported petition for the compensation of fees was launched in May, with 82.5% of the respondents being foreign students. According to Anderson, some of these students pay ‘upwards of €30,00’ a year for their UCD experience. 

President Clíodhna Peters of the Erasmus Student Network (ESN) at UCD says that she personally has “not heard from UCD at all regarding international students’ wellbeing” and admits that she is "concerned that UCD may expect that between ESN and ISS [International Student Society], its international students are being supported without [the university] reaching out to either of the societies". As far as she is aware, the ISS auditor, Gavin Cheung, has not been contacted either. Peters’ appreciates that the UCD Student Societies Council "are as overwhelmed as the rest of us" but worries about the lack of support being extended to societies that cater to international students.

In the experience of Lithuanian student Mirija Vaškyt?; "It certainly is difficult for international students to comply with fees and accommodation, especially for those coming in with visas. UCD is more open for European countries considering lower fees and funds, but for those coming from outside of Europe, it is less accessible".

Anna Blackburn, from the United States, concurs with this assessment, pointing out that "while it does make sense that international students should pay more because they do not pay Irish taxes, the tuition fee difference is significant. As a student from the US, I am paying the same amount of money to attend UCD as I would to attend a University in the US". As Vaškyt? noted "the price of every residence did not drop, as it would be expected according to financial difficulties during the pandemic, but got more expensive". Both she and Blackburn feel that the international students have been taken advantage of, Vaškyt? in particular highlighting the difficulty for students who "did not know what to expect this year and even this semester, having to book a whole semester in advance, [which] for many students closed the possibilities to return to their home country in the case that the whole semester will be on a virtual platform". Blackburn put it bluntly: "yes, I do think that international students are being taken advantage of". 

Belgian student Manon Joris, on the other hand, does not blame UCD for the uncertainty regarding accommodation, "but rather the government for not implementing these measures [regarding accommodation pricing] on colleges before the start of the academic year". She understands that "the university still needs money to maintain the campus amenities and pay professors", but finds it frustrating that despite paying increased fees to live on campus, students are not "welcome to stay as long as we want in the library and that classes are restricted". The class restriction was particularly disappointing as this is Joris’ final year and she has had to "take classes that do not suit my interests completely because of the limited number of places available". 

Paula Martinez Pavon feels that "the university has at heart a lot of interest in us and they try to be good also because our fees are so high", but she also suspects that UCD was "not that honest with online versus face-to-face classes this year [...] because they did not want more international students to not come and choose UCD", a strategy which she characterises as "a bit misleading". Martinez Pavon also highlights struggles with virtual classes that are unique to international students who are learning through a language that is not native to them: "it is so different trying to understand a language that is not your own in person rather than having to be super attentive through bad zoom calls". 

UCD does provide supports to its international students through its Global Office, which Anna Blackburn praised as being "quite helpful" describing how it "helped with making sure I have all my immigration papers in order so that I can remain in Ireland for each year that I am studying". However, Mirija Vaškyt? and Paula Martinez Pavon both found student supports hard to get in touch with this year, with Vaškyt? saying they "seem rather less reachable since not much information was received on how to contact them or make online appointments". Martinez Pavon tells of how she "had to cancel [her] accommodation and I emailed them seven times and they kept telling me that because I didn't tell them I had to pay anyways and then I wrote to them an eighth time being like 'I cannot pay and I messaged you seven times’ and then they were like ‘oops okay'".

The running theme between these four student’s testimonies seems to be poor communication, whether that is by misleading statements from the university or supports being simply inaccessible to contact, giving weight to President Clíodhna Peters’ worry that "when one leaves students in the dark, it is even darker for International students".