Ensuring Brexit does not burn all bridges

In the not so long ago, access to an international education was confined to the privileged or the exceptionally talented.

One of the empowering consequences of what might be called the democratisation of education is that those limits no longer apply as firmly as they once did. Anyone can now aspire to study abroad; finite resources are not the constraining reality they once were.

Every year, thousands of Irish students, and many thousands more from across the European Union, use one scheme or another to study abroad. This has benefits far beyond the academic. Schemes like the Erasmus or the Fulbright programmes are centred on academic achievement, but they build bridges between societies that must have a lasting benefit.

Though not the same as the famed Swiss finishing schools of old (doughty, pressed-aprons institutions that trained women to be good wives and reliable hosts), these schemes broaden horizons and recalibrate cultural compasses.

They can give an otherwise overly sheltered, stay-at-home student a chance to discover that Flamenco is not a long-legged, pink wader.

Ireland is a destination of choice for many foreign students, some of whom come here to connect with their Irish heritage, maybe their Catholic heritage, too, but many more, especially those from China, come to get a valuable education. They pay premium rates in our colleges and may have created an unhealthy dependency when the funding of third-level education is such a contested, unresolved issue.

As in every sphere, the role of China in international education has raised important questions.

Speaking in Africa this week, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar warned that a fundamental shift in how and where tomorrow’s leaders are educated might change our world. He pointed out that previous generations of Africa students schooled abroad were, for the most part, educated in Anglo American or European colleges, but that now Chinese institutions are the primary providers.

This, suggested Mr Varadkar, must influence relationships.

It has been many decades since relationships between and on these islands have been as challenged as they have been by the catharsis of Brexit. Whether those relationships return to some sort of functioning equilibrium in the medium term is a deeply challenging question. As each day passes, as one proposal more delusional and dishonest than the last is offered, anything that looks like a sensible, humane and bridge-sustaining idea must be celebrated.

Yesterday’s announcement that we will continue supporting Irish students who wish to attend British universities, as well as Northern Ireland students who, after Brexit has been finalised, want to study here, is one such a declaration.

There are 10,070 Irish students in the UK, 1,319 Northern Ireland students attend universities here, and over 1,100 students from the rest of the UK study in Irish universities.

Maybe we have learned from the Chinese. Maybe one of the post-Brexit British students here might lead their country when they eventually apply to rejoin the EU.

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