A third-level strategy due to be published in the coming weeks has set out a significant increase in the numbers of international students entering our system in the next five years.
Increasing the number of foreign students who choose to study here would bring an extra €720 million into the economy, Ms O’Sullivan said.
“We are trying to get the brand of education in Ireland as something that people can aspire to,” she said.
In an interview with the Irish Examiner, the minister said: “We have a draft higher education international strategy which is out for consultation at the moment,” adding that it would be published towards the end of January.
“Currently, the percentage of international students in higher education is 8.8%. The target is to increase it to 15% by 2020, so that will be in the strategy,” she said.
Funding to third-level institutes has been cut by around 32% — or over €426m — between 2008 and 2015, and staffing levels have been reduced by approximately 2,000, leaving universities and colleges to do much more with less.
At the same time student numbers have gone up by around 20% and there are about 200,000 people studying at third level.
The Higher Education Authority (HEA) reported a ratio of one academic per 19.5 students in 2014, significantly behind the OECD average of 14 to 1.
Attracting more international students who pay tens of thousands in fees each year would provide an extra revenue stream for struggling intuitions.
Mr O’Sullivan said: “It’s not all about economic impact but at the same time it can be measured on that. In 2013 and 2014 the direct and indirect impact was measured at €1.67bn which is quite a lot of money in terms of the economy.
“So economically it is important and measurable but also seeing the mix of people coming into our colleges as well is good. You have a mix of languages and cultures,” she said.
The numbers of overseas people registered in third-level institutions has increased from 15,821 to 26,564 in the last five years and the Government intends to further build on this.
Tuition costs vary depending on the course, the institution, and whether the person is classified as an EU student or non-EU student.
For example, in 2015/16 the non-EU tuition fee to study undergraduate medicine at the Royal College of Surgeons Ireland (RCSI) is €51,000 per annum.
Non-EU students looking to study medicine in Trinity College Dublin will pay a yearly fee of €37,128 while Law and French has an annual fee of €17,053.
Irish students do not pay third-level fees but do have to pay a €3,000 registration charge each year.
Ms O’Sullivan said fees from overseas students “wouldn’t be funding the whole higher [education sector] but certainly we have had an increase in international students in recent years, both in the English language sector and also in the higher ed sector”.
The education minister said that building strong alumni groups outside the country would help to entice more foreign students to choose third-level institutions here. She pointed out that work on this has already been done in countries such as China and Brazil.
“We have developed these alumni groups as well, for example when I was in China we launched an Irish alumni, so these would be Chinese students who studied in Ireland and went back to China. So they spread the word then about Ireland.”