Ireland is still open to international students and they may be encouraged to study in the country due to its handling of coronavirus, Higher Education Minister Simon Harris has said.
He said it remains his department’s priority to get as many students back to college as possible, but public health concerns may mean students study online.
“The priority now is getting people back into college and getting as much face-to-face time as possible because I do strongly believe the importance from a mental health point of view that people need to interact with others, face-to face,” he said.
He also said international students can come to the country to study despite the quarantine rules for travellers.
The current regulations state people must self-isolate for two weeks when they arrive in Ireland.
He said: “I am hearing from some universities that some international students will be able to travel into Ireland, quarantine for the two weeks. Maybe link in with the colleges online during that period of time and they will be happy to do that because they will be here for a year, not just a week or two.
“I’m also hearing from universities that there’s a little bit of encouragement in that people are now looking internationally at Ireland and they believe that Ireland is a country that handled Covid-19 well and they see us as a country that takes public health seriously.
“Therefore, if you’re living in another country you’re more likely perhaps to encourage your children to travel to that country to study and then perhaps other countries that didn’t.
Mr Harris said he will seek to address high drop-out rates if there is less face-to-face interaction at colleges.
“That is something that we are going to have to monitor very closely. I have no information or data to suggest that is an immediate problem, but I think if people are 17 or 18 and their choices are accidentally narrowed,” he said.
Mr Harris said further education courses are sometimes seen as the “Cinderella” of the higher education sector and more people will be encouraged to explore further education options rather than going straight to university.
“I think culturally we narrow our education choices too early,” he said. “Universities are brilliant and they have done an amazing job and we want to keep up the high numbers of people going there.”
But Mr Harris said a person aged 17 or 18 who is unsure about what they want to study should sign up for a shorter further education course.
“Going and doing a relatively short course or signing up for a year to try something might work better for some people than taking the plunge into something for four or five years when they’re not yet sure what they want to do,” he said.
“So you go to the institute of further education, do a course for a year, see how you get on. If you get on well and you like it then you get your qualification and you can seamlessly move on to university.”
Mr Harris also said despite the expected shortfall in third level and international student numbers, student fees will not increase.
“Let me be very, very clear. The Programme For Government is crystal clear on that. There will be no increase to student fees in the lifetime of this Government.”