With cutbacks impacting on the quality of Irish Higher Education, Pat de Brún asks whether Irish Students would be better off looking overseas for postgraduate options
Many students nearing the end of their undergraduate studies are attracted to the idea of postgraduate study for a variety of reasons. With competition among graduates at an all time high, many students are seeking to go the extra mile to distinguish themselves from their peers and to gain a competitive edge in the job market. For many others, the opportunity to specialise within a chosen area of interest, or to deepen one’s academic knowledge is enough of a motivator alone. Whatever the motivation, the decision regarding which masters to choose is one that merits careful consideration, and with borders between EU countries now practically non-existent in terms of higher education, perhaps it is surprising that more of us do not examine our options on the continent.
One of the major considerations for students thinking about postgraduate study is cost. In Ireland, one can expect to pay anything from €5,000 upwards in tuition fees per year of postgraduate study. EU Law states that universities in EU countries cannot charge students from other EU states more than their own citizens – and this can mean good news for Irish students. In most EU states, higher education is financed much more heavily by the state than in Ireland. Countries such as Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, France and many more, offer a wide range of tuition-free postgraduate options, and in some countries, such as in Scandinavia, almost every masters programme is tuition-free. Furthermore, many of the universities offering these programmes may be ranked higher than their Irish counterparts, in the much debated university world rankings.
The website of the Irish Universities’ Association encourages potential students to study at an Irish university because of their “energy filled lecture theatres… well-resourced libraries and exciting campuses”. Ireland undoubtedly has a proud tradition of offering high-quality education, but the hint of irony contained within this assertion will not be lost on many UCD students, who, up until recently, could no longer avail of library facilities on Sundays. It is no secret that higher education in Ireland has been adversely affected by successive budget cutbacks in recent years. Reductions in staff numbers and cutbacks to academic services negatively impact on all students, but are particularly important to postgraduate students. When this is coupled with the recent government decision to abolish postgraduate maintenance grants, it could be argued that further study in Ireland is losing part of its appeal.
Head of Communications with the Higher Education Authority (HEA), Malcolm Byrne points to the fact that all Irish Universities remain within the “top 3% of internationally ranked Universities” and stresses the “quality, employability and ease of transfer” that our Universities still offer. However, he goes on to recognise that “the economic circumstances have, of course, impacted the budgets of the higher education sector”, and mentions in particular “concern at the decision to remove postgraduate student supports”. Lewis Purser, Director of Academic Affairs of the Irish Universities Association (IUA), believes that in spite of the severe cutbacks, “postgraduate programmes have been relatively spared and the quality of offerings has not been too heavily affected”.
He points to the fact that the majority of funding for masters programmes in Ireland has traditionally “come from the student, and not the state”, and therefore the cutbacks have less of an impact on quality when compared with undergraduate programmes. While it is comforting to know that masters programmes have been more shielded from cuts than their undergraduate counterparts, it is still the case that cutbacks to general academic services, such as the library, affect no one more than graduate students. Furthermore, with many household budgets plummeting, and student loans difficult to come by, the cost of tuition is likely to play a larger role in any decision regarding further study now, than it would have a few years ago.
Rory McDermott is a UCD graduate, studying a masters in Public International Law at Holland’s Leiden University. He comments: “Although there were masters courses in Ireland that interested me, in truth my choice was largely dictated by financial considerations. Whereas the average price of a [similar] masters in Ireland could be upwards of €8,000, the price here is €1,771. The Dutch system is based on the idea that everyone should be able to attend third level education and this is reflected not only in the tuition fees, but in the system of study financing grants and loans that are in place.”
Purser stresses that “choosing a particular masters programme is a weighty decision, and [one that should] not come down purely to financial reasons,” citing “life options, career options and social factors” as significant concerns that must also come into play in any such decision. He also warns that tuition fees are only one cost of many that need to be borne in mind when calculating the costs of studying abroad, citing the “exorbitant cost of living in Nordic countries” as an example, despite the availability of tuition-free postgraduate programmes. Purser goes on to say, however, that employers “will look very favourably upon someone who has taken the bold step of studying their masters abroad”, but stresses that it might not be possible for everyone, and that personal circumstances are crucial when considering such a move.
Aoife Coughlan, a UCD Law graduate currently studying a masters in European Constitutional Law at the University of Granada, Spain, explains how she chose her university: “The University is well regarded in Spain. The course that I’m doing is exactly what I want to do and suits my academic strengths and needs perfectly”.
Coughlan also cites reasons beyond just the academic: “People in the south of Spain are famously friendly and open, [and] the weather of course! And it’s very cheap to live here”. The tuition fees associated with Coughlan’s masters are €1,800 but she had a word of warning for any of those who are tempted by the bargain offering. “One thing I will say about doing a masters here in Spain is that, although it is very cheap, the quality is not guaranteed. There are a lot of fantastic courses on offer all over Spain, but there are a lot of very poor ones too. It’s not enough to simply research the university. I would recommend researching the actual course itself, the teachers, etc. I did a lot of research into my masters before applying and a friend of mine did it last year so I was satisfied that it was a good course.”
Byrne echoes these concerns. While we may take the quality of our qualifications in Ireland for granted, it would appear that the same cannot be done for offerings in universities abroad. Byrne praises the “clarity and transparency of our national framework of qualifications” as a major advantage of studying in Ireland, and warns of the “bureaucracy that some students are challenged with in foreign universities”. Additionally, interested students should be aware that the title of ‘university’ may not be as stringently applied to higher education institutions abroad as it is in Ireland, making it more difficult to distinguish between the quality of Universities available. For example, in 1992, the UK re-designated all of its ‘Polytechnic Institutions’, as Universities.
Byrne also reminds us that Ireland is “not living in a bubble when it comes to the impact of the recession” and that universities on the continent, too, are experiencing cutbacks. This is a valid argument, and on the topic of tuition fees, Byrne reminds us: “That debate is happening right across Europe”. In fact, in both France and Germany, tuition fees have already been introduced for some previously tuition-free postgraduate courses. The recent increase of the university fees ceiling in the UK is another relevant example. The debate surrounding the funding of higher education rumbles, and there is a strong possibility that some EU States will introduce fees in the coming years. For now, however, a wide selection of tuition free options remains in place across the continent.
Naturally, opting to study a masters abroad also has a wide-range of non-academic implications that may need to be considered. One of the first potential stumbling blocks is the language barrier. Many students assume that opting for a masters abroad would mean studying in the native language of the host country, but this isn’t necessarily the case. A huge number of renowned European Universities offer a diverse range of programmes delivered completely though English, meaning that many of them have no foreign language requirement upon entry. Of course, an even broader range of options is available to those with another European language, but bilingualism is not necessarily a prerequisite for studying in continental Europe.
McDermott is studying completely through English, and could speak no Dutch at all when he made the leap and began his masters in September. Leiden’s Law school is renowned as one of the best in Europe for this field of study, but McDermott warns that studying through English abroad can also have its disadvantages: “I had high expectations coming to Leiden as I had been told that it was one of the best universities in Europe for my course. To be perfectly honest though, I’ve been disappointed at times by the quality [here]. While the coursework is interesting and challenging, some non-native English speaking lecturers can be difficult to understand, so much so that I sometimes feel I’d be better off putting in a couple of hours in the library. As a point of comparison that’s where Leiden falls down.”
One of the major difficulties in finding the masters that’s right for you is simply knowing where to start. Even within Ireland itself, the process can be daunting, and this difficulty is only multiplied when we look further afield. “Use the career advisory services in your University. They’ll be more than willing to help,” is the advice offered by Purser, and this under-utilised resource is a useful place to start your research. There is also information available online, and one resource which students may find particularly useful is the online database www.mastersportal.eu which offers a concise comparison of over 20,000 masters courses in over 950 European institutions, with information on tuition fees, university information, and details of study.
Weighing the advantages against the disadvantages of studying abroad merit careful consideration and require some research, but if you can tick all of the relevant boxes, there’s no reason why opting for an overseas masters shouldn’t be an enriching and worthwhile experience. The overwhelming advice from both experts in the field, and students with personal experience alike, is to do your research, and do it well. Choosing the right university and course of study for your masters should never be taken lightly, but it’s even more important when looking overseas.