Concerns have been raised about the ability of Irish universities to deal with a potential influx of thousands of students post-Brexit.
An Oireachtas committee heard on Tuesday that if the movement of students was limited after the UK leaves the EU, it could leave colleges and universities in the Republic struggling to absorb some 14,000 students within the current system.
Chair of the committee Fianna Fail TD Fiona O’Loughlin questioned how universities would be able to cope post-Brexit when a total of 14,000 Irish students studied in the UK and Northern Ireland in 2016.
She said it would “be very, very concerning when we see our third-level institutions creaking at the seams”.
In 2016, some 12,000 Republic of Ireland students studied in the UK, while 2,000 studied in Northern Ireland.
“If we had to absorb them into our system I’d have concerns about the capacity we have and also about the shortage of student accommodation,” Ms O’Loughlin said.
In response, Minister of State with special responsibility for Higher Education Mary Mitchell O’Connor said that a student accommodation strategy was in place and that it was reaching its targets.
“We launched an action plan and those targets are being met,” Ms Mitchell O’Connor said.
Education Minister Joe McHugh told committee members that he was working hard to minimise any potential disruption to the movement of people post-Brexit, and that he also wanted to build on the contribution education had made with regard to the mobility of people through the Good Friday Agreement.
Mr McHugh and Ms Mitchell O’Connor were before the committee answering questions about what could happen to students in the event of the UK crashing out of the EU on March 29.
Earlier this year, Mr McHugh announced that Brexit would not affect grants for Republic of Ireland students in the UK or for UK students in the Republic who start courses within the next academic year – 2019/2020.
The latest statistics showed 2,195 students from the Republic of Ireland were studying in Northern Ireland Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) in the 2015/2016 academic year. In contrast, there were 1,200 students from Northern Ireland studying in the Republic.
In the 2017/2018 academic year, more than 10,000 Republic of Ireland students were studying in UK HEIs, while 2,426 students from the UK were studying in the Republic’s HEIs.
Mr McHugh said since his appointment as education minister his goal had been to protect the valuable and rich cooperation that takes between education institutions on a north-south and on an east-west basis.