If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. This is an approach that Lorraine McKenna can endorse because, at 36, she is getting an opportunity that, she says, was denied to her in Ireland.
“I grew up on a dairy farm and always wanted to be a vet,” she says. “But I wasn’t that keen on school, so didn’t do well enough in my Leaving Cert to study it at UCD and went on to work in retail management for a good few years. But becoming a vet was always in the back of my mind and I used to say that if I won a million euro, I would find a way to do it.
In 2016 she went to Australia and worked on a farm, which rekindled her dream. After returning home she considered repeating her Leaving Cert until one day, while she was studying, a vet came to the farm and told her that he had qualified in Budapest.
“I had never heard of anyone doing that before, so I decided to look into it,” she says.
The Monaghan woman did some research and discovered there was another way to realise her dream. She decided to apply to study in Warsaw, while completing her second Leaving Cert. As her original exam results were enough for her to qualify for the 5½-year degree course in Poland, this “took the pressure off”.
“It was really comforting to know I had a place in Warsaw, but I still studied hard for my Leaving Cert,” she says. “However, when the results came out, I still hadn’t done well enough to go to UCD, so I was really glad that I made the decision to apply abroad. And I chose Warsaw because there are a lot of Irish students here, and a GAA club, which was important to me.
“But I also knew that I would meet people of different nationalities and now have friends from all over. It’s a great, modern city with loads to do and it’s a lot of fun. It’s also much cheaper than back home. I rent a double room for €250 per month – which would be three times that in Dublin – so it’s a big advantage. It’s also very central for travelling around Europe by bus or train and there are two airports for when you want to go home. I am now in my final year and just feel incredibly lucky to have been able to pursue this opportunity.”
McKenna isn’t alone. The number of Irish students opting to study abroad is on the rise, driven by factors such as accommodation and living costs, as well as lower entry requirements for highly competitive courses such as medicine and veterinary.
Earlier this month a major report by the Higher Education Authority found that one-third of students in Irish universities and colleges were experiencing “serious” financial problems. Accommodation is the single largest source of expenditure among students in higher education, with average monthly rents reaching €469 a month, up from €415 when the last survey was conducted in 2019.
Guy Flouch, founder of Eunicas (European University Central Application Central Application Support Service), says there are more than 3,000 people from Ireland studying in universities and colleges across Europe in a variety of different subjects.
A decade ago, he says, Irish students were mostly applying to study medicine and veterinary in Hungary and the Czech Republic. Now they are applying to a much wider range of subjects, at both undergraduate and masters level. Medicine, dentistry and veterinary course are still popular in Poland, but Spain and Italy are also destinations for dentistry and medicine.
Tuition fees vary. While course charges in Ireland are €3,000 a year, they are typically free in Scandinavian countries such as Denmark, Sweden and Finland, and cheap in Germany and Austria (€250 per semester) and closer to the Irish fee levels in the Netherlands (€2,314). However, fees can get considerably more expensive in Britain (up to €10,365) and courses in medicine, dentistry or veterinary in Poland are also costly (€8,000-10,000).
One of the reasons why many Irish students are looking further afield is the reduced emphasis on exam grades. While some European third-level institutions may require an interview or entrance exam, the minimum requirement is typically six passes in the Leaving Cert.
“For 90 per cent [of European] programmes, if someone has entry requirement and applied correctly, they have a right to a place, with a selection procedure for the other 10 per cent of programmes where there are a fixed number of places,” says Flouch. “Dutch universities, in particular, cannot select exclusively based on grades.”
The decision to enrol in a European university is not something to be taken on a whim, however. Despite less stringent entry requirements, it is far from an easy ride.
“Research universities can be very challenging, particularly those with a content in maths or statistics – such as social sciences – and chemistry, which is taught at a lower level in school in Ireland,” says Flouch. “Also, our computer science students didn’t do computer programming at school as they do in other European countries, so this requires extra input in first semester.”
They usually catch up, he says, and dropout rates are lower for Irish students. Flouch says while some students may miss home or overestimate their ability to do a subject, the positives far outweigh the negatives.
Some find the 40-week academic year, compared to 26 weeks here, hard to get used to. Also, moving from the “dependent culture of the Irish system to other countries where independence is encouraged from an early age can be a challenge,” he says.
“But there are many pros to studying abroad. Firstly, the fact that grades are not generally an important admission consideration and the cost of fees and accommodation is often less. Also, it can help with personal development skills such as communication, independence and resilience and also with employability in an increasingly internationalised employment market,” he says.
McKenna agrees. She says while some of her younger counterparts did experience initial homesickness, they all carried on and this has made them more resilient.
“Although it seems it’s a lot easier to get into college in Europe, there is a lot of hard work, independent study and exams,” she says. “So you have to be self motivated, be prepared to work independently and that can be hard to adjust to initially. But if you are motivated enough and this is what you want to do, then you will get through it.
“Also a lot of people who were fresh from the Leaving Cert were homesick when they first came out, but I really admired how they just got on with it. They all adapted and coped well and, as a result, are a lot stronger,” she says.
“Overall, it’s a fantastic opportunity to meet people from different countries, experience their cultures, perhaps learn a new language and travel to new places. Also, it’s cool to say that you’re studying abroad and it looks impressive on your CV. If I’d known about this when I first did my Leaving Cert, I would have jumped at the chance and I think it’s wonderful that so many students are choosing to do this. As well as allowing me the opportunity to pursue my dream career, I have met people I can’t imagine not having in my life – it was a great decision.”
Tuition fees: studying in Europe
€0: Denmark, Sweden or Finland*
€750: Germany and Austria**
£9,250 (€10,365): England, Scotland & Wales
£4,710 (€5,278): Northern Ireland
* State sector universities only; ** €250 charge per semester in Germany and Austria; *** veterinary or medicine courses; others are cheaper