Asylum-seeking students are valuable for our future

The case of Anna Kern, the Leaving Cert high-flier, shows the need for reform

Anna Kern with her leaving cert results pictured with her mother, Lyudmyla Kyrychenko and sister, Olga Kyrychenko. Photograph: Adrian Butler

Anna Kern with her leaving cert results pictured with her mother, Lyudmyla Kyrychenko and sister, Olga Kyrychenko. Photograph: Adrian Butler

 

Anyone who wants an economically strong Ireland should give quiet thanks to Anna Kern. The Ukrainian-born student achieved close to the highest possible marks on her Leaving Cert last week – 575 – and yet, due to the utter absurdity and short-sightedness of asylum and immigration policy here, did not qualify for funding for third-level education.

Kern is a young woman of great ability and promise who accomplished this formidable task from the starting point of not even knowing English when she arrived here in 2013. She had the dual task of learning English out of a dictionary and mastering her Leaving Cert subjects.

She also did this within the barren environment of life in a direct provision centre. If anybody doubts the challenges for families living on the €19 weekly State provision, with children seeking a quiet place to study, have a listen to the excellent RTÉ radio documentary The Outsiders (podcast at iti.ms/1USY3AT), in which two teenage girls inside one such centre record their own experiences.

‘Kind of tough’

Kern herself noted how hard studying could be in the asylum centre in Knockalisheen on the outskirts of Limerick where she lives, telling UTV: “Sometimes it was tough because you hear a lot of sounds everywhere. Somebody is happy, somebody is crying. It’s kind of tough.”

At the moment, immigrant children in direct provision centres can attend primary and secondary school but then, regardless of their abilities, are barred from receiving grants to go on to third-level study.

Minister for Education and Skills Jan O’Sullivan is putting forward a proposal to change this so that children who have been in the educational system for five years qualify for state support for college. She says Kern will be facilitated to take up her course offer.

The Minister told reporters last week there had been a “handful” of other similar cases but those students had also been eventually accommodated to pursue their studies.

But going on past media reports, this doesn’t seem to be the case. Many immigrant graduates remain in a limbo of being unable to study or work. And why the proposed five-year qualification for funding?

This is inhumane, as well as economically blinkered.

Inhumane, because too many asylum-seeker families get stuck in this cruel system for years, living on a pittance, a weekly supplement many of us would spend on coffee in a week.

Children living in the temporary boxes that constitute housing in such centres go through years of Irish schooling, while their cases remain in our Kafkaesque asylum processes; and they are not allowed to do anything at all after secondary school, neither work nor study.

If we are going to keep these children locked into such a system for the foreseeable future, they should have the right to third-level education. Even five years of being in the school system is too long a qualification: under this new proposal, Anna Kern would still have been denied a funded place in her area of study despite doing better than most of the Irish-born students in the secondary school system, as she wouldn’t have been here for five years.

This kind of thinking fails to consider the realities of the Irish schooling system and the economic promise of those immigrant and asylum-seeker students.

According to a story this week in this newspaper, one-eighth of students in the Irish primary and secondary school system are immigrants. This is a significant proportion of the nation’s children – and of the nation’s future.

If we are refusing to educate some of them as young adults, they are surely more likely to not continue their education, remaining at greater risk of poverty and of needing to draw down social welfare in the future.

Yet on the flip side, the experience in other countries has shown that immigrants are among the most motivated college-goers and founders of (successful) businesses.

Immigrant graduates

One study from the Brookings Institute shows that immigrants in the US are 30 per cent more likely to found a business than US-born citizens, and advanced-degree immigrant graduates are more innovative, being three times more likely to file patents.

A 2008 Kauffman Foundation study revealed that more than half of all Silicon Valley companies formed between 1995 and 2005 were founded by immigrants, creating more than half a million jobs and generating $63 billion in sales. The American Venture Capital Association has also done a study showing that some of the most innovative companies were founded by the US-educated children of immigrants.

There’s no reason to believe the Irish economy will not similarly benefit from educating its students – all of its students. And there’s plenty of evidence that educating our immigrants may have particular economic benefits for the country.

It’s the right thing to do. But it’s also the smart thing to do.

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