'This is my home. This is where I grew up'
HOLDING HER newly acquired certificate of citizenship and speaking in a lilting Letterkenny accent, Tatiana Bezborodova speaks of growing up in Ireland, of her studies in Trinity College Dublin, but mostly of how “enormously unfair” it is that she has to pay more than three times as much in university fees as long-term Irish citizens, who only have to pay student contribution fees.
Russian-born but Donegal-raised from the age of 7½, Tatiana finally received Irish citizenship last Thursday at the age of 19.
But because she was not a citizen when she began her four-year degree in medicinal chemistry in Trinity, she does not qualify for free fees. And, despite having now been granted Irish citizenship, she must continue to pay fees at the higher level for the remainder of her course.
Tatiana – and others who find themselves in the same situation in third-level institutions across the country – pays “EU fees”. These, for Tatiana’s course, totalled €7,332 in the 2011-2012 academic year, compared to the €2,000 student contribution fees she would have paid if she were considered an Irish citizen.
Tatiana said she and her family felt it was unfair that she was treated differently.
“This is my home. This is where I grew up,” she said. “I did Irish for my Leaving Cert – I know more Irish than some Irish people I know. It’s just really unfair. Looking at me, hearing me, you wouldn’t know I was any different.
“It’s not like we’re looking for special treatment. I only want to be treated like the people I’ve grown up with.”
Tatiana’s situation is reflected in numerous cases across the country according to Helen Lowry, community work co-ordinator with the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland (MRCI) which is working with over 130 families who are in the same boat, although the organisation believes that those affected number hundreds rather than thousands.
Ms Lowry said Tatiana’s case was representative of the people the MRCI was dealing with: “vibrant, energetic, ambitious young people who are committed to Ireland and who could play a very valuable role in its economic recovery but, once it comes to third level, are blocked from accessing their full potential”.
Ms Lowry said that most of the affected young people were on the cusp of turning 18 or had recently turned 18: people whose parents had not gained citizenship
before their children reached adulthood.
Although such children receive residency stamps when they turn 16, she said the stamps were inappropriate and did not reflect the realities of young migrants who came to Ireland to join their parents under family reunification.
“Many young migrants who have grown up in Ireland . . . are denied access to financial assistance and the free fee scheme upon entry to third level,” she said.
The MRCI has seen many people making a decision to send their children back to their home country to access third level. It has also seen cases of young people taking two years out of college to work in order to save for the higher fees they and their families face.
“[In] a lot of families we are working with, the parents . . . are cleaners, carers, nannies who are in minimum wage/low-wage work and college is not really an option then ,” she said.
“There’s a huge inequity of access issue and we’d be worried about the repercussions it would have on the immigrant population of this country.
“It really makes sense to allow young people who came here under family reunification access to third-level education because then they can contribute; then they can progress. It’s a route into a better life for a lot of people, but it’s also of huge benefit to the Irish economy.”
A spokeswoman for the Minister for Education said Ruairí Quinn was “aware of and is concerned about” the issue and had asked the department to compile a report on the outstanding issues of free fees and maintenance grants for affected students:
“The department is preparing a report on both these fronts and it is expected to come before the Minister shortly,” she said, adding that his advisers had also met with groups representing migrants about the issue.