Ciara Kenny

The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens living overseas,

Few eligible for low college fees

Emigrant children must have spent five years in an EU school to qualify for the new initiative announced this week

A “nice but pretty meaningless” gesture?: Claire and John Calvey with their five children in Western Australia. Their children may have to pay international student fees to go to college in Australia and in Ireland.

Sat, Mar 22, 2014, 00:00


Ciara Kenny

After his father’s construction business folded, in 2009, Kevin Lynch emigrated to San Francisco with his family just a year before his Leaving Cert. Despite having been educated in north Kerry, the 20-year-old was not, until this week, eligible for a “free” third-level place in Ireland.

The Government’s announcement, on St Patrick’s Day, that Irish emigrants who have spent at least five years in a school in Ireland or elsewhere in the EU will no longer have to pay international-student fees will come as a welcome relief for many young emigrants such as Lynch, and their parents.

Up to now, students who have lived outside the EU for more than two of the past five academic years have been liable for fees, as “non-EU students”, of between €8,000 and €20,000 a year in Ireland, depending on the course and institution. This compares with the €2,500 annual charge paid by undergraduates from within the EU.

Announcing the plan on Monday, Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn said that some children of emigrants who have been forced to leave Ireland in search of work have been penalised when they have returned to study here, and that the initiative will prevent this.

Lynch had been paying $20,000 (€14,500) for each of his first two years studying business at Sonoma State University, in San Francisco, but in an effort to reduce costs he applied to the University of Limerick for a transfer last year. Despite being accepted, he turned down the place after learning that he would have had to pay €11,500 as an international student.

“Since I went on a school tour with my primary school, I have always wanted to study at UL. But after multiple phone calls to the college’s study-abroad officer, where I tried my best to prove how Kerry I was, I was still denied lower fees,” he says.

Lynch considers Ireland home – and, having spent 13 years in the Irish education system, believes he should have the same rights as his peers in Ireland. Unable to afford the fees, he has dropped out and is working at a travel agency in San Francisco.

Although most emigrants who contacted The Irish Times this week about the announcement viewed it as a positive step to entice young emigrants home, for some it does not go far enough.

Ann Purdy, who moved with her husband and four children to Massachusetts in 2009 from Kinvara, Co Galway, did a “celebratory dance” around her kitchen with her Irish friend Brenda Mannion when they read the news online on Tuesday. But they were soon disappointed to learn that only their elder children would benefit, as the younger ones had not attended an Irish or other EU school for the required five years.

“With four kids, we often dwell on the subject of impending college fees,” Purdy explains. Her eldest son, Oisín, who is 13, often talks about moving back to Dublin to study music, but she says it was hard to see how it would have been affordable under the current system. “The [international] fees are similar to in-state college fees here, and that’s before we consider travel and accommodation costs.”

The family made the move as a temporary measure when her husband Ian was offered a two-year transfer with his employer Boston Scientific. They had hoped to return to Galway, but when the contract ended there were no jobs to go home to and they ended up staying in Masachusetts and buying a home.

“So many families like ours would dearly love our kids to be able to go back to Ireland to study, work and contribute to Irish society,” Purdy says. Although her three younger children won’t qualify for the new low fees initiative, she says it is a “positive first step”.

Claire Calvey, a writer and mother of five who has been living in the Pilbara outback, in Western Australia since her husband John got an engineering job there last year, describes the move as a “nice gesture” but says it will be “pretty meaningless” for young emigrant families whose children are too young to have spent the required five years at an EU school. Her eldest daughter was eight when they left Ireland for the United Arab Emirates, in 2008.

As the family are on a temporary employer-sponsored visa in Australia, her children would be classed as international students there, too. If they stay on temporary status, it will cost an average of 41,500 Australian dollars (€27,200) a year for them to study there, according to a recent HSBC study.

Some might argue that students should not be entitled to “free” third-level education if their families have not been paying tax in Ireland, but Calvey points out that emigrants do make some contributions.

“They are quick enough to charge us the NPPR” – non-principal private residence tax – “on our house in Ireland, since it’s classed as a second home,” she says. “I think the fair thing would be for the Government to treat people out here on temporary visas as being permanently resident in Ireland.”

Aisling Wynne, who is 29 and moved to Toronto with her electrician boyfriend to work for a pharmaceutical research company in 2012, does not have children but has been thinking about college fees.

“ I think very highly of the Irish education system, and Irish culture is something I would like my kids to have the opportunity to experience,” she says. “It makes me happy that this may now be an option . . . I am optimistic.”

There is, however, still uncertainty about whether the initiative will be given the go-ahead by individual universities, which the Universities Act authorises to determine the fees they charge. The Irish Universities Association warned this week that the financial impact on third-level institutions could be substantial.

The Department of Education says that arrangements are being put in place for the new fee scheme to be introduced in time for the 2014-15 academic year.