Céad míle fáilte? Returning Irish face college fees of up to €22,000 a year

Emigrants who left during the recession say they are being deterred from returning due to high fees

It was a big, game-changing announcement. On St Patrick's Day in 2014, then minister for education Ruairi Quinn brought relief to Irish families scattered around the world when he announced the abolition of international college fees for returning Irish emigrants.

Over in Brisbane, the Cobain family were one of many who took notice. They had left Ireland on a four-year Australian work visa shortly after their son, Ryan, finished fifth year of secondary school.

"When we left, we had been assured by some of the universities that I would be eligible for free fees if I wanted to return after completing my secondary education in Australia, " says Ryan Cobain, who is now 21. "This was based on having lived for three of the previous five years in Ireland."

But after Quinn’s announcement, Cobain decided to stay at the University of Queensland with the option to transfer “when the time was right”.


There are three third-level fee systems in Ireland. One is “free fees” for EU citizens who have lived in the EU for three of the last five years. The second is an EU fee system for citizens who fall outside of eligibility requirements.

The third is an international fee system, which applies to anyone who has spent more than three years living outside the EU, including Irish nationals.

This meant Irish emigrants or their children returning to live in Ireland from non-EU countries were liable for fees of between €10,000 to €22,000 per year for most third-level courses (except medicine, when they could expect to pay up to €52,000 per year).

The changes announced by Quinn promised that Irish-born students in publicly-funded third-level institutions who had lived abroad with their families would no longer have to pay these hefty student fees.

As long as they had completed at least five academic years of study in Ireland, the EU, or the European Economic Area, they would be charged the more moderate EU rate.

But there has been widespread confusion among third-level institutions about the rule change, leading to different policies being adopted by individual colleges. Some are still charging international fees to returning Irish.

The Cobain family engaged with two Irish universities, but say they were told the criteria for fee assessments were set by the Higher Education Authority. Ryan, they said, would still have to pay international fees.

The Higher Education Authority, however, disputes how the institutions have interpreted the law.

It says it wrote to all the registrars of the universities, colleges and institutes of technology back in 2014 to advise them of Quinn’s directive. The Department of Education also says it issued a clear instruction.

Cobain says UCD was the most helpful and responsive, and after “a long and arduous” process, the college confirmed he would be eligible for the EU rate to study economics and finance.

“I was fortunate, but a lot of people will end up in a position where they have no chance to come back and do college,” he says.

Even if the changes introduced by Ruairí Quinn were adopted by all third-level institutions, many emigrant students and families, and campaigners representing them, say they do not go far enough.

At a recent conference in Galway, organised by the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform, and Safe Home Ireland, calls were heard for the abolition of fees altogether for returning Irish students.

The Corcoran family, who left Ireland in 1993, are both Irish citizens, and lived and worked in Ireland for around 35 years between them.

“We always intended to return to live and work in Ireland and we maintained strong ties, rearing our children with awareness of their Irish heritage,” says Edan Corcoran.

“In exploring third-level options in Ireland we were startled to learn that our children would be treated as ‘international students’ for the purpose of calculating fees, despite them being Irish citizens reared by Irish parents who had lived here for many years.

“We now have two children studying in UCD, while my wife and I now live in Dublin. Both students intend to pursue their careers in Ireland. This year, we paid over €50,000 in fees. My daughter is in a six-year medical programme which will cost €200,000 in all.”

Edan Corcoran acknowledges that there may be a rationale for having higher fees for people who have spent many years abroad.

“But it seems unjust to regard citizens of Ireland as no different than people with no ties to the country . . . We are both doctors so, with some considerable cutbacks and changes, we are – just about – able to afford this,” he says.

“I don’t want to sound like I am whinging: I am Irish and happy to be back in a great country with a great education system, and one that has provided me with many opportunities. But this must represent a very significant barrier for many returning emigrants.”

Chief executive of Safe Home Ireland Karen McHugh says many Irish people left during the recession because they had to, and some who are looking to return to Ireland with their families are being deterred from doing so because of the fees issue.

“It is obviously not affordable for many families, so they simply can’t come back, and the country is losing out on their valuable skill sets.”

There does seem to be a recent recognition of the problem within Government: in an interview with The Irish Times in December, Minister of State for the Diaspora Ciaran Cannon mooted the idea of providing a grant for returning Irish citizens, or their children, to study in Irish higher education institutions so that they don't have to pay international fees.

For many emigrant students and their families, those changes can’t come quickly enough.

‘We want to bring our kids back, but we can’t afford the college fees’

Niamh Bedford and her husband moved to Brisbane in 2010 for work, taking their three children with them.

She missed home and was devastated when she lost her brother to cancer so, after six years, the family looked at returning home.

“We had to consider how we could pay the international fees for university for our then 15-year-old. She was born in Ireland and attended up to second class in primary school there. We wanted to be home with our family but our kids’ future had to be considered,” she says.

“[But] we could never afford the fees of €15,000 annually for three to four years. So, we decided to stay in Australia to ensure our children have opportunities.”

If the family do come home in the near future, Bedford says her children may have to emigrate to Australia after school in order to go to college.

“We left Ireland because of unemployment. We left family and friends to secure a better future for our children. All we wanted was to bring our kids back to their homeland but the obstacles put in place by the Government keep knocking us back.

“But we can’t risk our children’s education. We are very disappointed and disheartened and feel discriminated against.”