The Government has made a significant St Patrick's Day gesture to Irish emigrant families living outside the European Union by dramatically lowering the fees their children will pay for third-level colleges here.
The concession was announced yesterday by Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn and will benefit migrants who moved their families to the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Asia, and other regions outside the EU.
Until now, if children from those families wanted to return as undergraduates to Irish universities or third-level colleges, they would have had to pay the full international fee, which is the economic cost of providing the place in the institution.
The international fees for non-EU students range from €8,000 to over €20,000 per academic year, depending on the course and the institution. The average level of fees is well over €10,000.
This compares to the current €2,500 annual contribution to academic fees paid by undergraduates from Ireland and other EU countries.
The initiative came about from a situation where Irish families living outside the EU who wanted their children to receive third-level education in Ireland were precluded from doing so because a significant portion of their children’s earlier education had been received outside Ireland. In that scenario they were faced with prohibitive fees.
There was a sense that these families were hit by a “double whammy”: being forced to emigrate and then being unable to have their children receive university education at home.
The new arrangement will benefit children who spent at least five years in total in primary or post-primary education in Ireland (or in the EU). Under the new arrangement they will be charged the same rate as other EU nationals to study in Ireland.
A spokeswoman for Mr Quinn said that arrangements were being put in place for the new scheme to be introduced in time for the 2014-2015 academic year.
For his part, Mr Quinn said: “The economic upheaval that this country has been through has seen many of our citizens move abroad in search of work.
“But, as our situation improves, we are already seeing more families moving home and this is very welcome.
"I want to ensure that the children of these migrants are not penalised when it comes to attending third level.
The change has been welcomed by the third-level sector. NUI Galway president Prof James Browne yesterday described it as "good and generous initiative that is overdue".
While saying that it would benefit a reasonably small number, it would still be a very important measure for those families, as well as sending out a strong message to the diaspora.
Prof Browne pointed out that the international fee was the economic cost of providing a place.
For somebody studying in a Bachelor of Arts course, it might cost in the region of €12,000 to €14,000 per annum.
“The children of people who have lived overseas have found that because they were not living here, they were forced to pay non-EU fees.
“People who have to leave the country to work should not be penalised in that way,” he said.