Are returned emigrants not Irish enough for free university fees?

Rules forcing people who spent time abroad to pay inflated college costs must be changed

Trinity College Dublin. Irish people living outside the EU for as little as three years can face high costs to pursue second or post-graduate degrees at an Irish college. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

Trinity College Dublin. Irish people living outside the EU for as little as three years can face high costs to pursue second or post-graduate degrees at an Irish college. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

 

The consequences may have been unforeseen, but the outcome is still hard on some Irish who go abroad. A rule made by the Department of Education to limit the number of foreigners availing of “free fees” at Irish universities means that Irish people living outside the EU for as little as three years can face high costs to pursue second or post-graduate degrees at an Irish college. It should be changed.

One young Irish man, for example, who went to the USA on a sports scholarship and was awarded an honours science degree there, was told on his return that he would have to pay international fees of €52,000 annually instead of the usual Irish fee of €15,000 each year to study medicine at UCD.

The nub of the problem is residency. The rule demands that one is not only an Irish citizen but that one has also lived in Ireland for at least three of the past five years to qualify for Irish fees.

A spokesperson for Trinity College Dublin says, “The returning diaspora is a complex issue and a long-term funding solution needs to be developed. There has been extensive engagement with the Department of Education and Skills and the HEA [Higher Education Authority] on this matter by the university sector through the Irish Universities Association (IUA) but as yet a long-term solution has not been put in place.”

Colleges confirm that the issue is a real one, but cannot say how many potential Irish students have been excluded. It arises from a condition of the Government’s “free fees” scheme that limits this to citizens resident in the EU for at least three of the most recent five years. Some Irish people outside the EU are left high and dry.

Slight modification

In 2014 the rule was modified in the case of undergraduate degrees for those who have completed five years of their primary or secondary education in Ireland. Then minister for education Ruairí Quinn expressed concern about “Irish families who for occupational or economic reasons had to move abroad.”

But that modification only applies to undergraduate degrees. There was no change in the residency rule for second or postgraduate degrees, even where an Irish person has cost the State nothing for her or his first degree.

In the example above, the young man completed his Leaving Cert in Ireland, and was even offered a place at UCD as an undergraduate. But he had won a scholarship in the USA, being granted a visa there solely for temporary educational purposes between 2012 and 2016.

The rule is unfair and confusing for the Irish abroad who want an Irish college degree

Awarded an honours science degree (“cum laude”) by a reputable US college, he immediately returned to Ireland (where he had spent vacations while at college). But UCD told him this year he would have to pay international fees of more than €200,000 in total for the four-year course, instead of €60,000 had he stayed at home. He says: “A Brexiteer could come to UCD from England and study medicine at the fee for which I, as an Irish citizen, was deemed ineligible.”

Successful appeal

UCD says that it makes no exception to the rule, and believes that it is not free to do so. But some colleges do, reflecting confusion in the system and highlighting the fact that the criteria for a successful appeal may vary. The State does not make up the difference in fees for a college that grants an appeal.

The young man above found out only by chance that some colleges do not apply the rule in every case, and appealed successfully to pay Irish fees elsewhere. But he was only accepted there after getting a mark among the top 10 per cent in the GAMSAT entry test for those intent on studying medicine.

It is impossible to know how many Irish abroad have been deterred by the rule from even applying to study in Ireland. Trinity College Dublin says that this year it dropped the requirement for between 15 and 20 applicants.

Unlike UCD, Trinity says that: “The dean of graduate studies has a discretion, on application from an applicant student or indeed a course co-ordinator or prospective supervisor to deem someone who does not fit within the criteria to be an EU citizen for fee-paying purposes.”

An Oireachtas Committee is looking into the funding of higher education. It should change this rule, which is unfair and confusing for the Irish abroad who want an Irish college degree.

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