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Returning Irish citizens must pay ‘non-EU fees’ of up to €20,000 for third-level education

The rules apply to students who have spent more than two years of the previous five outside the European Union.

Image: The Merry Monk via Flickr/Creative Commons

Updated 22.30

IRISH EMIGRANTS RETURNING home to attend third-level education are being forced to pay ‘non-EU fees’ of up to €20,000.

To be eligible to pay the lower EU fee rate in many third-level institutions an individual must have been either working or in education in the EU for three of the last five years.

This rule, therefore, excludes the thousands of Irish people who have emigrated elsewhere to places such as Australia and Canada.

The difference in cost depends on the college but it can be quite stark and is sometimes double the price. For example, a master’s degree in common law in UCD will cost you €9,700 if you apply for EU fees while non-EU applicants will have to pay €19,400.

One applicant who was recently accepted into a master’s programme in Trinity College Dublin after spending a number of years in Canada told TheJournal.ie that, as an Irish citizen who had already completed a third-level course here, they were completely unaware that this was an issue. Upon contacting the college to begin the payment process they were informed they were required to pay over €16,500, not the €8,500 expected:

It was when I went to pay my fees, I got accepted to do it and I was chatting to her about payment and whether I could pay in instalments. Even when I was talking to her about financing options I didn’t realise there was an issue.

The applicant had ticked a box on the application form saying they hadn’t spent over three years of the previous five in Ireland but never realised it would disqualify them from applying as an EU resident:

“It says it on the application, maybe I didn’t pay enough attention to it but it didn’t make it blatantly clear, or at least to me they didn’t make it clear.”

The applicant added that they would absolutely not be able to afford the fees at the higher level and would have to examine other options.

A number of students applying to Trinity are facing this issue and TheJournal.ie has learnt that other students elsewhere are facing similar problems.

Laden with gaps

President of the Student Union of Ireland Joe O’Connor was unaware of this particular rule but was completely unsurprised that it existed:

“I don’t think the type of people that it’s excluding were intended to be excluded. The grant scheme is laden with gaps like this. We’ve had situations where students who have moved away for a number of years and have come home and applied for a grant have been asked by SUSI to apply as a dependent even though they’re clearly not.

They’re telling us they’re essentially being asked to commit fraud.

A second student, who had previously completed an undergrad and recently returned from Australia, spoke to TheJournal.ie about facing the same problem when applying to Dublin Institute of Technology for a second undergraduate course. The student said that they had saved money and had no problem paying for the course but would be unable to afford the €30,000 over two years that it would cost at the higher level:

“It’s really annoying because I came home with a set plan and now I’ve been kind of been thrown into limbo. I’ve been told I won’t get a final decision until it comes to registration.”

The prospective student feels that there is much confusion surrounding the entire issue and could lead to outcomes that could be construed as unfair:

“What I think is even more bizarre is that they look at somebody from Romania who’s been working from 18-21 and has come to Ireland and can be treated as an EU citizen whereas I, as an Irish citizen, is being told I’m not an EU resident and mightn’t qualify.”

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Department of Education

There appears to be confusion on all levels about when – and to whom – these rules should apply and whether they come from the Department of Education or whether they are set by each institution.

It is clear that in circumstances of a student’s first undergrad the Government’s ‘Free Fee Initiative ’ only applies to students who have satisfied all conditions, including living in Ireland for three of the previous five years. In fact, the Department of Education recently extended rights to non-EU migrants who have gained Irish citizenship so that they no longer pay full fees.

The situation is less clear in the case of education thereafter, however. In a statement to TheJournal.ie a department spokesperson said that the minister is examining ways to increase clarity for students:

“As part of the recent announcement in relation to changes to third level fees to benefit migrant students, the Minister requested the Higher Education Authority to establish and report on the practices currently operated by individual institutions in charging different rates of fees so as to ensure that all prospective students have clarity about the level of tuition fees they may be required to pay.”

The spokesperson stopped short of saying that the Minister would issue direct instructions on fees however, “third level institutions are autonomous institutions and the level of fee payable by students who do not meet the residence requirement of the scheme is a matter for the relevant institution”.

Either way USI President O’Connor says clarity is needed now as young people continue to see emigration as a real choice:

“We’ve seen a massive upsurge in people who are returning to find that the situation hasn’t improved. In the interim there needs to be adequate information. People who are thinking about going abroad and possibly returning in the future need to be aware of the possible costs involved.”

First published 7.30am

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Rónán Duffy

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