While Leaving Cert students this year faced a summer of uncertainty and angst as to whether they would be allocated their desired third-level place, students living in Direct Provision have faced a particularly difficult situation.
As of the start of the summer, college was a prospect that seemed out of reach for many. Asylum seekers are not eligible for the free fees initiative, unless they are EU citizens, or SUSI support, and are effectively treated the same as international students.
One year of tuition for non-EU students in Trinity costs around €18,860, while a year in UCD can cost upwards of €23,800. These sums do not include the cost of living in Dublin.
The situation has led to instances like that of Anna Kern, who in 2015 secured 575 points in her Leaving Cert, having come to Limerick from Ukraine two years earlier, seeking asylum with her mother. After the case attracted significant media attention, she was ultimately granted a scholarship by the Royal College of Surgeons to study her chosen course of physiotherapy.
In 2015, the Government responded to requests for reform to the system by introducing a program that provided third-level support to students who had been in the Irish education system for a minimum of five years. This precluded most asylum-seekers, and uptake of the program was minimal.
Four years later in 2019, the Government reduced the requirement to three years. It was found that only 6 asylum seekers had successfully been granted support in the previous three years of the program. This year, on August 10, Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris announced that it would no longer be necessary for asylum seekers to have completed the Leaving Cert or to have spent three years in an Irish school. Harris said that “on paper we had a support scheme in place, but actually in truth very few people could access that scheme”. This change in policy is intended to make entering college a less financially daunting prospect for asylum seekers.
Akmal Salameh, a student in University College Dublin (UCD), arrived in Ireland from Syria in 2016 when he was 21, and was excited to learn of the vibrant tech scene here. Speaking to Trinity News, Salameh said that he had previously trained to be a software engineer but had not finished his training.
When he initially realised that a further qualification would be required to gain employment as a software engineer in Dublin, he thought the dream he had worked towards for years had crumbled. With little money, he could not afford the further study required.
“I felt those prospects that were once in front of me were slipping away, and I just couldn’t see how I could improve my future without education”
Living in Direct Provision weighed on Salameh’s mental health, and he became isolated and severely depressed. Having come from a middle-class background in Damascus, he said that it was “always expected that I would go to university, my father was a doctor and education was extremely important to him”.
“I felt those prospects that were once in front of me were slipping away, and I just couldn’t see how I could improve my future without education”.
Salameh was in Dublin at a function for Syrian refugees when he overheard an offhand remark mentioning a scholarship for asylum seekers and refugees in UCD. Gripped by interest and excitement, he contacted UCD that evening, and ultimately was accepted into a Computer Science program.
“It’s nice to be someone who isn’t necessarily pitied, I hated having that identity as a refugee. Now my life is more than that, I am a university student.”
Since he started in UCD, Salameh said he has rediscovered a sense of excitement and ambition about his future that he thought he had lost forever. He now has a number of Irish friends, and has taken a newfound interest in the culture and history of his adoptive country.
Salameh said that UCD were helpful in helping him settle in, and that staff continued to check in on him personally throughout the year. “It’s nice to be someone who isn’t necessarily pitied, I hated having that identity as a refugee,” he said. “Now my life is more than that, I am a university student. I know my father would be proud of me for pursuing this path.”