The Department of Education loosening third-level grant requirements for asylum seekers is a step in the right direction, but not enough

While students in direct provision no longer need to attend school in Ireland for three years, or obtain a Leaving Certificate to qualify for a college grant, structural inequalities in the education system persist for asylum seekers.

In August of this year, the Government announced that asylum seekers no longer have to spend three years in the Irish school system in order to qualify for educational support at third level. While this is a step in the right direction, the fact that asylum seekers are still expected to pay international college fees and are continually marginalised by the Direct Provision system reduces this measure to a mere dent in the barriers to accessing third level education. 

The latest revision to the Student Support Scheme means asylum seekers will no longer need to have completed the Leaving Certificate, or have spent three years in an Irish school to be eligible. Applicants will still need to have been resident in Ireland for a combined period of three years in order to apply for the support, and must also have already been accepted on to an approved post-Leaving Certificate course or undergraduate degree. Students who have applied for refugee status, subsidiary protection or leave to remain, and have been in the system for at least three years, can also apply for this support. 

The latest revision to the student grant scheme for young people in Direct Provision means asylum seekers will no longer need to have completed the Leaving Cert, or have spent three years in an Irish school to be able to apply for a student grant at third level.”

While this scheme began in 2015, it was previously only available to students who have studied in an Irish school for five years. In June of last year, the mandatory time was reduced to three years. At the time, just six of the 59 students who applied during the three previous years had been granted support, according to the Irish Refugee Council. Asylum seekers are not entitled to free third-level education in Ireland, and are instead treated as international students who are asked to pay infamously high tuition fees. This inevitably means that third-level education is financially inaccessible to most in the asylum system. 

Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris admitted in August of this year that registration fees for students are “too high”, and that this was an area he wanted to examine and improve as Minister. Harris continued, saying he would like to “look at this over the lifetime of the government,” and that “obviously we have a budget in October”. Harris’ comment on the expense of third-level education seems somewhat lacklustre, particularly considering that post-Brexit, Ireland will have the highest college fees in Europe. Harris’ half-hearted commentary on the subject is insufficient, given that the funding model for higher education in Ireland is utterly untenable, and evidently requires a complete overhaul, along with substantial investment. While college fees are exorbitant for the average Irish student (even before rent, food, and the cost of textbooks and other supplies), life in Direct Provision makes studying all the more difficult for students due to the aforementioned financial restraints, and the likelihood of a long commute from college to a Direct Provision centre.

“While college fees are exorbitant for the average Irish student (even before rent, food, and the cost of textbooks and other supplies), life in Direct Provision makes studying all the more difficult for students due to the aforementioned financial restraints, and the likelihood of a long commute from college to a Direct Provision centre.”

When the Programme for Government was released earlier this year, Movement of Asylum Seekers Ireland (MASI) issued a statement, highlighting that the findings of the Expert Group on Direct Provision did not adequately address the root cause of educational inequality for asylum seekers. “The interim recommendations which are also cited in the programme for government do not adequately address the core issues in Direct Provision such as the poverty asylum-seeking children are forced to endure.” The statement continues, saying that “this state-sponsored poverty was highlighted throughout the Covid-19 pandemic when parents could not afford learning resources required for homeschooling and had to rely on handouts,” and that “The dignity of asylum-seeking parents is undermined when they are deliberately placed in a position where they cannot provide for their children’s material needs.”

As pointed out above, the Covid-19 pandemic brought inequalities in Irish society into sharp focus. For obvious reasons, those in overcrowded housing, emergency accommodation, precarious workplaces with little regard for the safety of staff, and those in Direct Provision felt the brunt of the pandemic, with clusters inevitably emerging in places where social distancing or cocooning is near impossible.  

While the Department of Education’s loosening of third-level grant requirements for asylum seekers is a step in the right direction, the fact remains that without the right to live independently in the community, asylum seekers do not have the same opportunities academically as an Irish student. The requirement for asylum seekers to pay international fees is of course not the only barrier to them accessing education. While the threat of deportation orders hangs over the head of any student, they do not have the ability to complete their education or study for exams with full concentration. Parents of school-aged children in Direct Provision may have the right to work as of 2018, but still face enormous barriers to entering the labour market, and receive a paltry €38.80 a week. This means the likelihood of having their needs covered by the Back to School Allowance is extremely small.

“While the Department of Education’s loosening of third-level grant requirements for asylum seekers is a step in the right direction, the fact remains that without the right to live independently in the community, asylum seekers do not have the same opportunities academically as an Irish student.”

While these systemic inequalities are built into the very DNA of the Direct Provision system, asylum seekers continue to be forced into the margins of society socially, financially, and within the broader scope of the community. While this grant is welcome news, as long as asylum seekers are required to pay non-EU fees, students who are excluded from the scheme will continue to be excluded from higher education and all the opportunities this brings. Ultimately, this measure does not go far enough.

Grace Gageby

Grace Gageby is the Deputy Comment Editor for Trinity News and studies English and Philosophy.