Sunday 18 March 2018

Universities yet to agree on lower third level fees for emigrants

Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn
Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn

Katherine Donnelly, Education Editor

A Government decision on lower third-level fees for returning emigrants and children of Irish families living outside the EU has not yet been agreed by individual universities.

Education Minister Ruairi Quinn has announced that he wants such students to qualify for the new rate from September, and universities and institutes of technology colleges have been so advised.

The move is aimed at those who emigrated  for economic or social reasons and to other qualifying European citizens who have schooled their children in Ireland or the EU.

They would pay what is known as “EU fees” - more than the annual Student Charge but considerably less than the full fees paid by non-EU students.

The Student Charge, currently €2,500, is payable by those who qualify for “free fees”, while non-EU students pay between about €8,000 and over €20,000 a year, depending on the course.

In between is the “EU fees” rate, a throwback to the days before “free fees” were introduced, and mainly used by colleges for students such as those who are repeating a year for which they have already got “free fees”.

The EU fees rates can vary between colleges but would be of the order of  €4,900-€8,000 a year.

Under current rules, students have to have lived in Ireland for three of the past five years to qualify for the mid-ground, “EU fees”, otherwise they are liable for full fees.

But, the minister's plan would allow anyone who had spent five years in primary or post primary school in Ireland to qualify for “EU fees”.

Based on current third-level enrolments, it would affect about 120 students, but the change could encourage a flood of applications.

The move has been welcomed by the Union of Students in Ireland (USI), which raised the matter with the minister last December.

USI president Joe O'Connor said it was  “a positive step to reach out to the Irish Diaspora abroad and encourage them to return home. It will ensure any students wishing to return to education in Ireland from abroad will experience more favourable fee treatment.

But it has caused some surprise within the university sector, because under the Universities Act, universities have the authority to determine fees.

There is concern about how many students might be eligible and how it will impact on revenue, particularly at a time when universities are under financial pressure.

The Irish Universities Association (IUA) said universities individually would have to consider the feasibility and economic implications of that was proposed.

An IUA spokesperson said Department of Education officials had raised the issue with them, but they understood that consultations were ongoing.

“What the minister is proposing throws up substantial revenue implications and feasibility issues that need careful consideration before an institution can take a decision to implement it..

“We look forward to discussing this proposal”, the spokesperson added.

A spokesperson for the Institutes of Technology ireland (IoTI) said they had previously expressed the view that the current system was unfair.

A Department of Education spokesperson said it was anticipated that the impact of the change  would not be large , but the situation  would be kept under review.

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