In the last two years, universities around the country have made welcome – if belated – moves towards rendering themselves more accessible to asylum seekers.
Dublin City University and University College Dublin are among the country’s four Universities of Sanctuary, a status awarded for the initiatives – such as scholarships and outreach programmes – they have launched in a bid to open up higher education to those living in direct provision.
Trinity, for its part, recently established four scholarships each year for asylum seekers, three months after creating a working group to look into the issue.
These schemes and projects have been a long time coming, and only go some way towards beginning to dismantle the myriad of barriers faced by asylum seekers seeking to obtain an education in one of the country’s third-level institutions.
But those in the know say it’s obvious that real change – to direct provision generally as well as how it relates to higher education – will come only with meaningful government action.
Sadly, it’s equally apparent that the government is unwilling to tackle head-on a system that has been heavily criticised by the UN – and condemned this week as a “strange, cruel system” by the New Yorker.
Instead, Minister for Higher Education Mary Mitchell O’Connor this week announced that students living in direct provision will now only have to have spent three years, instead of five, in Irish schools in order to be eligible for access to higher education.
While not an unwelcome development, this reduction hardly scratches the surface of the problem. For students in direct provision, the cost of fees is only the start of an unaffordable college experience. They have to factor in the costs of accommodation, transport and food – something the government has singularly failed to confront at any stage.
The current irrelevance of the programme is borne out by the number of students who applied for it last year: it’s possible to count it on one hand.
And while this week’s development may encourage more to apply, when viewed in context it’s difficult to see it as anything other than a piecemeal concession from a government attempting to paper over gaping cracks.