This week, the government announced that students living in direct provision will no longer have to have spent three years in the Irish education system or have completed the leaving certificate to qualify for a college grant.
On first reading, this seems like an encouraging development – and a vindication of Higher Education Minister Simon Harris’s commitment to use the Department of Higher Education as a driver of “social cohesion”.
By making the scheme’s qualifying criteria less restrictive, the government has eliminated a barrier that has long faced asylum seekers wishing to avail of the grant scheme.
But if the government is truly committed to the cause of promoting access to higher education for asylum seekers, its latest concession barely scratches the surface. As the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland (MASI) pointed out in its statement after the minister’s announcement, the change “doesn’t go far enough”.
As long as asylum seekers who are not accepted onto the government scheme are required to pay international fees – sometimes exceeding €20,000 per year – third-level education remains closed off to many for financial reasons alone.
Asylum seekers are also blocked from higher education by the dread of the threat of deportation – a fate two Athlone IT students, David and Fortune Nesengani, currently face.
It is nonsensical for Harris to be celebrating the loosening of restrictions on allowing asylum seekers into colleges, while the government is simultaenously attempting to deport two students who have managed to get into college.
Relaxation of the qualifying criteria on supports for students living in direct provision will mean nothing if the security theoretically promised by Sanctuary Scholar status continues to be ignored by the state and grant recipients continue to face the possibility of deportation in the middle of their studies.
By now, one can safely assume that Harris’s once nebulous commitment to “social cohesion” is more than a rhetorical flourish – and this week’s announcement should assuredly be commended and welcomed. But if the new department is truly willing to make higher education accessible to all, then it must do much more for those who are, as things stand, effectively locked out of the system.