On a recent Thursday afternoon, Ingrid Machado, a student of film and television production at Griffith College Dublin (GCD), agreed to recount her story.

Machado is from São Paulo, Brazil. She moved to Dublin in 2018 to study in GCD. Coming from a working-class family, Machado said she was unsure about affording the annual €11,000 tuition fees for her course, but the college agreed she could pay in installments.

This past January, Machado’s father fell ill, prompting her to fly home.

She asked the college if they would postpone her payment for the month, but the request was denied.

When the Covid-19 pandemic was declared in March, Machado was temporarily laid off from her job in a Rathmines cinema, relying solely on the pandemic unemployment payment to make ends meet. Her debt to GCD began to pile up.

She now owes about €5,500 from last semester to the college, and cannot afford the €11,000 tuition fee for the new academic year. Machado said that she has no way of affording the fees, now in excess of €16,000 and her immigration permit which is reliant on college enrolment runs out in less than a week.

“They told me I could take a year off and go back to Brazil to save money, but how can I make money in a country that has over 10,000 cases of Covid-19 every day?” she said.

As classes move online to slow the spread of Covid-19, colleges across the country are facing rising demands for tuition rebates. For some international students in the city, the prospect of paying full, non-European fees for remote learning seems unjust.

Non-European Problems

Machado is not alone. Her classmate Adriana Ribeiro, who is also from São Paulo, owes nearly €19,000 to GCD. This includes an €8,000 debt and the new €11,000 annual bill.

Ribeiro, who was sitting next to her unmade bed, wearing floral trousers and a black t-shirt last Wednesday, said she lost her job as an assistant volunteer coordinator at Dublin International Film Festival once the pandemic hit. Her student visa runs out at the end of September, unable to pay her fees to register, she fears she will become undocumented, as her visa is dependant on her attending college.

Ribeiro was forced to spend €1,000 on essential dental care recently.

She said GCD obtains an insurance package for international students which only covers accidents and illnesses that require hospitalisation; therefore, she avoids essential healthcare to save money.

There is a general practitioner affiliated with GCD near the campus, but according to the college’s health and safety document, non-European students have to pay €45 per visit.

“EU/EEA students who have a European Health Insurance Card can benefit from free medical care,” the document says.

Ribeiro said that except for her course coordinator, the staff at GCD have been brief and abrupt with her.

“They only care about money,” she says.

Machado also said that even before the pandemic, five students in her class were denied access to Moodle – the college’s preferred network for submitting assignments – after falling behind on their monthly payment.

According to GCD’s website, fees arrears would result in the suspension of students’ access to Moodle, computers, and library facilities.

“Other sanctions that may be imposed by the College, including but not limited to removal from class, non-correction of assignments and denial of access to examinations,” the website says.

“I had to send them an email begging them to let me submit my assignments, and they were like ‘once we see the receipt, we can let you in’.”

Both Machado and Ribeiro feel like their course is hands-on and nearly impossible to be effectively taught online.

A spokesperson for GCD declined to comment about whether the college would consider tuition rebates for international students impacted by the pandemic. A question about the limited coverage of the college’s insurance policy for non-European students was also left unanswered.

“The College has no response to queries,” they said. “Regarding the students, if you would like to ask them to get in touch, the College can liaise with them directly.”

Not for the Experience

Meanwhile, a rebellion against high costs is brewing online among students at University College Dublin (UCD). The campaign is organised by Aaditya Shah, a recent Masters graduate of engineering management from Mumbai, India. He encouraged students, both Irish and international alike, to send emails to UCD officials asking for tuition rebates and compensations.

Shah set-up a private Facebook group called Students for Fees Compensation which so far has around 1,600 members.

He believes that students are entitled to get 30 percent of their money back for the last term, which was primarily online, and demand significant fee reductions for the new one.

Conor Anderson, president of UCD’s student union, says he met with UCD officials back in June, telling them that charging full price for what students believed was a diminished college experience, was unfair.

“They said that what students were paying was for the degree and not the experience,” he said.

Anderson said the argument contradicts allUCD marketing, like their 2020 international student recruitment campaign, posted to YouTube on 11 August.

“If you look at their marketing, it’s all about the Irish experience, the European experience, and amenities in UCD,” he said.

Shah said that, in a way, international students sponsor the education of their Irish and European peers, yet universities refuse to acknowledge their concerns.

“They talked to us as if we were unknowns, international students pay such high fees, and that is why the local students have subsidised education, that’s what I came to realise,” he said.

Shah said he had little on-campus networking opportunities, this year, something he had banked on when moving to Dublin.

“What we paid was for an on-campus education and gaining global exposure. This was the prominent reason I had joined UCD,” he said.

Shah said he especially worries about veterinary medicine students in UCD whose tuition fees have increased by nearly €1,000, this year.

Meghan McIlwaine is one of those students. McIlwaine, who is from Ontario, Canada, said that not only have her tuition fees increased to €38,000 a year,but according to her term schedule for this semester all her classes are online

“And there is a student-centre levy of €254 which we may not even get to use if Dublin locks down again,” she said.

She has drafted a petition, demanding tuition rebates and compensation from the veterinary school, signed by 26 people in her class.

“They basically told us they couldn’t do anything because their costs stayed the same,” she said.

McIlwaine says that she’s had to buy more equipment for the incoming year too because she won’t be permitted to go to the university to use their material.

UCD did not respond to a request for comment.

Over-Reliance on International Fees

People Before Profit TD Richard Boyd Barrett, says the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the inefficacy of decades-long overreliance on international fees.

“I think students asking for 30 percent compensation is quite reasonable,” says Boyd Barrett.

Now that the UK has left the European Union, Ireland hasthe highest third-level education fees in Europe. The international student market in Ireland may be worth more than €385 million, per year according to recent research commissioned by the Irish Universities Association.

Boyd Barrett said he hadn’t received any correspondence from international students that would prompt him to raise the issue at the Dáil.

“I would absolutely encourage international students to write to their local TDs,” he said.

A spokesperson for the Department of Education and Skills says they allocate funding to third-level students in different forms, namely through theFree Fees Initiative.

To qualify for the scheme, one must be a citizen of a European country.

A spokesperson for Quality and Qualification Ireland – a state agency that sets out university awards and standards

“Fees charged for education and training provision, whether face-to-face or online, are part of a private contract between a provider and a student,” they said.

Green Party Councillor Daniel Whooley, says he was disappointed with his party’s silence on the issue.

“You can’t suggest that people pay all that money just for a piece of paper […] international students pay such high fees, and they can’t access grants that are available to Irish or European students,” he said.

Meanwhile, Anderson said that if students organised in unison and fearlessly expressed their demands, colleges would have no choice but to relent.

McIlwaine agrees. She said nothing would stop her from fighting for her peers’ rights, even if the college retaliates by grading her down.

“My father is a union steward at his job, he raised me to fight for the little guy,” she said.

Shamim Malekmian covers the immigration beat for Dublin Inquirer. Reach her at shamim@dublininquirer.com

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