An unwelcome education
An experienced teacher and scholar, Parag Deshpande was happy to be offered a PhD scholarship at the University of Limerick. But he couldn't have his wife and child too. He tells Rashmi Sawhney how Ireland coveted his mind, but wouldn't let him bring his life with him
When Parag Deshpande came to Limerick in September 2004, he had little idea that it would take two years of struggle before he could bring his wife and son to Ireland.
Parag had been teaching design for several years at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, where some of India's best creative minds are nurtured, when he was offered a PhD scholarship by Professor Liam Bannon at the Interaction Design Centre (IDC) at the University of Limerick.
Parag's wife, Sadhana, decided to give up her career as an IT entrepreneur to accompany him to Ireland. In anticipation of their move, they decided not to enroll their three-year-old son, Akshat, in a school in India.
They were in for a shock. “When I arrived in Ireland, I discovered that I had to live here for a year before Sadhana and Akshat could even apply for visas,” Parag says.
The couple glumly reconciled to the idea of a year's separation, and Sadhana began to teach Akshat at home, because it was difficult to secure admission in any school by this time.
But Parag soon learned the situation was even darker, and murkier, than he had thought. “I searched various online resources, including www.irelandinindia.com, the website of the Irish Embassy in India, to gain clarity on how to bring my family here but could find little information to help my case. While visa application guidelines were available for spouses of work-permit holders, there was nothing at all for spouses of students.”
He enquired directly with the embassy: he was eventually told that Sadhana and Akshat could not apply for a visa at all, since Parag was not “employed” in Ireland.
At this point, Parag contacted the Researchers Mobility Network, a body that helps link up researchers coming to or from Ireland. After further probing, he found he could indeed apply for his spouse's visa, as his PhD was part of a funded project.
However, just because they could apply doesn't mean they would succeed: Sadhana's application was turned down because the family would have inadequate income in Ireland. The Irish embassy informed the Deshpandes that although the funds they showed in support of their applications were sufficient, Parag was required to have an income of €447 per week to support his family.
Where does this figure come from? In comparison, social-welfare provides a maximum of €185.80 per week as unemployment benefit for an adult, with an additional payment of €123.30 for a low-earning spouse and €22 for each child – making a total of about €330 for a family like Parag's.
So, the amount a full time student is expected to earn to support his/her spouse and child is about 35 percent more than the amount the State itself sees fit to provide for a family of two adults and a child.
An income of €447 per week is also 83 per cent higher than the generous postgraduate scholarships offered by the Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences, which are generally valued at €12,700 per annum, or €244 per week.
Not only is it difficult to find any justification for this figure of €447, there does not appear to be any published information available on the income level necessary for students to support their families in Ireland at the time of making visa applications.
According to business website Finfacts, 6.7 percent of students in third-level education in Ireland are categorised as “international”; and according to the most recent report on international students published by Education Ireland, 57 per cent of these are from non-EU countries.
Dr Liam O'Dochartaigh, director of the International Education Division at UL, says Irish universities are getting conflicting messages from the government. While, on the one hand, they are being encouraged to attract more international students, visa-regulation policies are being not being addressed at a pace that supports this increase in intake.
The question is more than merely bureaucratic. The stress generated by the uncertainty about joining her husband devastated Sadhana's health, leading to the onset of an arthritic condition called spondylitis. She is now unable to lift heavy objects and often feels a sense of numbness on the left side of her body.
“More than anything,” says Sadhana, “I regret not being able to provide regular education to Akshat for over two years because of having to put our lives on hold while waiting for the visas to be granted.
“I also felt very frustrated at having closed down my business and ended my career to sit around waiting for the visa. It was pointless to try to re-establish the company after initially winding down the business as I was expecting to be able to join Parag soon,” she says.
Sadhana and Akshat re-applied for a visa in 2006, this time supporting their applications with a letter from Dr Liam Bannon at UL, stating that the IDC would generate additional work for Parag to increase his income. This was acceptable to the State, and after two years of constant struggle, Sadhana and Akshat finally came to Ireland last September.
Although the family is now reunited, they don't think they will stay in Ireland for much longer. “These initial experiences have made a permanent impression on us,” says Parag. He is emphatic about advising Asian students against considering Ireland as an option for university education.
“In the long run it is a waste of time and the hassle involved in getting visas is just not worth it,” he says. His conclusion is devastating, given that Ireland is seriously competing for recognition as a quality destination in the international education market.
He says the lack of transparency and the unavailability of information regarding visas for students' families result in a lot of wasted time and energy, which would be better spent in undertaking academic research.
Cases such as those of Parag's raise questions about the government's commitment to students and to its vision of the role education plays in the development of the country. Beyond considering students from non-EU countries as “cash cows” who can be asked to pay high fees, it needs to be realised that students also need to have basic rights which will enable them to make the most of their educational opportunities in Ireland.
This article and the photograph accompanying it were produced with support from the Forum on Migration and Communications (FOMACS), a partnership of NGOs in the immigration field with the Centre for Transcultural Research and Media Practice at Dublin Institute of Technology. Contact email@example.com