The Department of Education has lowered the eligibility criteria for a scheme which enables asylum seeker students to go on to third level education here. 

The change comes amid criticism that the programme was too restrictive. 

School leavers applying to the Student Support Scheme must now have spent three years in the Irish education system, as opposed to five years as was previously required. 

The new measures have been been welcomed by the Irish Refugee Council, which campaigned for the change.

In a statement it said that the old criteria meant that students who had completed their Junior and Leaving Certificates in Ireland, but who had completed their entire second level education in Ireland could not go to college, unless they could find a private backer to pay the substantial fees required, as well as living costs.

Since the programme was first introduced in 2015 just six students have been deemed to have fulfilled its criteria and have been able to avail of it.

In a statement announcing the scheme for this year the Department said it had been altered "in light of a review which indicated that a requirement to have been in school in Ireland for at least five years was too restrictive".

The change means that more asylum seeker students will now be eligible for student grants and will not have to pay the international fees rate which can amount to €11,000 or more depending on the course. 

The scheme is open to school leavers who are in the asylum process or who have applied for leave to remain.

It does not cover those subject to a deportation order. 

Minister for Education Joe McHugh said his Department was opening the scheme earlier this year in order to give students adequate time to apply.

Mr McHugh said he would encourage everyone who fulfils the criteria and is considering continuing their education to apply and gain the support they may need to access new opportunities for their future.

In what it called a "warm welcome" for the change, the Irish Refugee Council said third level education had been out of reach for many people in the asylum system for far too long. 

CEO Nick Henderson said; "No matter how high your points, the financial burden meant that young people were left behind while their friends went on to university". 

The council also welcomed this year's earlier opening of the scheme. It said the changes would extend access to education and benefit more students seeking asylum in Ireland.