Annie Hoey is President of the Union of Students in Ireland (USI).
The Cassells report proposed three different options to the higher education funding issues. The option given the most attention, both in the media and in the report itself, is the proposed loan scheme. Probably because it’s different, terrifying and brings more problems than it solves. While the loan scheme is indeed an impractical proposal, it’s important for us to also look at positive options, like the publicly-funded higher education option, and entertain real solutions.
The Cassells report, published this morning, suggested that the current situation in third level education funding is unsustainable and that the existing state of affairs – referring to the dramatically decreased government funding, and a €3,000 student registration fee – is not an appropriate or endurable option.
The three main suggested solutions for funding third level education in Ireland included a publicly-funded higher education system, which included abolishing the current registration fee, with an increase in funding from state coffers and increased contribution made by employers; maintaining the status quo with increased state investment to compliment the shortfall in higher education funding; or a deferred payment loan scheme.
USI believes publicly-funded education is the best option to keep social mobility on a level playing field, strengthening the economy, reducing minimum subsistence levels and decreasing breadline anxieties. Free, accessible education is absolutely vital to practising reasoning against the illogical; keeping up with scientific, medical, technical and cultural evolution; independent and critical thinking; healthier lifestyles and living; advanced techniques for improved productivity; and challenging ethics and practises to promote peace on a national and international scale. An educated mind makes an empowered individual and it is our goal to empower those hungry for growth, knowledge and development through education. It needs to be accessible.
The second option, which more or less maintains the student quo, is insufficient. It’s not a serious enough response to the research and surveys conducted which show that students are already deterred by the registration fee, already at breaking point, and already steeped in debt and anxieties because of the cost of education. USI surveyed over 870 students across Ireland and found that 87% of students fear having to drop out of college because of the cost of education. 58.1% of students miss meals and more than a third (38.7%) of students said they go hungry to fund or stay in college.
Irish third level fees are the second highest in Europe, after the UK. Germany, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland all offer free education. The registration fee in France is €180 – €2,820 cheaper than the Irish registration fee. Publicly-funded free education is not just a nice idea. It’s a real possibility. That’s why so many other countries in Europe offer it. That’s why it’s a suggested solution in the Cassells report.
The third option, a deferred payment loan scheme, is impractical in practice and will deter students from applying to college. An already broken loan system will only further fracture the structure of the Irish education system. It will push people further away from applying to college and increase drop-out rates. According to research by DIT’s Campus Life, the current average cost of college is €11,000 annually per person. College courses can be between two years and six years, if you’re studying medicine, which amounts to €66,000. The idea of taking on a loan of €66,000 to a seventeen or eighteen-year-old, or someone who’s just finished the leaving cert, will deter them from applying to college. It doesn’t matter how they present it, a loan scheme is still a loan scheme and still has the major problems associated with loan schemes, such as widening the gap between the rich and the poor, graduate emigration and social regression. Our generation is the first generation who will be less well off than our parents – how can we possibly progress with student loan schemes becoming the norm for young people? What bank would give a mortgage to a young couple or young professional already owing tens of thousands, up to their eyes in debt because of the cost of education?
Publicly-funded free education in Ireland will be the biggest driving force behind strengthening our country and empowering the youth. The Taoiseach keeps telling us we have the fastest-growing economy in Europe. If we want to retain that pace, we need to make sure our workforce is up to speed with being at the forefront of this economy. USI is calling on Minister for Education and Skills, Richard Bruton, to take the publicly-funded higher education route which is open and accessible to all who wish to avail of it.