Change one thing: Create a decent grant system to give Ireland’s third-level students a chance

‘The sad reality of a flawed and insufficient grant system.’ Photograph: Alan Betson

‘The sad reality of a flawed and insufficient grant system.’ Photograph: Alan Betson

Tue, Oct 8, 2013, 01:00

The student maintenance grant is a lifeline for thousands attending college. The one change I want is a reliable and decent grant system that would make third-level accessible to all.

In Ireland in 2013 no parent should have to decide which, if any, of their children they can afford to send to college.

No teenager preparing for the Leaving Certificate should be put in a position where they know that, no matter how hard they work or how well they do, furthering their education will never be an option.

A flawed and insufficient grant system, pared back in the past four budgets, makes this a sad reality. It must change.

Higher education is not public spending. It is a public investment in the future of this country and it offers a guaranteed social and economic return. As Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin said: “Education is the driver of our recovery.” Society as a whole benefits from this investment.

Graduates are more likely to become employers. They will pay considerably more tax over their lifetimes and make an economic contribution far greater than the initial State investment.

However, the constrained economic climate, unemployment and squeezed family incomes, the increasing costs of going to college and reduced student supports have created a perfect storm. Many hard-pressed students and families now face very serious financial decisions.

The Union of Students in Ireland (USI) firmly believes there should be no financial barriers to third-level education. Young people must know that the only factor influencing their entry to college is their academic ability. The student maintenance grant is the central plank of our national strategy to make this a reality.

In 2011, the grant system was described by officials in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform as being “generally regarded as insufficient to meet the maintenance costs of going to college”. Two budgets and two cuts later, the situation has worsened.

At an average of €84 a week, the maintenance grant is less than the very lowest rate of jobseekers’ allowance of €100, meaning that for many, dropping out and going on the dole would leave them better off. That is especially true when you factor in rent costs for many students.

In the past, some students could supplement the grant with part-time work or parental support. But the economic crash has shut these supports off in many cases.

The devastation caused by last year’s SUSI debacle, which saw thousands of the poorest students waiting months for their maintenance payments, achieved one thing. It showed once and for all how important the grant is to students and families up and down the country.

The grant system is deeply flawed, insufficient for the poorest in our society and in dire need of reform.

But in spite of all these flaws, it
remains the one thing that keeps tens of thousands of our brightest students
afloat long enough to become the highly skilled, qualified graduates our economy relies on.

I know this because without the grant my education would have ended at 18.

Both the rate and the thresholds of the student maintenance grant must be protected in next week’s budget. Otherwise, talented students will drop out and their loss will hurt us for years to come.

The students of Ireland are urging the Government to support families that are being squeezed from every side, to support an education system that is reaching breaking point and to put their faith in the future drivers of Ireland’s economy.

If incremental cuts to the grant continue, it will soon no longer serve its purpose. This will hurt individuals but it will also create structural problems that will be impossible to fix for years to come. Now is the time for a momentum shift, back towards a grant system that works.


Joe O’Connor is the president of the Union of Students in Ireland