Students brace themselves for harsh new economic reality

 

In the third of a regular round table discussion on education matters, institute of technology students ponder a new Ireland of recession, emigration and college fees

THE abolition of fees and the blossoming of the institutes of technology have made higher education possible for a much wider community of students. Families have broken new ground, with many seeing sons and daughters gaining the first degree-level qualification in the household. This week’s student round table brings three such pioneers together to discuss fees, finances and their futures as they graduate into a troubled economy.

BREAKING THE MOULD

Deirdre Byrne is one of few from her school who went to college. In the dying days of the boom she wondered if she had made the right decision.

“Friends of mine from school wave to me from their cars as I cycle to college in the rain. They’ve been working in banks and accountancy firms and have bought the houses and flatscreen TVs. For years I felt like I was way behind everyone else, but a lot of their partners have now lost jobs and the women are supporting them.”

Byrne says that college was not the done thing in her school, and her fellow round table participants, Alan O’Connor and Stephen O’Shaughnessy, also come from parts of the city where the transfer rate from school to third level is patchy.

“The newspapers give the impression that everyone’s going to college, because they only ever write about a small number of schools,” says O’Connor. “In my school in Ringsend very few people filled out the CAO form. I couldn’t believe it when a friend of mine in college said that is her school everyone had to fill it out, whether they knew what they wanted or not. It was just expected of you.”

Byrne says that when she was in third year local manufacturing industries came into her school and convinced a number of students to leave after the Junior Cert and take jobs in factories. “One of my friends has been working in the same factory since she was 15,” she says. “There was just no emphasis on the Leaving in my school. My parents hardly noticed I was doing it.”

Like O’Connor, Byrne only noticed how the other half live when she got to third level. “A friend was telling me how her parents promised her a car if she did well in the Leaving. That didn’t happen in my school.”

All three students question the wisdom of incentivising people to go to college when the students themselves are not motivated. “There’s a lot of wastage in the system,” says O’Shaughnessy. “The State is paying for people to be in college who don’t really want to be there, or who have taken up the wrong course. When I left school, I started physics and maths in DIT. It was my third choice and I had no idea what was involved. I dropped out.”

Byrne had the same experience. “I applied for the Trinity Access programme in sixth year and got into college. I only lasted six months – I wasn’t on the right course at all.”

All three students are the first in their families to do a degree. It’s not a wholly positive experience, Byrne admits. “There’s a lot of guilt, especially when members of your family are losing their jobs and have no qualifications. You feel like you should be out earning. When you do graduate, you feel like you’re leaving people behind.”

O’Shaughnessy is the youngest of six and the only one who has gone to college. “I don’t really know where this is taking me, but it’s progress. I have a sense of going somewhere. Work was like Groundhog Day, every day.”

THE RETURN OF FEES

Alan O’Connor of IT Tallaght believes the return of fees will hamper people with designs on third level. “As it is, most people in my class pay their own registration fees and have to work to raise them. I don’t know how many people will be able to work the hours it would take to pay four times that amount or more. People will probably borrow, or put off college for few years to work and raise money first. The system has been equalised to a great extent over the last few years but I’m worried it will all be undone in a matter of weeks.”

O’Connor says there is a great diversity of students on campus in IT Tallaght and the overall numbers coming to the college have risen sharply in recent years. He believes that free fees have helped to make that happen.

Byrne, who left a job in Superquinn to study full time, contends that she would not have been able to go to college if there were fees. “Funds will have to be raised from students somehow,” she says resignedly. “But asking students to take outright loans is not very appealing: not all graduate jobs are high earning. If the financial fallout from studying is too severe, people won’t go for lower paid professions such as teaching and nursing.”

O’Shaughnessy worked in the free fees section of the Department of Education before returning to college and he can see both sides of the issue. “The Department is poorly resourced and revenue has to come from somewhere, but ultimately I believe in the principle of free education for all. I certainly wouldn’t be in college now if it wasn’t for free fees: my wife is supporting me at the moment.”

None of the three students has much of an appetite for demonstration. “I wouldn’t oppose students and workers getting out on the street to voice their opposition, but to be honest I don’t see what it can achieve,” says O’Shaughnessy.

STUDYING IN A RECESSION

O’Shaughnessy has no regrets about returning to college, even though he may not get the job he wants at the end of it. “When I took a career break, decentralisation was underway. If I had stayed in the Department I would have been sent to Mullingar – there was no way I would settle for that.” Despite the uncertainty of the private sector and the high levels of job losses, he still wants out of the public sector.

“The system of promotion in the civil service is demotivating. It doesn’t matter how hard you try, you will not get promoted ahead of someone with more years’ service than you. There’s no incentive to make an effort. There are people doing as little as possible, knowing that their jobs are safe.”

The trouble for O’Shaughnessy is that he is not guaranteed to land a good job in the private sector when he graduates in 2010, so a secure position in the Department may be hard to turn down. “If I could afford it, I would stay in the system and do a Master’s in computing. My goal is not to make lots of money. I’m looking for job satisfaction.”

Byrne has been forced to recalibrate her expectations in the past 12 months as well. “I work in five-year plans,” she says. “My plan when I started this degree was to get the qualification, get a job and then start the next five-year plan, which would include starting a family,” says Byrne, who admits her partner might be reading this with some surprise. “Now the most realistic option is to stay in college, spend my savings on a Master’s and wait out the recession. The second is to go to Canada in September. The third, which is looking less likely, is to get a job in IT here in Ireland. The fourth, which was never on my list before, is to go on the dole.”

One thing Byrne won’t do is regret her decision to go back to college.

“Superquinn is letting people go at the moment. If I was not studying I could be one of those people, and I would be out of a job with no qualification.” Her family has been hit hard by the recession. Both her father and her brother worked in construction and both have lost their jobs. “Neither of them have any qualifications, so they don’t know what to do next.”

Byrne has signed her father up for an eight-week Digital Media course in It Blanchardstown. “It won’t get him a job, but it’s keeping up his confidence and he’s really enjoying it,” she says.

O’Connor has worked hard to get onto his science programme, repeating his Leaving and taking up chemistry the second time round to ensure that he got in. He’s not going to change tack now, but he admits that compromise might be necessary. “When I started four years ago there were loads of jobs in the pharmaceutical sector, so I thought that would always be a fall back if I couldn’t work in a hospital setting. Now there is little certainty on any sector. I’ve sent out a load of CVs, but have had no response yet. I’ll keep trying until September and then I’ll head to Canada.”

O’Connor has looked into the option of doing a PhD, but he has noticed that there are more opportunities than ever in post-doctoral research in his area. “All the PhD graduates must be planning on waiting it out as well,” he says.

POINTING THE FINGER

Byrne is philosophical about the economic fortunes of the country she grew up in. “You can’t blame any one group,” she says. “I feel bad that my Dad and my brother have lost their jobs, but they made money in the boom and spent it like everyone else. Everyone has a personal responsibility for what happened.”

O’Connor still believes that the banks are getting off too lightly. “They handed out the mortgages and now they will take the houses back. The problem they created will be moved on; the state will have to take care of the people that are put out of their homes. Meanwhile no one is really taking any pain at the top level for the bad decisions that were made. It’s not just a matter of principle, it’s practical too. The fallout from this will be paid for by the taxpayer for years to come.” Stephen is a homeowner with a mortgage to pay, so he feels as vulnerable as many in the country right now. “The banks, the builders and politicians were all in cahoots. Everyone fed into the false economy. We were warned for years about how precarious the whole thing was but we kept buying and borrowing and building. We’re all responsible for this.”

As Alan sits on the bus to college each morning he sees a guy he knows driving by in his BMW. “I used to envy the guy, but now I feel sorry for him. I know he’s lost his job in property sales and he’s probably saddled with a huge car loan. I wouldn’t swap seats with him now.”


The Students' tales: how they got here

ALAN O'CONNOR

Alan is a fourth year science student at the Institute of Technology, Tallaght. The 23 year-old will soon graduate, but his ambition to work in radiation therapy is uncertain now that the public health sector has stopped recruiting and the private pharmaceutical sector is retracting.

O’Connor has specialised in biological analysis and has worked hard for four years doing an average of 38 hours contact time in college as well as supporting himself, working part-time in retail.

“I keep up the swimming, but apart from that I’ve no time for hobbies,” says O’Connor, who wants to work in area to which he has committed himself the last four years.

“I’ve sent out a good few CVs but as yet I’ve had no response. If I haven’t had an answer by September, I’ll have to leave.”

O’Connor is from Irishtown in Dublin and is the first member of his family to go to college. He repeated his Leaving Cert to study biology and chemistry.

His dream job is to work in a hospital setting.

DEIDRE BYRNE

In September, Byrne will graduate from a degree programme in business and IT in the Blanchardstown Institute of Technology. Byrne took three years to get from school to college: she went travelling in Australia after her Leaving Cert and came back to work in Superquinn head office.

She wanted to move up the management ladder, but couldn’t do it without a degree. That’s when she opted for a full-time, four-year degree course.

Byrne has struggled to support herself in college, but is glad to have made it, as a number of family members have lost their jobs in the last year, and without qualifications they are finding it hard to get back on their feet.

She had planned take up a job in IT after graduation, but is now considering other options, such as a Master’s programme or emigration.

STEPHEN O'SHAUGHNESSY

Dublin father of two Stephen O’Shaughnessy spent 10 years working as a civil servant in the Department of Education and Science before he decided to go to the Institute of Technology, Blanchardstown to study information technology full-time. Now in third year, he has a year left of his career break from the Department before he has to make a decision about what to do next. He hopes to move into the private sector eventually.

O’Shaughnessy would like to stay in education after he graduates, but he is not sure if his wife can continue to support him. They have made significant sacrifices to make college a reality. Stephen gets up a 6am on the weekends to fit study around family life and he knows that if he leaves the public sector he will have to take a pay cut.

“I’ll make it work. Job satisfaction is what I’m interested in,” he says.