Budget sees slew of measures to ease education costs - but long-term funding issues remain

Budget 2023: Schools and universities say they will continue to suffer from chronic underfunding despite record investment

The bulk of announcements in this year’s education budget share one key aim: easing the costs facing families and schools in the teeth of a cost-of-living crisis.

So, has it delivered on this front? And it is enough to compensate for soaring inflation?

If judged by volume alone, there is no shortage of announcements to tackle immediate costs – but the sector will remain underfunded compared to most of our European neighbours.

One of the most eye-catching measures is the free schoolbooks initiative at primary level, which is worth an average of about €110 a year per child.


The measure has long been sought by campaigners who have criticised the fact that Ireland’s “free” education system is expensive when schoolbooks, uniforms, voluntary contributions and extracurricular activities are factored in.

One puzzling question is why has it taken so long to deliver: the cost – €42 million – is relatively inexpensive when set against an education budget of almost €10 billion.

There are still questions over how it will work – will it be enough to cover the real costs? Will parents end up forking out to cover gaps? However, Minister for Education Norma Foley’s announcement drew a rare and unqualified welcome on Tuesday.

There is still a journey to go in cutting other costs such as voluntary contributions and schoolbooks/iPads at second level, but most will see the announcement as a long-awaited step in the right direction.

If costs at primary and second level are high, they are higher still in higher education.

The €3,000 student contribution fee means third level education in Ireland is the most expensive in the EU, not to mind soaring rents and high fuel costs for commuting students.

Simon Harris’s pledge to ease costs has, however, finally come to pass: the student contribution fee will be cut by €1,000 for all students for the 2022/23 academic year as a “once-off” measure.

It will be welcomed, in particular, by middle-income families; those who see themselves as qualifying for nothing but paying for everything.

For the tens of thousands of students in receipt of maintenance grants – some 40 per cent of all undergraduates – there is also good news; there will be a once-off double payment – equivalent to one month’s payment – made to Susi recipients this December.

Significantly, the student maintenance grant will increase by between 10 and 14 per cent from January. This is equivalent to several hundred euro. For example, students from the poorest households will see grant increases of about €850 per year.

These are much-needed improvements given the spiralling cost of accommodation and travel for many students.

However, despite the scale of the giveaway budget, many schools and universities are likely to feel let down. Many argue that they have been chronically underfunded for years and that austerity-era cuts remain, despite Government ambitions to create the “best education system in Europe”.

Schools will share in a €90 million fund to compensate for the cost of energy following Tuesday’s Budget announcement.

But it remains to be seen if this will go far enough to meet alarming increases in the cost of electricity, gas and oil for schools that – in many cases – rely on fundraising and voluntary contributions to make ends meet.

The question of whether this additional funding will come in the form of increased capitation payments, or a once-off-grant, will be significant for schools in terms of ongoing funding.

Universities, too, will feel hard done by in the Budget, given their raised expectations in recent months.

A Government policy paper on the future funding of higher education, published last May, accepted that the sector was underfunded and needed more than €300 million in additional core funding.

However, the Irish Universities Association estimates that only €40 million – or 13 per cent of the funding gap – is being made available to tackle this deficit despite a “crisis” facing the sector.

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent