Bang for your buck? Finance is one of the factors which can hold students back

The costs of college are particularly high for students living in rented or student accommodation

 

During Leaving Cert results week last year, Minister for Education Joe McHugh caused controversy when he suggested families who could not afford university – particularly the cost of student accommodation – should consider “regional options”.

McHugh’s comments were criticised by Fianna Fáil and the Union of Students in Ireland. USI vice-president for education Craig McHugh pointed out that the grant system had not changed in nearly a decade and that the average payout of €336 per month is significantly below what was needed to cover rent, let alone other costs.

Going to college, however, is expensive. Indeed, it’s the most expensive part of a person’s education and, besides a mortgage, may be the single biggest cost in the average life. So how can students make sure they get value for money from their institution – and avoid pouring money down the drain?

The costs of college

Dr Claire Bohan is director of student support and development at Dublin City University and her role covers personal development, counselling, student health, academic supports, workplace career development and access for students with disabilities, students from disadvantaged backgrounds and mature students.

“Accommodation is one of the biggest budgeting challenges and there is no cheap way of doing it,” she says. “It comes down to figuring out how to make it as affordable as possible. Here at DCU, we have quite a few students who commute, and it may in some cases be cheaper or more practical for them to get a car despite insurance, tax and petrol costs.

“Rent and transport are the biggest costs facing students but, in terms of their college week, they could potentially get through it with as little as €10,” Bohan says (see Dr Bohan’s budgeting tips below).

Bohan has seen many students who did not realise how financially challenging third-level could be, especially mature students who have families at home. “Being on a Susi grant while there is no money coming through the door is really hard. We can help them to budget, and we run budgeting workshops and do all we can to help the pennies stretch. We have a food bank, run by the Enactus Society, where students in need can get non-perishables such as rice, pasta, peas and beans, sugar, tea and jars of sauce.”

At Trinity College, Dr Cliona Hannon is director of the Trinity Access Programme, which supports students from areas with low progression routes to higher education to get a place in college. Hannon is widely regarded as one of the most genuinely committed and talented professionals working to break down the barriers that prevent all young people from availing of the same educational opportunities.

“A lot of students need support from the St Vincent de Paul, and institutions can provide assistance, through the European Social Fund for students in hardship,” she says. “Applying through the Higher Education Access Route programme [for students from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds] can, at least, provide some with extra support. There has been a 43 per cent reduction in the State funding for students over the last decade and this has to be plugged somehow. We talk of a mental-health crisis, but students have a lot to be anxious about. We should not be in this situation, but we are, so knowing in advance of the possible costs is important.”

Can students ultimately get value for money from their student fee? Many would say this is a transactional question that reduces education to just another commodity or service that has to be paid for in the marketplace. Students have traditionally fought against college fees, although the “student contribution fee” is, in effect, a student fee by any other name. Still, with successive governments reluctant to grasp the nettle of how to properly fund Ireland’s creaking universities, institutes of technology and colleges, and various reports into how to fund the system gathering dust on a shelf, there’s no immediate sign of change on the horizon.

With this in mind, Bohan urges students to make the most of all the services that third-levels provide. “Counsellors, nurses, doctors, career advisers, support officers, the students’ union, clubs and societies, a sports complex, academic writing centres and maths support centres, graduate recruitment days with employers flocking to meet them – these are all part of the college experience.”

Barriers to third-level

Finance is one of the factors which holds students back, as well as the inbuilt advantages students from wealthier backgrounds have through fee-paying schools, private grinds and previous generations of the family having attended third-level and understanding how to navigate the system.

In her new book, Capital, Capabilities and Culture: A Human Development Approach to Student and School Transformation, Dr Hannon highlights 20 years of data which shows that students from disadvantaged schools or backgrounds who had made it to third-level, usually through access programmes, had done very well there and also had good career outcomes.

“We conceived a programme with our partner schools, connecting every student with an access mentor, organising leadership projects and creating a postgraduate course that would help teachers think differently about how they teach and to create active, engaged and democratised classrooms,” Hannon says.

Part of this programme has involved arming second-level students with information about college courses, the costs they might encounter and the supports that are available.

“We tracked the impact over three years. We wanted to show what students would be capable of if they had all the supports they needed to make their post-secondary choices, whatever those choices were. Students from backgrounds [where family members or friends haven’t tended to go to college] don’t really know the costs of college or even what subjects they might need to get there. This gap can’t necessarily be filled by guidance provision where guidance counsellors are focused on personal counselling due to a rise in mental-health problems among young people.

“With some one-bed places going for €1,600 per month, you’d need to be well-heeled to attend college unless, perhaps, you have a third-level on your doorstep. By and large, Dublin universities have a demographic of young people from well-educated professional backgrounds and they can live at home. However much politicians might say we need diversity, they still only want particular kids to go to apprenticeships, and many people still only want their kids to go to Trinity or UCD.”

Apprenticeships

Apprenticeships are also a route to a level 6, 7 or 8 degree for students who could not otherwise afford to go to college – or who simply don’t fancy living in penury for a few years – with apprentices paid for on-the-job learning alongside some classroom learning. More familiar and traditional apprenticeship options, such as plumbing, motor mechanics and hairdressing are growing in popularity, but so are newer or less familiar courses such as accounting technician, auctioneering and property services, cybersecurity, supply chain management and laboratory technician. And more students are having their heads turned by them. Solas and Education and Training Boards Ireland (ETBI) launched fetchcourses.ie in 2016. The Further Education and Training Course Hub offers a variety of life-long education options to anyone over 16.

Dr Bohan’s budgeting tips

– More students are bringing in their own lunch, both for financial and health reasons. This could be soup in a flask, leftovers from yesterday mixed with pasta or couscous for a salad or a familiar lunchbox with sandwiches.

– Student clubs, societies and hangout spaces may offer free tea and coffee, or sometimes provide soup and sandwiches.

– Most colleges know it’s not okay to ask students to buy books that might cost €100, or to insist on particular books.

– Many (if not most) students work part-time jobs. Up to 15 hours a week shouldn’t get in the way of their studies and, indeed, this work experience provides students with skills that are very valuable for their CV, including presentation, communication, teamwork and simply showing up on time. Many third-levels, including DCU, try to provide their own students with part-time work too, including working in shops and cafes or being student ambassadors.

– Student societies and sports clubs run a range of free events throughout the year. While there is almost always a joining fee, it’s usually as low as €2. Of course, trips away and big nights out will cost money, but there’s plenty of smaller get-togethers and events through the year, including guest speakers, debates, drama, writing workshops, LGBTIQ+ coffee mornings, lunchtime kickabouts, games and other fun distractions to get involved in too.

Been there, done that: Dan McFarlane

“I don’t like the idea of whether we are getting bang for our buck. Education is a public service, not a cash exchange.

There are lots of hidden costs that you don’t know about until you come to college. Sometimes you have to buy a laptop, as I did for my film and English literature degree. Medical students have placement costs and have to pay for travel and the cost of sustaining themselves.

Almost everyone I know had a part-time job during college. Nobody was getting rich off it; it was just pushing them along to the next week. We had to try and balance out the work and study hours, with everyone working at weekends, evenings or both.

But there are always events on campus where you can get free food, or soup and sandwiches at the chaplaincy. It might not be luxury, but it can sustain you. Trinity were always very good at highlighting where you can get discounts for a range of things, including medicine.

The Susi grant is small in the grand scheme of things. We need a grant increase which more realistically reflects the price of living.”

Dan McFarlane is a graduate of Trinity College and works as a project officer with the Trinity Access Programme