This month more than 50,000 students received CAO offers for places in third-level colleges amid a national accommodation crisis, with many wondering how they will find accommodation in the face of rising rents and a housing shortage.
The problems students face mirror those of Irish society. Universities are a part of – and not apart from – our society. Students face the same problems of social inclusion, welfare and housing as the society in which they live.
And, in turn, the quality of opportunities we offer them and the research we do potentially addresses many of the current major challenges faced by our society through our collective contribution to social inclusion, a more balanced regional development and the development of a new generation of talent.
In areas such as social policy, healthcare, human rights and law, we provide a critical counterpoint in a society marked by marginalisation.
At NUI Galway, our location allows us to contribute to social and economic development beyond the gravity of a capital city.
Our connections nationally and internationally in culture and commerce create, through our research and teaching, an increased and more diverse talent pool of graduates.
This year is the 50th anniversary of the death of Donogh O’Malley who was minister for education in the 1960s. A graduate of NUI Galway, O’Malley pioneered access to second-level education, both financially (through making it free to intermediate level) and geographically (through the introduction of the school transport scheme).
Since free second-level education was introduced 50 years ago, the number of students at primary level in Ireland has remained broadly the same.
The numbers at second level have nearly doubled (from 197,000 to 357,000), due to increased population and participation.
What a difference this has made to our society, providing new opportunities, as we see this month, for each new generation.
In the meantime, the numbers at third level have increased more than seven-fold, from less than 25,000 students in 1969 to more than 181,000 now. The reach and reputation of our research has also increased immeasurably over that time. Somewhere along the way, society – and the parents of Ireland – decided that this was a good idea.
NUI Galway has the highest percentage of students of any university living away from home and the highest percentage in receipt of a Susi grant (which provides a maximum payment of €3,000 to eligible applicants). Our Centre for Adult Learning and Professional Development – 50 years in existence next year – provides university programmes for nearly 1,800 adult and part-time learners. This presents challenges in terms of infrastructure and support but, most of all, an opportunity for a life-changing inflection point for those individuals and for our society.
Society is shaped and served by our universities. We exist not for us, but for our students. They are our most profound impact. They are our hands and our voice. Our story is therefore not about us, but about our students. They compete with the best in the world – and so must we.
Our students are also voters. Founded in the mid-1960s, the first president of NUI Galway's Students' Union was Michael D Higgins. As in the 1960s, our students have once again found their voice as manifest in recent referendums, two seismic shifts in Irish society with roots firmly embedded in youth activism.
A generation of the informed and impassioned is fast arriving again, leading our society sooner than we might think, wishing to make a different society than the one left behind by the generation before. If they are not supported through investment in education in these formative years, how can we expect our society to flourish and our economy to serve the common good into the future?
Donogh O’Malley is still remembered. His political legacy remains. A consequence of a bold political move more than 50 years ago.
There is an opportunity for a political legacy for the current generation of political leaders. How will they be remembered in 50 years’ time? For boldly crossing that final frontier, and investing in education at another level for a new generation?
Prof Ciarán Ó hÓgartaigh is president of NUI Galway, Lorcán Ó Maoileannaigh is the immediate past president of NUI Galway Students’ Union and Megan Reilly is the president of NUI Galway Students’ Union.