Higher education institutions and students fuel industries, contribute to our economy, develop and enrich public spaces and help us to realise ideas and solutions to issues in our society and make it better.
As student activists, over the last number of years we have taken to the streets and lobbied against the chronic underfunding of our higher education sector, to little response from the government.
The can has been kicked down the road and Cassells’ report - which set out options for the future funding of higher education - is gathering dust.
Despite this lack of investment, universities appear to be doing well. UCD is back to pre-crash levels of funding overall and ever expanding and pouring concrete.
Ranking positions may be falling, but non-EU student numbers are rising and, somehow, ends are met. The progress of our institutions, of course, lies in their ability to get money from other places. UCD currently sources more than 60 per cent of its income from non-exchequer sources, and other institutions are in similar situations.
This depletion in public funds results in a depletion in accountability, and it is having a detrimental effect on the progression of the core goals of higher education. This must be addressed urgently by the next government.
At present, universities are using non-exchequer funding to benefit the university progressing as a business and not to promote the goals of public good. Our education is now a commodity.
Commodified education institutions do not have to care about the welfare of students as a top priority.
They can turn around and say if you cannot afford it, do not come here. If you struggle with finances or otherwise while in college, drop out. If the two or four-hour daily commutes each way become overwhelming, well, you applied to come here. We did not invite you. It is a toxic, privileged and self serving sentiment.
When education is a product, and students merely customers, factors such as the public good or the wellbeing of students on campus, become secondary objectives.
The institution is run like a massive business for those who can afford to avail of its service. Becoming accessible to everyone and providing an equal opportunity to attend higher education and succeed in it is not the priority; it’s less profitable.
The numbers of students from lower socio-economic backgrounds attending higher education remain low.
The numbers of single parents accessing higher education remain low.
The numbers of travellers in higher education remain low.
Additionally, for those who do make it to university, Susi and maintenance grants have not increased and don’t reflect the cost of living as a student in the slightest.
Dublin has already become a city for students who either live within a “reasonable” commuting distance, or whose families can afford to pay for the extortionate rents in this city. If not, you have to go elsewhere, or delay attending university.
Our universities are only accountable to the public good if we are funding them. If we want Ireland to live up to the ambition of equality, our next government has to start treating this chronic commercialisation of higher education as a massive barrier to social justice and equality and begin to plug the gap in public funding for universities immediately.
The benefits of investing in education are incredible.
From research that will revolutionise our healthcare system, our approach to the climate crisis, our understanding of society - to allowing people from all walks of life and all experiences to teach and learn together within and outside the classroom.
Universities have the capacity to foster creativity, critical thinking and empathy and that has to be at the forefront of their business - not profitability of different activities.
Joanna Siewierska, President, UCD Students’ Union