Students to hold street protest over return of fees and cuts to assistance

 

MORE THAN 20,000 students are expected to take to the streets of Dublin today to oppose the reintroduction of third-level fees and highlight the role they feel education should play in any economic recovery plan.

Students from third-level institutions across the country are expected to participate in the protest organised by the Union of Students in Ireland (USI).

USI president Shane Kelly said the purpose of the protest is to send a clear signal to Minister for Education Batt O’Keeffe that students will not stand for the reintroduction of third-level fees.

Last month, Mr O’Keeffe said there were no “soft choices” on higher education funding and reaffirmed his strong personal backing for the return of fees for the better-off.

Mr Kelly said such a move would see the average cost of completing a four-year undergraduate degree in Ireland rising to above €70,000, making higher education “an unaffordable luxury” for many people.

The protest will commence at the Garden of Remembrance in Parnell Square at 1.30pm and culminate with a rally outside Government Buildings on Merrion Square. Opposition politicians, trade union members and student leaders will address the gathering.

Meanwhile, the Government has imposed a 20 per cent cut in funds for third-level students suffering hardship, despite the steep increase in unemployment.

The cut, introduced independently of the cost-saving plan announced by Taoiseach Brian Cowen in the Dáil yesterday, has been criticised by the USI.

Mr Kelly accused both Mr O’Keeffe and the Government of continuing “their shameful attacks on our education system, making the most vulnerable in our society pay for over a decade of under-investment”.

The student assistance fund provides financial assistance for full-time higher education students who are experiencing financial difficulties while attending college.

Typically, it would be used by students whose parents have become unemployed or whose financial circumstances have deteriorated. Only €5 million has been allocated to higher education institutions for the student assistance fund for the 2008-2009 academic year, compared to €6.2 million in the last academic year.

The most recent figures available for the fund show that 9,226 students received financial support in the 2006-2007 academic year, with 9,895 students receiving support in 2005-2006.

The fund helps to ensure that students with financial needs can receive support to ensure their continued participation and retention in higher education.

Support is provided under a range of headings including rent, childcare, books, heating and food.

Last night, Mr Kelly accused the Government of deliberately targeting the students that need the most support – students with disabilities, mature students and those students with children.

“Surely this Government cannot justify making them scapegoats?” he asked.

“If this Government continues to make it harder for the most vulnerable members of society to make it to college, the progress that has been made over the last decade will be lost. Our commitment to social justice would be in tatters and the very idea of a knowledge-based economy would be at risk.”