The Union of Students in Ireland has been campaigning for the introduction of a publicly funded higher education model and has also been vehemently against the introduction of a student loan scheme since its initial suggestion.
The Cassells report into third-level education funding suggests that the current situation is unsustainable and that the existing state of affairs – dramatically decreased government funding and a €3,000 student registration fee – is not an appropriate or endurable option.
The report puts forward three main options for funding third-level education in Ireland. The first is a publicly funded higher education system, which includes abolishing the current registration fee, with an increase in funding from State coffers and increased contribution made by employers.
USI believes this is the best option to ensure social mobility, strengthen the economy, reducing minimum subsistence levels and decreasing “breadline anxieties”. Free, accessible education is absolutely vital to practising reasoning against the illogical; keeping up with scientific, medical, technical and cultural evolution; independent and critical thinking; healthier lifestyles and living; advanced techniques for improved productivity; and challenging ethics and practices to promote peace on a national and international scale.
An educated mind makes an empowered individual and it is our goal to empower those hungry for growth, knowledge and development through education. It needs to be accessible.
USI also believes that the level of contribution to third-level funding by businesses and employers should be increased.
The current contribution is one of the lowest in the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development) and businesses and industry employers are direct beneficiaries and key stakeholders in the higher education system, so it makes perfect sense that they should contribute more to something that they profit from.
The second option suggested by the Cassells report was to maintain the current registration fee and increasing State investment to complement the shortfall in higher education funding.
The Union of Students in Ireland believes this second option casually ignores recent research that heavily suggests students are already deterred by the registration fee, already at breaking point, and already steeped in debt and anxieties because of the cost of education. USI surveyed more than 870 students across Ireland and found that 87 per cent of students fear having to drop out of college because of the cost of education; 58.1 per cent of students miss meals and more than a third (38.7 per cent) of students said they go hungry to fund or stay in college.
Irish third-level fees are the second-highest in Europe, after the UK. Germany, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland all offer free education. The registration fee in France is €180 – €2,820 cheaper than the Irish registration fee.
Publicly funded free education is not impossible. If it was, so many other countries in Europe wouldn’t offer it.
The third option, a deferred payment loan scheme, is impractical in practice and will deter students from applying to college. A loan system will only further fracture the structure of the Irish education system. It will push people further away from applying to college and increase drop-out rates. Other countries in Europe offer better pay and lower registration fees, making the cost of education cheaper abroad.
The cost of the student loan system crippled the UK government, so much so that they had to sell off the student loan books at the end of 2013.The privatisation of this public asset meant that the money borrowed from the Government to pay for public universities in the UK started to flow straight to private financial institutions, which will undoubtedly have dire long-term consequences.
In America, education is the biggest strain on the country, second only to military spending. In
(the nearest model to the suggested Irish loan scheme), there are huge emigration problems – one in three dollars have had to be written off.
The Cassells report itself admits that graduate emigration would be an issue in a loan scheme, so why entertain this idea? These are not models we want to mimic in Ireland, especially given how debt-adverse we have become as a nation.
Publicly funded free education in Ireland will be the biggest driving force behind economic success and pulling the country fully out of the recession.
The Taoiseach keeps telling us we have the fastest-growing economy in Europe. If we want to retain that pace, we need to make sure our workforce is up to speed and at the forefront of this economy. USI is calling on Minister for Education and Skills, Richard Bruton, to take the publicly funded higher education route which is open and accessible to all who wish to avail of it.
Annie Hoey is president of the Union of Students in Ireland