Charging €3,000 to access further education ‘is unthinkable’

Opinion: Students have been suffering rising costs and Government apathy for years, writes Cian Kelly-Lyth

 

There has been a creeping sense among students over the past number of years that the higher education sector in Ireland is moving its focus from education to profit.

From the wave of rent increases across campuses earlier this year to the repeated fee increases and exploitation of international students, the emerging trend is that third-level institutions are now seen as businesses, with students as their customers.

Students have been suffering rising costs and Government apathy for years. This is why last week, it was unsurprising, yet nevertheless frustrating to hear Minister for Education Norma Foley confirm that there would be no cut to the €3,000 registration fees for the coming year, despite the enormous changes that colleges will be implementing.

Online learning

It is important to stress how significant these changes will be. In order to maintain social distancing, the number of students on campuses will be limited, with online learning becoming the norm. Some colleges will have more in-person lessons than others. Waterford Institute of Technology, for example, has announced it will be teaching almost entirely online for the foreseeable future. The fallout from this will be that most students will have their academic performance damaged, finding their way around a new form of learning with limited access to invaluable libraries and on-campus resources.

The other major casualty will be the loss of college social life. The joy of meeting friends between classes and going to the college bar after a long day simply can’t be replicated through Zoom calls. Societies, which are a massive part of many student’s college lives, will be forced to host their origami making, wine tasting and card games online, which will inevitably lead to attendance and membership plummeting.

Incoming first-years, who have already faced months of uncertainty and anxiety, will be sitting at home during what is a vital time in their personal development. They’ll miss out on the opportunities other students had to make new friends and adjust to college life, a setback that will be felt until their graduation.

Over the past number of weeks, Labour Youth have launched a campaign calling on the Government to cut third-level fees by €1,000, with the Union of Students in Ireland and multiple opposition TDs also calling for a fee reduction. There’s no doubt that as the year goes on these demands will get louder, as more students, after months of flicking through lecture slides in bed, will be asking themselves the big question: “Are we really paying €3,000 for this?”

€3,000 is no small amount of money, either, especially considering that many students pay their own way through college. One big source of income to pay fees is casual Summer work in retail or bars, industries that have been decimated by the Coronavirus. Many students failed to find work this Summer, and are now wondering how they’re going to pay their way through college.

SUSI grant

The Government will no doubt point towards the SUSI grant and the Student Assistance Fund as ways to ease this burden, but these are often needed for various other third-level costs, and even before Covid-19, the SUSI grant was significantly less than the estimated €9,000 annual cost of studying away from home.

A €1,000 cut to student fees would do much more than reflect this year’s inadequate college experience, however. Ireland charges the second-highest third-level fees in Europe, despite having a critically underfunded college sector. These high fees fly in the face of the mountains of evidence which show the significant public benefits of well-funded, easily accessible higher education.

By far, the biggest determinant of educational achievement is social class. There are a huge number of barriers in the way of people from lower-income backgrounds accessing higher education, one of which are college fees. Cutting them would not only benefit those who would otherwise struggle to pay, it would benefit all of society.

The economic positives of having more capable, skilled graduates should be apparent, as should be the cultural benefits. Facing into the post-Covid recession, significant third-level investment must be part of any recovery plan. The best time to start would be now, by cutting college fees during what will be an extraordinarily difficult academic year.

For the duration of this pandemic, students are going to be making enormous sacrifices, losing their social lives, jobs, and college experience. Charging €3,000 to access further education is, under normal circumstances, wrong. Under current circumstances, it is unthinkable.

Cian Kelly-Lyth is the Campaigns Officer for Labour Youth.