The student maintenance grant is set to be protected from further cutbacks in tomorrow’s Budget, Trinity News can reveal. It is understood that the back-to-education allowance, designed to help single parents, the disabled and unemployed back into education, will also be ring-fenced.
Overall, spending on education is set to increase for the first time since 2010, with the departments of health and social protection also set to see their budgets increase.
Previously, Minister for Education and Skills, Jan O’Sullivan, had been non-committal about maintaining student supports at their current levels, telling the Dáil only last Tuesday that “changes to any public service, including the student grant scheme, cannot be ruled out.”
However, it is likely that the student contribution charge will still be increased by €250 in Budget 2015, despite strong opposition from a number of backbench Labour TDs. While both Fine Gael and Labour pledged at the last election not to increase the registration fee from its then annual rate of €2,000 – Labour even pledged to return them to the €1,500 level last paid in 2010 – Minister O’Sullivan has been evasive about the charges’ future.
A face-to-face poll of 130 students carried out by Trinity News last week revealed deep-seated opposition to any further increases in the charge. 37% of respondents judged the charge’s likely rise to €3,000 to be the “correct amount” but 60% thought the figure already “too high”.
The Union of Students in Ireland (USI) has been campaigning to protect student supports in recent months and several thousand students from across Ireland attended its Wednesday rally to demonstrate against further cuts to the education sector.
Speaking to this paper last night, USI president, Laura Harmon, said that the union is “cautiously optimistic about the protection of students’ supports in Tuesday’s Budget. Students’ unions across the country have been campaigning on this issue since the summer and we hope that work will pay off.”
The proposed increases to certain departments’ budgets comes in the wake of somewhat more upbeat economic news than in recent months. Unemployment has dropped steadily since last October’s Budget, falling from 12.3% to 11.1%. This is its lowest level since February 2009, slightly below the Eurozone average of 11.4%, although youth unemployment remains stubbornly high at 25.2%, a drop of a mere 0.6% in a year.
Growth in the economy has also picked up with Irish Gross Domestic Product (GDP) expanding 7.7% in the second quarter of 2014, the largest single increase since 2007. As a consequence, the budget deficit has fallen to 3.7% of GDP and is set to fall to 2.4% next year. The extra spending is likely to push the deficit back up to 2.7% but this remains crucially below the 3% maximum allowed under European Union law.