The Union of Students in Ireland (USI) have released their pre-Budget 2020 submission, outlining their demands for increased higher education funding.
The costed recommendations cover the major subcategories of higher education funding, such as grants, fees and housing. The general proposals have largely been made by USI before in previous pre-Budget submissions and the media.
Among USI’s primary proposals are the restoration of the Student Universal Support Ireland (SUSI) grant scheme to pre-2011 levels, a reduction of the annual student contribution charge by a minimum of €500 per student, the introduction of grants given to institutions for student accommodation and increased mental and sexual health funding.
USI and students’ union representatives discussed their proposals with politicians such as Fianna Fail leader Michael Martin and Minister for Higher Education Mary Mitchell O’Connor in Buswells Hotel opposite Leinster House today.
Speaking to Trinity News at their lobbying event, USI President Síona Cahill said that the three areas raised by politicians were the level of core higher education funding, grant adjacency rates, and accommodation.
USI proposes allocating €14.9 million to restore the SUSI grant to pre-2011 levels. The submission also proposes that the government commit to annual increases to grants that reflect the cost of living.
The Union have also requested that the government allow students living over 24km from their third level institution to qualify for the non-adjacent grant rate. This would reverse a Budget 2011 decision, which changed the required distance to 45km.
The pre-Budget submission reiterates USI’s urgent calls for an increase to student accommodation funding. USI wants the government to provide capital grants to allow third level institutions to build purpose built student accommodation. The Union suggests a figure of €85,000 to be allocated per bed.
On accommodation funding, Síona Cahill said: “There needs to be a borrowing framework that means that the higher education institution can build student accommodation, fit for purpose and accessible and affordable, straight away”. USI have argued that the government’s student accommodation strategy relies on private developers to build student accommodation complexes which are unaffordable for many students.
USI also called for increased mental and sexual health funding in this year’s submission, as well as outlining demands for more funding for asylum seekers to access education and some climate emergency related actions.
Additional counsellors are called for in the submission. €100,000 should be allocated per higher education institution, the Union proposes, which amounts to the average salary of 1.5 full time counselling psychologists.
Regarding the allocation of funding for mental health services, USI has changed their tactics, Cahill explained. The Union is discussing the funding of additional counsellors for each institution, rather than proposing a total monetary figure for counselling for the entire third level sector.
Cahill said that the more specific request is “more accessible for politicians to understand how to roll this out than just ‘here’s a ring-fenced amount of money for counselling in general’”.
The Union also proposes granting €90,000 to each third level institution to employ STI healthcare nurses, as well as a total spend of €450,000 on PrEP provision and €600,000 to enable institutions to enact consent framework for consent projects.
Asylum seekers make an appearance in the USI pre-Budget submission for the first time. Investment in 50 scholarships for asylum seekers, costing around €20,000 per student, is proposed. The scholarship funding would amount to €1 million.
Climate emergency related actions are also mentioned in the submission. USI calls for an increase in the rate of carbon tax “as a means not just to generate revenue, but to change behaviour in order to move away from a dependence on fossil fuels and therefore reducing emissions,” the report says. The other environment related proposal is the introduction of a levy on single use cups at 20c per cup.
Cahill explained that the contents of the pre-Budget proposal stem from discussion items and motions at the annual USI national congress, which is attended by students’ union representatives from around the country. She explained that USI officers also discuss their proposals with trade unions and other interest groups to inform their submission.
Incoming USI President Lorna Fitzpatrick jointly signed the submission with Cahill. She said that the USI is demanding an increase in higher education funding because current funding is insufficient. “Everyone within the sector is saying that it is underfunded and needs sustainable funding going forward,” she said.
The government announced additional third level funding of €57 million in last year’s Budget. Cahill said at the time that the Budget reflected the government’s “lack of ambition”.
Indecision persists on a new funding model for the underfunded third level sector. The Cassells report, released in 2016, outlined three possible funding models for higher education.
The first option is a loan scheme, in which higher education would be free at the point of entry with loan repayment based on the income of a graduate. The second option involves the retainment of a student contribution fee with an increase of State funding from 64% to 80%. The final option is “free” education entirely funded by the State, which USI have lobbied for.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar told the Irish Examiner in March that he is reluctant to increase the student contribution or introduce a loan scheme.
Fitzpatrick noted that the government’s plan for education includes having a discussion on higher education funding by the end of the year. The USI is prioritising ensuring the student voice is at the forefront of higher education funding and the third level sector is sufficiently funded, Fitzpatrick said.