Op-ed: Students deserve action, not lip service

With Budget 2021 on its way, we need to see the government make real commitment to third level funding

Ireland could have an education system where everyone who wishes to continue their education can do so without ever having to worry about being able to afford it. The overall education system could be a world leader, where staff are supported to excel, where the class sizes allow for real one-to-one interaction without staff being overburdened, where the college services are funded and the institutions are adequately resourced by the state. The current situation is not so pleasant, but we have heard Minister Harris, Minister Collins and others within Government say the right things, from admitting the fees are too high to agreeing that refunds for student accommodation are needed.

So, what next? We are at the fork in the road, the opening scene can be our reality, with the political will to do so. The strategy for funding higher education, which was applauded by many, when new buildings were opening and ribbons were being cut, really boiled down
to the managed decline of state funding and increased importance placed upon the diversification of income for institutions. Diversifying income and reduced core state funding has led us to the place we are today with reports that our sector is facing a financial deficit of approximately €500 million. Some of our higher education institutions were operating like businesses; was that by choice or was their hand forced? I presume different people will say different things but one thing that many of us can agree upon is that the deficit is clear and the private sources of funding are no longer there and therefore there is a need for increased public funding. Institutions relying on international student fees, summer activities, tourism and student accommodation is not a sustainable funding base for the future. In my opinion, it should never have been relied on in the past, but as I have said, we have a great opportunity now and we should learn from the past and not only strive for a better funding system, we must demand one.

Now, we can right the wrongs of the past – the first step is agreeing a funding model. We have the expert advice; we know the current system is not working and USI strongly agrees with the publicly funded model as outlined
within Cassells and we believe it is the future. It is not an airy fairy concept, it is a genuine, real possibility – it is in place in 11 other EU member states currently and it is within our grasp and we require the political will to have that realised.

It is time we had a frank discussion about how our country views and values education as
a whole – we often refer to the fact that Ireland has a very well educated work force which is brilliant, but behind that workforce is an education system that needs immediate investment and students who are really financially struggling.

The USI have launched the #EducationForAll campaign ahead of this budget with six key asks. They focus on making education across the island of Ireland truly accessible. Eliminating the €3,000 student contribution charge, reimaging and investing in student supports that are in line with the cost
of living, affordable student accommodation & rights charter, ending precarious working conditions and unpinning all of this is actual meaningful investment in the sector.

Students and young people have been hit extremely hard by this pandemic, from online learning with few supports to losing employment. Budget 2021 must be a budget that supports students and young people. The goal of the student movement is to secure political and educational change. The changes we are calling for go to the core of that goal. We know the political establishment will act when people join and call together for change. So, reach out to your local representative and tell them why you believe they need to do more to support students and young people.
As mentioned, the political representatives have time and time again said the right thing. However, now is the time to see if they will do more than pay lip service to our issues.

Lorna Fitzpatrick

Lorna Fitzpatrick is the president of the Union of Students’ in Ireland.