Approximately half of all students in Ireland receive some level of financial support from Student Universal Support Ireland (SUSI) during their time in third-level education. SUSI is the country’s national awarding authority when it comes to assisting students with their financial needs post-secondary school but unfortunately the financial support scheme has been falling short of most student’s expectations for a number of years now. So what’s the problem?
The optimists among us might believe themselves lucky in comparison to students facing the colossal fees in American and, to a lesser extent, British universities. However this optimism is challenged when we look at Ireland’s performance on the European stage; we currently have the highest tuition fees in the European Union, €3000 per annum, and regrettably these fees are mirrored by the skyrocketing cost of living in major cities such as Dublin, Cork, and Galway. While SUSI might have once covered the cost of living in these cities, since 2011 there has been no increase in the maintenance grant to reflect the substantial increase in costs such as housing, rendering the grant insufficient.
“The means test is based on a number of factors ranging from the students income and/or their parent’s income, to the number of dependent children in the household.”
The SUSI application process includes a means test by which the students household income is assessed. A general consensus among students is that the current means test appears to be quite arbitrary and inflexible. The means test is based on a number of factors ranging from the students income and/or their parent’s income, to the number of dependent children in the household. While these contributing factors should paint a clearer picture of the applicants financial needs and then ensure these needs are met; the low threshold and the hard cut-off usually leave struggling students with a rejection letter in their hands, their only remaining options to put themselves into debt to pay their fees or not pursue higher education at all. In order to rectify this flaw in the system SUSI would ideally raise the income threshold significantly. Another solution could also seek to implement more permeable income thresholds. This would effectively provide students with a cushion to prevent a minor increase in a fluctuating income from ruining their chances of financial assistance.
Within the means test there lies another conundrum: at present, SUSI does not cover the day-to-day expenses incurred by the average student. If a student acquires a job to cover these costs, making up for this discrepancy between what SUSI provides and what the average student needs, they may find that they are no longer eligible for SUSI. A student may work a part-time job along with their studies. However, if this part-time employment is more than just seasonal it will then be accounted for in the means test which will result in the student’s income surpassing the income threshold for the following year. The result will be that the student will no longer be eligible for SUSI, rendering their efforts futile.
Another concern requiring attention is the lack of transparency in SUSI’s appeals process. One postgraduate student describes her experience with this process as incredibly frustrating. Like most of us this year, her financial situation has changed dramatically due to the economic upheaval created by Covid-19. Despite her household income now falling below the income threshold detailed on the SUSI website this student has now received three rejections with no further clarification on the matter. As a system in place to support students in their journey to higher education SUSI should seek to rectify the ambiguity surrounding this part of the process.
There are constant calls from students across the country to prioritise public funding for higher education, most recently in Cork this September where UCC students staged a protest, calling on their local TD’s for support in addressing the need for publicly funded education. This was just one of many protests occurring in recent years. It was staged four years on from the initial presentation of the proposed third-level funding strategies in the Cassells Report in 2016. The report recommends three funding options for consideration: a predominantly state-funded option; increased state-funding with continuing student fees; and increased state-funding with deferred payment of fees through income contingent loans, a decision politicians have yet to act on. Students have been vocal in their desire to implement the first option which would see a significant increase in publicly funded education, similar to most European nations. Students are vehemently against the third option which would see the implementation of a loan system akin to the aforementioned American and British models, reasoning that this system will only serve to create more barriers to education when ideally we seek to remove them.
“Each student who has paid their €3000 fee is to receive a payment of €250 in recognition of the financial burdens created by Covid-19 which only papers over the cracks of this ongoing dilemma.”
Amidst the slurry of problems generated by Covid-19 since its arrival in the country at the end of February, third-level students have been feeling the financial pressure. On 13 October, the government announced plans to dedicate €50 million to assist third-level students. Each student who has paid their €3000 fee is to receive a payment of €250 in recognition of the financial burdens created by Covid-19 which only papers over the cracks of this ongoing dilemma. This kind of one-off payment largely ignores the underlying issue of student fees, an even more pressing issue as classes take place online and many college facilities become unavailable. The government has also raised the income threshold for postgraduate students in the 2021 budget. However there is an oversight in which they have neglected to include the students enrolled in the current academic year in this initiative.
While the presence of SUSI has benefitted many students since its implementation, its reach has stagnated over the past eight years. Higher education funding should strive to make third-level education equally accessible to students from all backgrounds. What is required is a sustainable increase in third-level funding that accurately reflects the financial needs of students today. An increase in third-level education funding should not be looked at as a burden but rather an investment into the future professionals who will fuel the Irish economy.