As the dust begins to settle after one of the most aggressive cost-cutting budgets since 1987, third level students have been left with some tough realities. Perhaps most disheartening is that, despite a wave of public anger regarding the new income levy, the withdrawal of the automatic right to a medical card and the cut backs in primary education, the general public have remained silent over the unexpected hike in student registration fees by almost 67%. How has a measure that threatens to exclude so many from third level education not caused outrage? The truth of the matter is people just don’t care. Too engulfed in how the budget will affect them, students have been sidelined by the public and the minister’s attack has gone unpunished.
Students have been blitzed from all angles. Those working a part time job will be slapped with a 1% income levy, those in receipt of a grant will find that any increases have been frozen and for anyone not in receipt of a grant, regardless of what you or parents earn, you will have to come up with an extra €600. If that’s not enough, the cutting of child benefit payments to those over the age of 18 could exclude children from lower-income families from third level. In short, this budget threatens the weak and vulnerable in our society, despite Government’s claim of equitability.
More worryingly, this is only the start. The Minister for Education has now been mandated by the Cabinet to bring forward proposals on tuition fees. He also signalled that the hike in registration fees is only an interim measure, pending the likely return of some form of college fees. The bottom line is that if fees are reintroduced as the Minister intends, then some people will be denied access to third level education. Talk of “sliding scale systems” and the minority of students who go to college to party and drink won’t change this reality. While there is certainly a select minority who could comfortably afford to pay fees, the Minister’s target seems to be more focused on those in the middle-income bracket, many of whom struggle to support their children through college as it stands. Considering the cost of living and accommodation alone, it can cost up to €10,000 a year for parents to support their child through college. The reintroduction of college fees would tip many of those at the margin over the edge.
Not only that, but you would expect that an increase in registration fees would lead to an increase in funding for college services. The reality of the situation is that this money is not going toward colleges. Education has only been allocated a 2.7% increase for 2009, which will just about account for inflation, assuming that it falls back considerably next year. It is a cost-cutting measure, and any extra revenue generated will go toward stabilising public finances. While public finances certainly need to be reined in, the question remains as to why education, so vital to the future success of this country, is facing cutbacks while the public sector, riddled with inefficiencies and overpaid bureaucrats, has escaped from this budget unscathed.
The Minister for Finance continues to echo the words “we’re in this together”, but when the economy was booming and so many were making millions, where were the necessary investments in college services? Education, particularly at third level, remained grossly under-funded throughout the boom years of the Celtic Tiger. It is funny that now as the economy faces tough times we are “all in this together”, whereas before we had to make do alone.
Equality concerns aside, will cutting back on education services and reintroducing fees help restore our economy? It’s unlikely. A diverse and highly specialised workforce has driven the Irish economy during past decade. By reducing funding the government is now threatening the foundation of our knowledge-based economy. What the economy needed from this budget was for the government to lay out a pathway for recovery. That path needed to focus on developing Ireland as a knowledge economy by putting resources into education. Instead, they did the opposite and have shown a lack of understanding of the fundamentals of the Irish economy. This may plunge us deeper into recession and exacerbate falling growth.