Time to roll over, or time to roll up our sleeves?

We are the most privileged generation Ireland has ever produced. And as Trinity has the highest proportion of top Leaving Certificate students, we are also among the brightest of this generation.

Growing up during the boom years, we witnessed fortunes being made through speculation, and the national excitement as multinational corporations located to Ireland, bringing with them a plethora of jobs and opportunities. Now as we come of age, we find the country in crisis.

Austerity measures alone will not be enough to pull our country out of the mire. Nor was Minister Cowen’s supposed plan to sit tight until the money runs out mid-2011 ever a viable option. As each statement released by the Powers That Be sends tremors through the markets, whether or not we should take the IMF bailout is now purely an academic debate.

But what will this mean for third-level funding, and the university sector in particular? Provost John Hegarty’s letter on the opposite page makes for depressing reading. That a scenario where the university loses €20 million a year in funding could be described as the “best case” is of massive concern.

A university cannot run on brainpower alone. This month in the UK, Lord Browne’s report on higher education funding found that a tuition fee of £7000 per annum would be necessary just to keep their universities’ funding at the current level. Leaks from the unforthcoming Hunt Report also point in this direction. Despite USI’s insistence that they “won the war on fees”, it is clear that fees for domestic and EU students will have to be reintroduced over the next number of years, in addition to even more stringent cutbacks. While Government may block their reintroduction for political reasons, an external eye will not dismiss this course of action.

Universities are not corporations. They cannot be downsized and expect to trundle on as normal, if a little slower. It is vitally important to remember that we are students of the university. We are not customers of the university. Getting more of us through the door will only exacerbate existing problems. Stretching a reduced staff over an ever-increasing student body will have obvious detrimental effects on student experience, staff morale, and the standard of education that can be provided.

A return to fees may save our universities from fiscal meltdown. As it stands, the current registration fee serves no one’s best interests. For students and their families, the registration fee is not classed as a tuition fee by Revenue, and therefore is not tax-deductable, despite being now higher than tuition in some countries which have fees. Universities in turn are restricted in that the money from the registration fee is earmarked solely for student services, and should not be used to supplement academic and teaching costs.

The dishonest registration fee must be scrapped, and a clear and honest system of fees backed up by a deferred payment and student loans scheme needs to be implemented.

We are Ireland’s future. Do we roll over, muttering darkly of the men and women of 1916, or do we grimace and roll up our sleeves? We must learn from the previous generation of Mé Féiners, and see that we must all bear the burden of cleaning up the mess we find ourselves in. We know where the blame lies, but the time for pointing fingers has passed. We need to survey what is left of our economy and begin, not to repair the broken structures, but to replace what is rotten.

This is not the end for Ireland. While there may be a loss of sovereignty for a time, there is no reason why this should be permanent. We are not the first country to ever receive help from the IMF. Lest we forget, Britain asked for their help in the 1970s, and managed to maintain its sovereignty. In fact, for the long-term future of the country it may be a blessing in disguise.

Access to an education is a right, access to third-level education is a privilege. We have all of us worked hard to secure our place in Trinity. Over the next number of years, we will have to work even harder to keep our places. The funding system of universities desperately needs to be re-examined from the ground up. We echo the Provost’s hope that Government will not fatally damage the system, but worry that if Government does nothing, this may well be enough.