The never-ending saga of the Irish economy: cost of living crisis and tall tales of a budget surplus

A student’s guide to the cost of living crisis, Ireland’s economic state and College’s role in the ever-increasing financial burden upon students

Cost of living, rent increases, housing crisis, unlivable wages. These phrases are intrinsically intertwined with the current realities of millions across Ireland. For years, students, families, and professionals alike have grappled with economic hardship due to living in Ireland. Rather than seeing lasting effective improvements via government initiatives and legislation or even receiving help from College, matters in 2023 only appear to be worsening. All the while, the government has reported a significant budget surplus. 

Student experiences

On the student front, rising tuition expenses and doomed battles for accommodation, in conjunction with the aforementioned phrases summarise the modern Irish university experience. Each year, thousands of undergraduate and postgraduate students in Trinity struggle to secure accommodation in Dublin, let alone pay rent, tuition deposits, groceries and other basic necessities due to the extremely inflated cost of living. 

It is common to hear of students commuting well over an hour into College daily. Not for family’s sake, but commuting long hours is a more affordable option than living in Dublin for many. 

Trinity News recently reported on College raising accommodation licence fees by the maximum legal amount. The article also notes “all campus accommodation units are above the average rent of €802 for a single bedroom in the city centre”. College’s defence to the backlash and uproar from the student body: “modest increases” are justified by rising inflation. 

Although College holds no responsibility to better the economic state of Ireland, they have a responsibility not to exacerbate the financial capacities of their students. In the Book of Kells protest against the licence fee increase on 13 September 2023, the Dean of Students, Dr Richie Porter, told Trinity News that the protest was “counterproductive” and that students are “biting the hands that feed them”. 

“If they want a freeze in the next few years, we have many forums to discuss that – I am Chair of the Student Life Committee. [But] they’re giving me nothing, so I’m going to do nothing until they give me something – then I will negotiate, and I will bring the top delegates along with me,” he said. 

College’s official statement regarding the protest is that “utility charges for students have not been increased at all this year despite significant inflation pressure”. 

If College, as Porter states, has the ability to help students, is it not contradictory to blame inflation for what is an alleged non-existent licence fee issue, all the while saying students are only hurting themselves? 

Why is everyone talking about inflation?

It should come as no surprise that inflation in Ireland is the driving factor, if not the root cause, of the various economic hardships that residents have been experiencing. 

While inflation is not singular to Ireland, the country was named the most expensive in the EU for goods and services in June 2023, with prices 46% above the average. Ireland was also highly ranked for above-average costs across other categories like energy, transport, food and more. In March 2023, the Oireachtas formally acknowledged that Irish grocery prices had inflated to a record high of 16.3%.

Even if some aspects of that may hold truth, in almost all consumer-driven categories, Ireland is far more expensive than its European and international counterparts. But why? How has the nation reached this point? Various sources, including Minister for Finance Michael McGrath, report Russia’s war on Ukraine, the pandemic, gas prices and overall importation as the central factors for inflation in Ireland. 

Again, if these recent international events produce a domino effect on the economy of countries around the world, why has the impact on Irish residents been so damaging in comparison? Even further, surging rent prices, grocery bills and tuition expenses are by no means recent problems for Ireland to warrant placing all blame on recent global events. 

In reference to College, inflation does play a major role in the way it operates. As an institution, they rely on student tuition expenses and accommodation costs for a large portion of finances, barring any grants or donations they receive. From a business standpoint, it is common for a company to raise the price of the goods and services it provides in these conditions. 

However, College is not an ordinary company; its primary “consumers” are its students. In contributing to an already exceptional financial burden upon students, College only raises barriers to entry for higher education, a cause they publicly state to fight against

The catch is that, in reality, students are not consumers. Universities are a public good, which means a business-centric approach to higher education defeats the purpose: education. 

Talks of a cash surplus and Budget 2024

Amid these issues, Ireland has made headlines in international media for having billions in cash surplus, and it is only predicted to increase by further billions over the next few years. 

An economic report by the BBC goes in-depth on what this cash surplus actually means. The Department of Finance is expected to garner a budget surplus of €10B by the end of this year and €20.8B by 2026. The government certainly won’t spend a large portion of this money anytime soon. However, they have the capacity to provide immense financial relief by targeting these problems. 

The Government Budget 2024 is soon to be released, and the government has already discussed or announced certain initiatives – like potential cuts to Universal Social Charge (USC). One clear thing is that the government plans to spend a conservative amount in the budget. 

One would expect Budget 2024, given the current surplus circumstance, to include a plan to target the pressures faced by millions due to the cost of living and housing crises. The extent of what measures, if any, will be taken given the surplus remains unclear. 

Over the coming weeks, more information regarding the contents of Budget 2024 will be released. 

Until then, the cost of living crisis from all standpoints continues to be detrimental to the education of students.