Beyond looking after the wellbeing of its citizens, a government budget is a democracy’s acceptable attempt to buy votes. Much like your grandparents will vote for the TD who fixed the pothole on their road, larger demographics across society might look more favourably at a government which they feel has invested in their needs. The current government likely feels this quid pro quo more keenly this year as, unless it changes its tune on an early election, this is its second-last budget to prove the coalition’s value. However, despite the hefty sum of Budget 2024, the brown envelopes handed to students this year are unlikely to send them racing to the ballot box to reelect this government.
This year’s budget had a spending of €14bn, a figure on the higher end among budgets of recent years. In terms of investments, government will invest €96.6bn across its departments. The Department of Further and Higher Education received an investment of €4.15bn, roughly a 25% increase compared to last year’s investments, making it the 6th largest budget allocation across 18 departments.
These statistics sound like students should be bowing at the coalition’s feet in gratitude, but in reality, the measures they represent struggle to stir any strong reaction from students drained of most faith.
It would be unfairly cynical to suggest that Budget 2024 will have no positive impact on students’ lives whatsoever. Getting rid of college fees for all students from households earning below €56,000 annually, for example, is a measure that will support students in years to come. This is particularly the case for the most vulnerable students. According to the Central Statistics Office, the median household income for single parents was €36,305 in 2022, while the median household income overall was €46,999. Measures taken in this year’s budget means more families can feel that bit more secure in the long-term.
Affording higher education is just one part of the problem, however, and effective long-term policies in Budget 2024 don’t go much further than removing fees for more families. The Rent Tax Credit was increased to €750 for single people in this year’s budget and expanded to students living in digs, which is certainly a relief boost. However, it remains a once-off policy government can choose to revoke next year. The credit also doesn’t cover a single month’s rent in the majority of accommodation in Dublin, especially when accommodation in Rent Pressure Zones treat the 2% cap on rent increases as an invitation to increase rent every year than actual restrictions. In Trinity itself, €750 would only just about cover one month in its Pearse Street housing, its cheapest accommodation option.
The increased credit also means precisely nothing to students who were unable to find or afford accommodation in the first place and commute, sometimes for hours back and forth, everyday.
“However, like the credit, the once-off measure isn’t going to make a huge difference in the financial, academic and social life of students in years to come”
Reducing college fees by up to €1,500 for all students is also a relief for students once again this year and will leave households with a bit more disposable income. However, like the credit, the once-off measure isn’t going to make a huge difference in the financial, academic and social life of students in years to come. Pressure has been pushing down on students like a train approaching someone tied to a track at an increasingly faster rate. Budget 2024 shows government would rather move us further down the track rather than slow down the train. High investments mean little without proper direction.
Measures like abolishing fees for more households show that government knows the value of long-term policies, but there are so many more ways the budget could have made this long term difference for students.
Government could commit to the decision in 2022 to subsidise 4,500 student accommodation bed spaces in return for cheaper rents for students. Less than a quarter of the promised spaces have been approved for building, with none approved in Trinity, and even though reports suggest money has been allocated to this endeavour already, there has been no updates on this new accommodation since 2022. Budget season could have been the ideal time to announce concrete plans for promises already made, but government chose solely to repeat last year’s once-off measure that only scratches the surface of addressing the lack of affordable student housing.
There are also measures that can be taken that wouldn’t cost government any large sum, but would save students considerable stress. The State could work with the Residential Tenancies Board (RTB) to improve and expand the policies of Student Specific Accommodation (SSA). While those living in student housing are now officially recognised by the RTB, student accommodation exists under a licence agreement rather than a tenancy agreement. When a college or a private accommodation company, they can still increase their “utility charges” to increase costs for students beyond RPZ limits. Students are also left frustrated when they are restricted on how many guests they can have in their accommodation and when they are allowed to invite those guests and when college staff can enter your home without warning.
The State could also introduce policies around digs, so students entering adulthood aren’t given rules for when they need to be home by, or when they can even be in that home. A policy that incentivises people to rent out rooms in their homes for €14,000 tax-free but doesn’t protect students from being kicked out on weekends to make room for Airbnb guests is not a policy truly designed with a student in mind. The government likely imagines that putting restrictions on how someone can treat a student they’re renting a room to would stop them from renting the room altogether; but if someone can be so easily put off letting when told to treat an adult like an adult, perhaps we’re relying on the wrong people to provide housing.
“This budget, while offering some relief to students, shows the government parties are not banking on student votes”
As mentioned before, a government budget, and even government policies, are a bargaining chip for political leaders to incentivise people to vote for them in future elections. This budget, while offering some relief to students, shows the government parties are not banking on student votes. This makes some sense, considering, short of giving every student in the country a house and a pony, the majority of young people in Ireland could not be persuaded to vote for Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil or, to a lesser extent, the Green Party.
Budget 2024 shows the government is not trying to nudge young people to the ballot box for them by repeating the majority of the once-off policies from last year without considering the increasingly dire situation students are in. A 50% discount on public transport for 25-year-olds won’t change lives when so many young people won’t be here to enjoy it. They’ll do what so many young people burned by a lack of housing, lack of saving, lack of life, have done before them and vote with their feet.