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Student Loans, failing

There’s never a dull moment at a demonstration. Like many other students, I turned out to protest at the visit of Leo Varadkar and his leading lights to our university. In passing, an older lady challenged me about the sign I was holding – about the need to get rid of college fees. “When I went to college I paid for my entrance and for my accommodation, why should I do it for you?” she asked. She didn’t wait for a response – but it is a common question many people today have, yet there’s no simple answer.

The Ireland of today is an unusual beast. We boast about unrivalled economic growth and yet the fact is that we never see anything really change. We see rocketing rents, increased transport fares and the burden of college registration fees. Student accommodation in this city is costing up to €190 per week (€7000 per academic year). Add to this the €3000 in fees and €1000 in food and transport by the most conservative of estimates and the real cost begins to add up. People you know and people I know are investing €11000 in their education each year. By the time many of us have entered the workplace, we will have paid €44,000 to get where we are. This government talks about the Republic of Opportunity, but a republic of opportunity for who?

Like many other students, I found whatever work I could for the summer. I worked all the hours I was offered, I had my fair share of early mornings and late nights. However, the notion that I could earn €11,000 to pay my own way through college? Pure nonsense. The simple fact is that I am forced to rely on my family to support me through my course, this becomes a much bigger problem when there’s three in my family in third level education. Three registration fees, three accommodation fees, three bus tickets home and three mouths to feed… yet I’m one of the lucky ones. A common answer to conundrum is “What about SUSI?” – which is a good question. I was lucky to get a maintenance grant last year – I would have been lost without it. It went some way towards covering the thousands I’ve paid in course materials; field trips; and supplies. This year? I’m expected to pay full fees. I know I’m not alone in this, but I fell afoul of the invisible thresholds and I’m now paying the price. The fact of the matter is that SUSI is not fit for purpose – and all the small tax cuts in the world won’t do a thing to change that.

Of course, it would be foolish to say that the authorities don’t know how demanding and stressful the grant applications process is – it’s actively in their interests to keep it that way. When I say this, I don’t mean in a cartoon villain sense – rather, it is because SUSI finds itself stretched and unable to help students. For many, the aim is to ensure that student loans are a necessity in our new Republic of Opportunity. Few students vote, and even fewer donate to political parties. We are forced to accept the status quo – we expect little and we get less in return. This year, our government was asked to look at reducing fees to €2,000 – they flatly refused to do so. It was Niamh Breathnach who abolished college fees in 1995, enabling a new generation of students the opportunity to receive a proper education and to earn a decent wage out of their degrees. Over the past 20 years, we’ve seen a steady increase in the registration fee – a 500% increase, to be precise. For the sake of the many who are struggling with college fees, we need to take action to stop this farce.

What supporters of student loans will not tell you is that time and time again, these systems end in failure. Britain is seeing record levels of default on student loans. In the US, entire sections of society are pushed away from colleges. As we see trades decline, there is no alternative. College is no longer a privilege, it is a necessity if we want a knowledge based economy and society. The grim reality is that there are people all across the country, friends that I went to school with – that were more than smart enough to excel in any college course but didn’t have a hope of being able to afford to attend college. Unless we sort out the practice of running colleges for profit, we don’t have a hope of creating the fabled Republic of Opportunity, and the false; empty platitudes of our politicians will be shown up for the lie that it is. At a college level, at a local level, and at a national level, we need to be voting for representatives that will fight for free education for us all. We need Students’ Union representatives that are ready to fight for this and to hold to account anyone that gets in their way. When I talk about this, I’m mindful of a transcript I read recently from a meeting between SU reps in another college and a group of councillors. Regardless of what politicians say outwardly, inside the Council and Dáil chambers is a different story.  If we want to see real change in the way our nation does its business, we need to be prepared to work for it and to vote for it. Whatever the correct approach is, political apathy certainly isn’t it.