Students across the country were joined by some of their lecturers on March 21st during a walkout protest over the rising cost of Higher Education fees in Ireland. Since the economic recession of 2008, third-level education in Ireland has faced some of the biggest funding cuts in the public sector. Despite the fact that the dark-days of the fiscal crisis are now over, with Ireland growing at one of the fastest rates in Europe, the cost for students going to college has remained unchanged.
Over the course of the last 12 years, student fees have risen by an astronomical figure of 363%, as the year-on-year annual sum that young people are forced to pay has changed from a figure of €825 to €3000. When the United Kingdom leaves the European Union, this will leave Ireland with the highest fees in the Institution. Concurrently, the grant-based scheme, SUSI, without which many students could not afford to go to University, has been cut by approximately 7%. Last year, in an interview with the University Express, Director General of the Irish Universities Association, Jim Miley, was critical of the Government of the day and past Governments for not addressing the needs of third-level education. The Union Students of Ireland reacted angrily to the 2018 Budget, where a pot of €500 million has been put aside for a ‘rainy day’ fund, if Ireland was to be thrust into another economic crisis. The USI argued that the ‘rainy day’ was now for Irish collegiate education.
In a joint statement, the Coalition for Publicly Funded Education said, “Government has long since acceded to the fact that higher education in Ireland is chronically under-funded. The Department of Education and Skills has accepted the findings of the detailed analysis of the scale of the funding deficit that was carried out by various expert groups on their behalf. If urgent action is not taken, there’s a real risk that today’s 7 and 8-year old primary school students will not have sufficient college places available to them in 2030 when the demographic bulge peaks with an additional 40,000 students seeking to access third level.”
UCC’s Students’ Union led the way for the protest in UCC last week as students and staff marched around the Quad. Heading the chants on the day was UCC SU’s Kelly Coyle, while many of her colleagues also spoke at the demonstration. The effects on tuition fees are the most obvious source for discontent, but teaching standards and resources are also becoming a major issue. Frank Jones, who is Deputy Secretary General of the Irish Federation of University Teachers, said that Government funding policies are “strangling” higher education for staff as well. If you break down the figures over the course of the last 10 years or so it is clear that students today are not receiving the same level of teaching that was afforded to others in the past. The student-teacher ratio has dramatically climbed during the course of this time, with the ratio currently standing at about 21:1. This is nearly 50% higher compared to the average EU norm of 15:1. One-to-one interactions are therefore more limited as resources are constantly being stretched. Irish Universities have subsequently fallen down on world ranking lists, with the lack of capital funding invested by the State being blamed as a primary cause.
Although the Government has outlined its promises to increase the level of funding in third-level education, it is not enough according to Chair of the Education Division for Fórsa, Gina O’Brien. “While we would obviously welcome previous increases in funding to the sector they fall far short of what is needed to address the crisis in the sector. We set up the coalition to campaign for publicly funded education and the Cassells report has provided us with a roadmap as to how that can be achieved.”