October 4th saw a national demonstration take place in Dublin, imploring the Irish government to take a positive stance on third level education funding in the long-term. Organised by the Union of Students in Ireland (USI), the event hoped to compel the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and Skills to invest in the higher-level education system that was outlined in the Cassells report, the expert higher education funding report published 15 months ago. With Minister for Education Richard Bruton announcing, shortly before the demonstration, that there would be no higher level education funding plan in next week’s Budget, the USI, Students’ Unions from across the country and 6,000 students in attendance demanded the government reject outright the proposition of introducing student loans, and to provide more funding for higher education. There was also a call for greater investment in the SUSI grant.
On the day, universities across the nation- from Belfast to Tralee- were in attendance, with students in their droves calling on the Minister to announce a suitable third-level education funding model. A popular chant heard on the day was “no fees, no cuts, no ifs, no buts.” Changes to current tuition schemes would see exponential increases in student debt in what is already one of the most expensive countries in the world to obtain a third-level degree. 2nd year UCC Applied Psychology student Emily White summarised her reasons for protesting, saying: “We’re here today because worrying about money is already in students’ minds. In some cases, they’re paying for an education they don’t have time to get, because they’re working every hour to pay for it! A debt scheme would see people suffering this for a huge portion of their adult lives, and education is supposed to be a public good!”
USI President Michael Kerrigan was firm in condemning the potential income-dependent loan scheme as non-viable, stating, “[e]ducation is in the red. An income-contingent student loan as outlined in the Cassells report is a drastic increase in fees from €3,000 to €5,000 a year in disguise. The moment we accept… we are saddling people with €20,000 of mortgage-modelled debt and forcing them to emigrate. The message would be loud and clear to future students: take your €20,000 debt, your degree, and get out.”
The USI demanded the government denounce any potential introduction of an income-contingent student loan scheme in the 2018 Budget, and to decrease the Student Contribution Charge by €250 minimum. The union implored the government to make the historic decision of a public investment of €1.26bn into third-level education over the next decade. Using the hashtag #EducationIs, the event had great traction on social media, with Students’ Unions across the country uploading videos with their support and promising to send hundreds of their students to the march. The campaign was publically supported by the members of the Coalition for Publicly Funded Higher Education, such as the Irish Second Level Students’ Union, SIPTU, IMPACT, TUI, IFUT, and the National Youth Council of Ireland.
The USI spoke of concerns that indebted graduates would be barred from the housing market, with studies from New Zealand showing that over half of banks had expressed that student debt was a factor in rejecting certain applications. 34% of those rejected were mortgage loans, and in the under 40s demographic, homeownership fell by 37% since New Zealand introduced income-contingent student loans. Mr Kerrigan warned that, “[i]n a country where generations may never get a mortgage or a home, saddling more debt onto children cannot be the answer to increasing access to higher education. This demonstration is the first of many because of inaction from Government to invest in an eroding education system.” Across the pond, the USA’s student loan debt has reached heights of $1 trillion: greater than the combined worth of the economies of Ireland, New Zealand, and Australia.