Third-level students are to each receive a once-off payment of €250 euro in a government plan to offset the financial impact of the pandemic on young people, the Budget 2021 revealed. The fund of €50 million is to be divided amongst students who are in receipt of SUSI grants or have paid the €3,000 student registration. The Government is yet to confirm the process or timeline of payment.
Simon Harris, Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, described the fund as financial assistance for the 200,000 full-time students in Ireland who are experiencing a “year like no other” where “the majority of college will be online for this semester.”
For the President of the Union of Students in Ireland (USI), Lorna Fitzpatrick, the once-off payment to students “is welcomed and goes some way to acknowledging the impact that COVID-19 has had on the financial situation of students and their families but it does not recognise the longer term financial pressures that students face.”
Additional measures to support third-level education include 5,000 extra college places and increased access to postgraduate grants. From next year, maximum payments will rise from €2,000 to €3,000 with the income threshold for eligibility set to reach €54,240.
The total allocation of €3.3 billion to the Department of Further and Higher Education in Budget 2021 was “warmly welcomed” by Jim Miley, Director of the Irish Universities Association (IUA) but still, “the Budget represents a missed opportunity for real change.” The government “needs to tackle the funding deficit elephant in the room,” Miley stated, “Ireland can only make a successful recovery if we invest now in our talent and innovation capacity.”
In 2016, the Cassells report found that in order to address historical underfunding in the third-level sector an extra €600 million would need to be invested annually from 2017, rising to €1 billion annually from 2030. Such recommendations were never acted upon by the government. By consequence, Irish third level institutions were caused to rely heavily on the €400 million in revenue generated each year from international student fees—a funding source threatened by pandemic restrictions on movement—and on exponential increases to the student contribution charge. The fee sat at €825 in 2007, now students pay €3,000 unless the cost is waived by receipt of the SUSI grant. Ireland currently has the highest college fees in the EU.
USI President Lorna Fitzpatrick cited the Cassells Report as a measure of the Union’s disappointment in the Budget 2021: “This Government, like those before it, has failed to commit to a model which views and funds education as a public good.”
In late September, UCC Students’ Union called on local representatives in Cork City and County councils, as well as the TDs of Cork North Central and South Central to support their campaign for greater public funding in higher education. The campaign included calls for a reduction in fees, an immediate €500 rebate paid to students and the reformation of the SUSI grant system.
The Budget 2021 neglected to address the issue of fees, but pledged to assess the current SUSI grant system and halved the payment of €500 UCCSU and student bodies across the country were campaigning for. The Union of Students in Ireland welcomed the progress made in Budget 2021, but stated that the Government “ignored barriers preventing student access to higher education in favour of piecemeal one-off funding.”
The USI called for increased student access to the Pandemic Unemployment Payment and maintained its stance that higher education should be fully publicly funded. The government has not yet expressed its intention of addressing either of these demands.