Cost of Third Level Education Beyond the Means of Many
By John O’Hara
With the CAO offers out, the race is on for accommodation in the various universities and institutes of technology around the country, but for many, the realisation that it may be impossible to pay for their children’s education is hitting home.
With the likes of UCD, Maynooth, St Pats and Marino charging anything up to €6,000 a year for accommodation, it means that students who wish to go to third level may not have the means to access the course of their choice.
Add this to the registration fees of almost €3,000 and there’s not much change from ten grand, before the first semester even begins. Bus tickets to and from the respective universities and food and living costs see this figure rise to a level that is simply not realistic for families, who are struggling to make ends meet as it is.
Education is seen by many as the great equaliser, that no matter what your background, you can gain the relevant qualifications through hard work and study and make a better life for yourself. This is the notion of education, but the reality is much different. We are now back to the situation where students from well off backgrounds have an unfair advantage over those from working class families.
Politicians and in particular, those in government, continue to talk about the ‘free’ education system we have in Ireland. This is totally disingenuous. Even at Junior and Leaving Cert level, we see a pattern emerging of those with the financial means gaining an unfair advantage over those who can’t access things like grinds, Gaelteacht visits, intensive revision courses in Leeson street and trips to the continent to expand their language skills. Because families with the financial support are availing of these facilities, it pushes the points higher and higher, meaning that students are under pressure to perform better, without the same help or guidance.
But the most disheartening aspect of our education system is that students who have worked as hard as they can, have achieved spectacular results, but yet cannot follow their chosen career paths because they cannot afford it.
Niamh Bhreathnach, the labour minister, who decided to abolish fees for third level education had a vision that students from across the spectrum could access education, regardless of their parents’ income. This was a brave move that was criticised at the time, but was proven to be a massive success. Thousands of people from lower income families went on to achieve great things in academia and it opened the doors of opportunity to many, but successive governments have slowly closed the door, and it is now almost shut.
The current income limits for a family sending their son or daughter to college for the first time is €39,785. So if a husband and wife each earn €20,000, they are not eligible for the full grant. Anyone earning more than €45,000 isn’t even entitled to a 25% grant. These income limits preclude the majority of working families from accessing third level support. When you consider the fact that both parents will be paying PAYE, PRSI, USC and if in the public sector, a pension levy, it means that families that are considered by the state as wealthy, are nothing of the sort.
And in a further twist, the grant application now takes into account the earnings of the student for the purpose of means-testing for income. This means that the summer job they took on, in the hope of contributing to their education is working against them and might actually preclude them from the grant. This is an absolutely ludicrous situation, which encourages students not to take up part-time jobs. You have to wonder sometimes, who comes up with these regulations because to any right thinking individual, this is sheer madness.
This system actually incentivises not working, as those who are below the thresholds will be entitled to free education. If both parents are not working, not only will the fees be paid for that student, they will be entitled to a special rate of €5,915 for the year. Now I am not advocating getting rid of this rate, as it is clearly designed to ensure that those who are most in need have the ability to access education. However, surely the government should be doing more to help middle income earners, who are struggling most with this situation.
We hear Enda Kenny and co constantly talking about making the lives of those who are described as ‘middle income earners’, easier. But the facts speak differently. These people are struggling with mortgages, which were taken out before the USC and pension levy were inflicted on the nation. These are people that don’t have medical cards or access to expensive health insurance. These are the people who are paying extortionate fees for dental treatment for their kids or face the prospect of their children growing up with wayward teeth. The rich are coping fine and the government, rightly so, are helping those who are long term unemployed. But the fact remains, nothing is being done to help the people stuck in the middle. Those that can’t afford what the well-off are buying and not poor enough to access the services dedicated to those in poverty. And it’s the next generation that is going to suffer.
A mother and father that are both educated and working in good jobs may not have the resources to meet the financial requirements of third level education for their children. This means that a whole generation may not get the opportunities to better themselves and will see families go backwards in their educational aspirations.
In Donegal, a vast number of students go to Galway and Dublin to avail of the universities in those cities. Both cities have witnessed an unprecedented surge in rental prices, which leaves students with little choice but to pay in excess of €125 a week for lodgings. This is ludicrous and rental controls need to be brought in, especially for student accommodation. But when universities themselves are charging €6,000 a year for basic digs, it is clear that there is no sentiment involved in what is basically a money making racket.
The continued success of LYIT is a welcome boost to Donegal students, with a lower cost of living and a continual increase in the courses on offer, but for some, it is not the courses that they wish to pursue. Therefore, the onus is on politicians from the region to continue to lobby for the upgrade of LYIT and forge a link between the University of Ulster and the Letterkenny campus. This would see a whole new range of courses from different disciplines, which would attract a broader range of students.
Another avenue that could be explored is the possibility of student loans, which would only be paid back when the graduate has gained full-time employment. This would allow all students, with the determination and will to succeed, to access courses of their choice and remove the burden from their parents. This loan system could be state sponsored and offer cheap loans to students, who want to better themselves without the pressure of a high rate loan.
But for now, families will be having sleepless nights, as they try to gather up money for their child’s education, feeling like failures, if they are unable to do so. And the question remains, ‘how long is the government going to wait before it takes action?’