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Union of Students in Ireland statement on proposed Programme for Government

The Union of Students in Ireland (USI) welcomes aspects of the Programme for Government set out by Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party but is concerned about a lack of detail on how a number of key actions will be achieved.

While a commitment has been made that the student contribution charge will not be increased, we are disappointed that there is no plan to reduce what are the highest college and university fees in the European Union, within the five-year period covered by the proposed agreement.

Currently standing at €3,000 for undergraduate students, and between €4,000 and €9,000 plus for postgraduates, the charge is a barrier to education for many, and we should be aiming to break these barriers, especially in light of the global pandemic which is forecast to lead to an economic recession.

A number of commitments outlined in the Programme for Government are in line with USI policy and we welcome the recognition of the need for substantial change in these areas.

These include the undertaking to: develop a long-term sustainable funding model for higher education; review SUSI eligibility and adjacency rates and address the gap in postgraduate grants; introduce a deposit return scheme for plastic bottles and cans; provide a range of free, adequate, safe, and suitable period products in all publicly-funded educational settings (including schools and colleges); and recognition of the vital work of the Universities of Sanctuary project and commitment that the State will further increase the supports for people in direct provision to access third-level education.

Having campaigned for a number of years for the end of Direct Provision, we are glad to see this commitment in the programme and we will continue to work with others to ensure it is replaced by a humane and expeditious alternative.

We also welcome the intention to work with Higher Education Institutions to ensure more accommodation is built on and off campus and the indication of a cost rental model being pursued. The definition of cost rental will need to be clarified and must be affordable. For us, the “other models” should include publicly funded projects as opposed to the continuation of the National Student Accommodation Strategy policy of relying on the private market.

There are quite a number of reviews and examinations related to the higher education sector detailed in the programme and the USI strongly believes that these need to be undertaken with urgency, and all relevant stakeholders including students, staff and student representatives included in the discussions such as the review of the Back to Education Allowance to ensure it can help those unemployed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, the lack of detail is again seen in the commitment to “ensure that mental health supports are available for students in Higher and Further Education.” Students at both undergraduate and postgraduate level need a commitment to increase resources for mental health projects and programmes and policies to make these a central aspect of college life.

There are positive plans in the Programme for Government, many that are in-line with USI policy, but we recognise that it has to be approved by the membership of the parties involved.

But if the programme is approved and a government formed, they still remain plans and the student movement will campaign, lobby and hold the government to account as it has always done, to ensure the promises that are in line with our policy become a reality.

Furthermore, there is much missing from this Programme for Government that was lobbied for in the Student Manifesto for General Election 2020, and as such, much more work to be done.

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