As someone who qualified for the full student maintenance grant and relied on this to get me through college, my greatest motivation in this role is endeavouring to protect our most financially vulnerable members and their right to the same academic opportunities I received.
I have spent the last number of years representing students from lower-socio economic backgrounds who were struggling to deal with the constrained economic climate, increasing costs of going to college and reduced student supports. This has created a perfect storm which has left many hard-pressed students and families at their wits’ end.
So without hesitation, if I could change one thing about our education system, it would be that financial barriers to accessing third-level education would no longer be a concern. Families would no longer have to sit around the kitchen table deciding if they could afford to send all or some of their children to third-level. Young people would know that the only factor influencing their entry to college was their academic ability.
Higher Education is not public spending- It is public investment. It is an investment in the future of this country and in economic recovery, and it offers a guaranteed social and economic return.
It is not only those who attend third-level education that benefit from this investment. It is well-established that graduates are more likely to become employers, will pay considerably more tax over their lifetimes, and make an economic contribution far greater than the initial State investment. Our society benefits, our economy benefits, we all benefit.
In 2011, our student maintenance grant system was described by officials in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform as being “generally regarded as insufficient to meet the maintenance costs of going to college”.
2 years and 2 further cuts later, and our student grant has been pared to the bone and beyond.
Before the economic downturn, this posed somewhat less of a challenge for students’ financial survival in college. Part-time employment was easier to come by. College costs were easier to bear. Parents and families had greater disposable income to supplement their sons and daughters.
Now, many students are forced to rely almost exclusively on this payment alone. At an average of €84 per week, this is considerably less than what this State deems the lowest amount a young person can be expected to live off- The lowest rate of Jobseekers Allowance for an unqualified 18-19 year old, at €100 per week.
For many, dropping out and going on the dole would be a short-term financial easing, and this is an unacceptable state of affairs which has caused great hardship, angst and strain to the youth of this country.
If the devastation caused by last year’s SUSI grants processing debacle achieved one thing, it was to highlight the fundamental importance of the student maintenance grant to students and families up and down the country.
Our grants system is deeply flawed, deeply insufficient for the poorest in our society, and in dire need of reform. It remains, however, the one thing that manages to keep tens of thousands of our best and brightest afloat long enough to become the highly-skilled, highly-qualified graduates our economy relies on.
That is why it is vitally important that having been targeted in four consecutive Budgets, the student maintenance grant is fully protected in both the rate and the threshold in this October’s Budget.
We would urge the Minister and the Government to put their faith in the future drivers of this country’s economy, and impose no further austerity on a third-level education system at breaking point.