This article originally appeared in The University Times
John Logue, President, the Union of Students in Ireland (USI)
This morning, a young man named Patrick Kelleher wrote a column for thejournal.ie on the in-betweeners. The students who don’t qualify for the grant yet can’t afford the ever-increasing Student Contribution Charge (SCC).
Patrick has just completed his Leaving Cert and is currently trying to find a way to pay for the SCC, which now stands at €2,250. Both his parents are working, his mother has three jobs, and yet they still can’t gather the €5,000 necessary to send both Patrick and his sister to college this September.
His argument is simple and it’s one that USI has echoed over the years: If the Government makes third level education financially prohibitive to Leaving Cert students then less of them will go to college and Ireland’s workforce will become unskilled, uneducated and uncompetitive. Unemployment will increase and Ireland will, as a society, regress.
Essentially, cutting investment in education and making it more difficult to attain a third level qualification makes no economic sense whatsoever.
This week, we learned that Bank of Ireland is set to roll out its student loan scheme to over twenty third level institutions in the country. USI acknowledges that, in the short-term, the loan scheme may help students and families cope with the financial burden placed on them by the SCC. It will remove the obligation to pay the SCC in large instalments, instead requiring the student to pay a monthly rate of €100.
However, as Patrick points out in his column, this will not ease financial stress for students who are paying for textbooks, rent, food and general living costs. Also, the student loan scheme offered by Bank of Ireland differs to those offered in the UK, where a loan holder only starts to make repayments once they are employed and are earning to a certain level.
In the United States, the government offers student loans with the Stafford scheme. Under this scheme, students don’t make payments while enrolled and are given six months after their graduation before repayments begin.
USI has some grave concerns about the short-term and long-term effects of the Bank of Ireland scheme.
First, from our consultation with Students’ Unions around the country, it’s clear that only a minority of them were properly consulted before their Colleges and BOI agreed to implement the scheme. Some Students’ Unions were only consulted in the final stages of negotiation and some weren’t consulted at all. For Colleges and BOI to agree on a student loan scheme without properly consulting the relevant Students’ Union is frankly disgraceful.
Second, there are a number of significant discrepancies between the literature that BOI has published and what Students’ Unions thought had been agreed. For example, in the bank’s literature it quite clearly states that, under this scheme, a loan will be given for the duration of the undergraduate degree and on fixed terms. This would preclude adjustments to account for any increases in the SCC, leaving the student to find an alternative way to pay for the increase. Some Students’ Unions have said that they had agreed with BOI that the loans would be reviewed from year-to-year to account for such changes.
However, it’s the long-term effects of this scheme that are particularly worrying to USI.
The scheme could lead to a steep increase in fees, as it gives the Government the impression that finance is available to cope with such increases. If this were to occur, it would not be long before we find ourselves in a comparable situation to the U.S., where graduates are burdened with massive debt upon leaving college because they have to take out ever-more-onerous loans to pay for steep increases in fees.
It also creates a ‘debt culture’ whereby the main means of financing a third level qualification is to apply for a loan from a private bank. There is no ‘public option’ available at the moment and the Government is unlikely to be able to offer one before the current bailout ends in 2018. Thus leaving six years for Ireland’s third level students to become indebted to a finance programme that is privately run and profit-driven. Not even in the U.S. does this situation exist. As I said above, the government there offers student loans and the majority of students who opt to take a loan favour the federal route.
USI’s main priority is, and has always been, to ensure access to education for all students regardless of their socio-economic background. There is no avoiding the conclusion that an escalation of ‘debt culture’ combined with consistent increases in fees will lead to the exclusion of students from lower socio-economic backgrounds; students who can barely afford to attend college now and who are, or will be, debt averse in future due to the spiralling costs of attaining a third level qualification.
So it has been in other countries, and so it will be in Ireland. Patrick’s vision of a long, winding dole queue will come to pass and Ireland’s workforce will be a husk of its former self.
Ireland has a choice to make. We can step off this cliff, into decades of ever-building student debt, or we can pause and reflect on how accessible we want third level education to be for all our young people.
It’s a decision we can’t afford to get wrong, for Patrick’s sake and the thousands who will come after him.