The number of third-level students that have received financial grants over the past five years has risen by 18,778 in Ireland.
According to figures provided by Student Universal Support Ireland (SUSI), the number of students that have received financial grants rose from 60,022 in the academic year 2013-2014 to 78,778 in the academic year 2016-2017. That is an increase of 31%.
In the academic year 2013-2014, the number of third-level students that were awarded grants was 73,326, that number drastically increased by over 5,000 to 79,861 students in the year 2014-2015.
For many, the student grant scheme is the only possible way for them to attend university, with student contribution fees currently set at €3,000 per year, more than trebling since 2008.
In 2002, the registration fee rose by 70%, from €396 to €670. This was followed by a further increase to €750 in 2003. Fees gradually built up over the following six years, and jumped from €900 to €1,500 in 2009, and then again to €2,000 in 2010, and are now at the current contribution of €3,000 in 2015.
On top of this €3,000 a year, there are travel costs, accommodation, living costs and books which can add up to a hefty amount for students.
In recent reports by the European Commission, it was found that Irish third-level students pay the second highest fees in Europe, after England, where students pay up to £10,000 a year for tuition.
The idea of a student loans scheme has been put forward in the past, but Taoiseach Leo Varadkar quickly ruled it out.
This proposal of a student loan scheme resulted in thousands of students protesting last year in October, calling for more public investment in third-level education in Ireland.
The Union of Students in Ireland are against this loan scheme, which they said will result in a radical increase in student fees from €3,000 up to €5,000 and could leave students graduating with a debt of at least €20,000.
With this week’s Budget still fresh in the minds of many across the country, how are the measures announced going to affect the third level students of Ireland?
Cian Gaffney is a final year Religion, History and Teaching student in Mater Dei who had this to say about the Budget as a whole: “I do think the budget was technically fair, in that its pros slightly outweighed its cons. I think this is a carefully crafted budget that finely walks the balance between being safe for the parties involved, while giving the illusion of being more progressive than it probably is. Put simply, it’s just politics.”
Students like Cian Gaffney could breathe a sigh of relief when they discovered the Student Maintenance Grant would remain at the same amount as the previous year. However, with rent prices in Dublin continuing to increase the Wexford native felt it was “unfair” not to increase the monthly grant, given the current cost of living.
“Given the ever-increasing exorbitant rent in cities around the country, [particularly] Dublin from personal experience, I think the grant remaining the same is absolutely unfair. The grant should be relative to the average cost conditions of the student body, and this is simply not the case. A balance needed to be struck, and it wasn’t,” he said.
“Whether by incorporating more into the existing student grant, or creating another measure entirely, something should have been done to tackle this directly. The exclusion of such is all the more obvious in this budget given the progressive strides in other areas.”
Those who like Mr Gaffney will be entering the workforce in less than a year also had to pay attention to tax measures being addressed in the Budget. With the hugely unpopular Universal Social Charge (USC) remaining in place but being decreased it was clear the Government was out to win some votes before the general election next year.
“In terms of the USC, taking into account the field my studies would naturally enter me into, I shouldn’t realistically be affected too much either way. However, any adjustment to an unpopular levy in the general populace’s favour will naturally be seen as a positive one,” Mr Gaffney said.
It’s 6am on a brisk Saturday morning in November, and George Fitzgerald is about to embark on his weekly journey down to Cork from his home in Kinsealy, north county Dublin.
“When I’ve an assignment due it usually takes up to three or four hours in coursework a night. That’s all on top of the day job, and it’s by no means a 9-5 job either. The hours tend to be very long” says George, as he wrenches open the door of his Audi A4 ahead of another monumental trek south to Cork IT’s Bishopstown campus.
He’s one of a legion of middle-aged students across the country who are choosing to further their education by enrolling in third-level courses. According to latest Higher Education Authority (HEA) figures, full-time mature entrants now account for 14% of the student body in third-level institutions- nearly 10% more than in 1998.
“I could see the need to progress. I was with the same company for 23 years and I’d plenty of in-house training, but for me to progress outside of that I knew I had to get a degree” says George, a customer service manager at Network International Cargo.
Having completed a diploma in Supervisory Management at Dublin’s IBAT college earlier this year, his workplace is now fully subsidising his current part-time Bachelor of Business in Supply Chain degree course in Cork.
And he’s not alone.
According to HEA statistics for the 2011/2012 academic year, 17% of all participants in college courses were classified as mature students (over the age of 23). Of that number, an increasing amount fit George’s description, a fact illustrated by the massive 20% increase in 35-44 year-olds engaged in higher education from 2000 to 2010.
The accompanying report states that increasing unemployment and vulnerability of employment during recent recessionary times has led to many people who may not fit the profile of a conventional college student to either return to or take up third-level education as a means of bettering their career prospects. That’s definitely how George sees it.
“It definitely gives you an edge for your career prospects.
“Not only that, but it’s the stuff you pick up on the course. A lecturer might say something and you can see how that might slot into your own business. Those you’re working for see that you’re not afraid of hard work and putting the extra effort in as well as it being for your own progression.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by the employers union IBEC, whose recent survey found that 86% of employers involved are providing financial support to staff who are pursuing further education. This is a welcome development as Ireland looks to further solidify its position as a knowledge-based economy, according to Tony Donoghue, IBEC’s Head of Education and Innovation Policy.
“The only way that Irish standards of living can be maintained into the future is through the development and production of higher quality and more innovative products and services,” said Mr. Donoghue.
“By 2025, mature students are expected to account for a quarter of all students. The recent economic downturn has highlighted the importance of lifelong learning and workforce development. Jobs are becoming increasingly skill-intensive and this trend is certain to continue.”
Latest estimates put Ireland 6% above the OECD average of 25-64 year-olds with 3rd level qualifications. HEA Chief Executive Tom Boland said in the organisation’s 2012 report that our colleges are adapting to reflect their changing student body, which George Fitzgerald is most certainly glad to be a part of.
“I’d definitely recommend for others to do the same as me,” says George. “It’s very intense because I often have assignments due on successive weekends so it’s a difficult workload, but when you know you’re reaching a conclusion and seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, it’s definitely worth it. Just for a personal feeling of achievement if nothing else.”