“Educate that you might be free” – Thomas Davis, Young Irelander, 1814 – 1845
There will be a lot of media spin and government soundbites in the coming days after a government commission report on funding Irish higher education released some its findings.
I imagine that they will follow the usual lines that are regurgitated to us when the state wants us to submit to further marketisation of public services. All about how this will be good for jobs and investment and how the current model is failing and that this is the only alternative, and anyone who opposes just does not want to pay for anything.
The accepted line in the media is that the confidential report (Funding Irish Higher Education: A Virtuous Circle of Investment, Quality and Verification) recommends a new income contingent loan system for graduates, increased maintenance grants for low income families and a greater contribution from both state and employer. But those of us who live in the real world know that’s a load bullshit.
This report, funded by the taxpayer, is most likely just a way of testing public opinion before the inevitable. But it certainly is not a new strategy of the free market ideology. Just look at our friends across the Irish Sea. Students crippled with huge debt and rising fees living in a society with soaring private rental prices, where labour is devalued and even most college graduates have a difficult time finding a decent or well paid job. It’s almost a mirror image for young people here all we are short is the student debt.
Students are already faced with huge funding problems during their time of study the last thing they need is for those problem to stay with them once they have finished. Every year there is huge accommodation crisis for students and how often do we hear the stories of students sleeping in cars or having no food for days. Some students who are on grants would probably happily welcome the abolishing of SUSI if it meant they finally got their grant and I am sure students who cannot avail of grants would welcome a state sponsored loan scheme. But have no doubt though that this will lead to further entrapment of a generation and a generation to come. Not only will they be burdened with the state’s bank debt which stands somewhere around €67 billion, they will also have to carry the weight of the student debt.
Currently there are 2 main fees students are required to pay while attending an IT or University in the Republic of Ireland, these are tuition fees and student contribution/registration fees.
The student contribution which currently stands at €3000 a year having rose from €2000 in the lifetime of this government. Tuition fees can vary depending on course and usually start around €4000 yearly. Grants are available for both but applicants go through a rigid and flawed means testing process. The grants were historically dealt with at local council level but were lobbed into a national universal grant authority in 2012 following years of money mismanagement and reported cronyism. It was common knowledge that if you were friendly with the right local politicians regardless of your income you would have little trouble getting a grant but it was also known that if little Johnny’s grant money was being delayed his mother could pop in to the local VEC office and make as much of a nuisance of herself as she had to until it was all sorted. This new body was called Student Universal Support Ireland, or SUSI, and most of their administration work was outsourced to Cork based company called Abtran (coincidentally they have also been awarded other state outsourcing contracts such as Local Property Tax and Irish Water but that’s an article for another day).
From day one there was a huge public outcry following massive delays in processing of grants and payments. Parents and students alike were met with astronomical amounts of misinformation, red tape and secrecy. It was widely accepted that the whole thing was a farce. There are many tales of people who had to wait until the next academic year to be awarded their grant and receive payment and more from those who could not afford to wait and had to drop out. Although the process has become more efficient these tales are still to be found widely as the body continues in its 4th academic year in operation of the grants system. Not surprising really it’s much easier to get rid of a national body hated by the public rather than one that does a swell job. Hence why taking these responsibilities off the local VEC is just all smoke and mirrors. But now the mask is finally off.
The marketisation of our education system has been taking place a long time and I think this can be seen from the education that is received in 3rd level institutes. These institutes, especially universities, are seen to be centres of learning where free thinking is praised and knowledge is protected and created at the same time. Instead they have become extremely market oriented as professional associations exert greater influence. Also the fact that many college graduates actually struggle to find decent paying jobs questions the benefit of third level education in comparison with the cost. Another worrying trend is of graduates being manipulated into internships which frankly, no matter how you dress it up, is free labour. This is a huge cause for concern as not only is labour devalued but the education that some of us could end up getting in €16000 worth of debt for is also devalued.
As it stands this is just a report and not exactly government policy yet. With a general election looming it is doubtful the big parties will come out in full support of the loan system but be assured it will be revisited. Neo-liberals play the long term game; they done it with water and housing and they are doing it with education and healthcare. Nothing will be safe until it is all opened up to the markets. I predict massive opposition from the student population but the question is can we resist or will we be beaten into submission?