By Mark Lynch
Budget 2020 has failed to address the issue of core funding at third level, according to the Students’ Union of NUI Galway, as well as the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) and the Irish Universities Association (IUA).
Minister for Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, Pascal Donohue, announced Budget 2020 on October 8th, with the ever-growing possibility of a no-deal Brexit dominating his decisions. €1.2 billion of funding will be put aside to handle the fallout of what transpires as the UK attempts to leave the EU, which excludes the funding that the EU will provide. Elsewhere, €11 billion will go to the education sector as a whole, of which, The Irish Times reports, an unprecedented €1.8 billion will go towards the third level education sector. This would see an increase of €114 million on last year, mainly going towards the human capital initiative (where third level institutions would compete for funding by pitching courses in areas where there exists skills gaps). Despite this additional funding to specific areas within third level, student bodies, both local and national, say that the Minister hasn’t addressed the main issue facing students at third level, which is still core funding.
The USI, which represents over 374,000 students across the island of Ireland, launched the ‘Break the Barriers’ campaign in August, which called on the Government to break the barriers to third level education – namely, financial barriers. This includes third level fees, the rising cost of accommodation, and the stagnant SUSI grant. None of these were directly addressed in Budget 2020, which has led to criticism from student circles.
President of the Students’ Union in NUI Galway, Clare Austick, outlined how she feels that students were ignored, “It’s a very, very disappointing budget and the Minister definitely did not listen to, or consider, students in the budget. It’s not a student-friendly budget”. She adds, “There is no core funding for existing services, which is badly needed. Everything that we asked for was ignored. We have lobbied TDs and Senators with the USI in July and submitted a budget document, but none of that was reflected in Budget 2020”.
USI President, Lorna Fitzpatrick, echoed the idea that the Government has, once again, let university students down. “Students across the country have been calling on the government to break the barriers of accessing and continuing in education. Students have been forgotten in this budget and for this, we are furious, but our voices will be heard. We asked for Budget 2020 to break the barriers to accessing education but instead it has effectively put more up”.
The IUA acknowledged that, to a certain extent, the Minister’s hands were tied, as Brexit takes priority, but has pointed to the “growing gap in core funding in our third level system” as an issue the Government needs to address, as it will lead to reduced quality in Irish universities. “Core funding shortfalls means that the student-teacher ratio, already one of the highest in Europe, will deteriorate in our universities as the numbers of students increase due to the inevitable democratic bulge”. Our own SU President also explained how the lack of core funding will manifest itself in university life, “Nothing will change for students. They will still be struggling to pay for their fees, accommodation and the overall cost of living. Students will continue to have to work part-time jobs to stay in college, defer the year to work or struggle financially for the year. The standard of support services on campuses across Ireland won’t be addressed, meaning students will be put on waiting lists to avail of the counselling service. New buildings won’t be constructed, and existing ones will not be made more accessible, so the student-staff ratio will remain the same. There’ll be no change in the SUSI grant and the overall system of higher-level education”.
The failure of the Government to increase core funding at third level has some stark consequences, according to the IUA, who claim, “The growing funding crisis in universities is sowing the seeds of economic failure for Ireland. Upcoming generations will be short-changed. Ireland risks becoming less competitive. Ireland’s universities continue to slip down the international rankings. Employers may seek to locate elsewhere in Europe, where suitably qualified talent is available. All of this has a negative knock-on impact on the Exchequer. Independent research confirms that every Euro invested in our universities creates almost €9 in return for the economy. If we want to future-proof our society and economy, there’s no better investment than third level education”.
Ms Fitzpatrick, President of USI, profoundly vowed that, while students have been ignored in this budget, they won’t be ignored in future elections, “Budget 2020 will be remembered as the budget that lit a fire in students that won’t be put out until reasonable funding is put into third level education. Over the past few weeks, we have been in campuses across Ireland, registering students to vote and encouraging them to contact their TDs and Senators and we will continue to do so. Our representatives will know that Budget 2020 has failed us and failed the future generation of students”. She finished, “While this budget failed to listen to students, we are adamant that this period of ignorance will end when we take to the ballot box in the next general election”.