In 2012, maintenance grants were removed for postgraduate students. Since then students, who are often charged fees of upwards of €10,000 for their chosen degree by increasingly cash-strapped universities, have not been eligible for any form of state support. Instead, private loans become the only option for many of those wishing to continue their study in Ireland.
This week saw the issue these grants on the agenda again, with Fianna Fáil calling on the government to reverse their removal. At a time when higher education is far down most political agendas, it is a pleasant surprise to hear our second-largest party focus on the relatively niche issue of postgraduate grants.
It comes as a surprise because postgraduate issues are often pushed down the agenda of most student leaders. Whether it is the presidents of individual student unions or the Union of Students in Ireland (USI), their expertise lies in issues faced by undergraduates.The media too have even less understanding of the struggles faced by postgraduates. When the Cassells report was published, it was the potential for undergraduate loans that made all the headlines, not the recommendation to reinstate postgraduate maintenance grants.
Yet this is a goal that might be achievable in the short-run for the student movement. At the cost of only €50 million, and with mainstream political support, effective lobbying on this issue might soon see results. A return to state-supported grants might just push more students into upskilling in a postgraduate degree — something which can only benefit our universities and our economy.
Calls for a reinstatement of grants is a good start. But it needs to be matched by a more sustained interest in the daily challenges of postgraduate students. While undergraduates worry about loan schemes, postgraduates have ever increasing fees to dwell on, or the pressure of increased teaching hours. With discussions of funding models and free education now slowly entering the mainstream, it is important to ensure that the problems faced by undergraduates don’t dominate, and that our postgraduates are able to benefit from any public debate on the future of higher education.