Today’s budget may have been a generous one for many, but once again, students are left feeling shortchanged.
While greater investment in the higher education sector looks good at the outset, €57 million ultimately falls far short of what’s needed to plug the widening funding gap across Irish universities. Allocating more money to housing is a welcome move for the ever-growing numbers of homeless students, but the lobbying of student groups for accommodation has come at a cost of neglecting the core student issue: higher education funding. At this point, it seems like questions posed in the Cassells report will never be answered, as constituencies more likely to vote are given precedence over students once again, in what is clearly an “election budget”.
This is manifestly the clearest indication yet that Fine Gael is gearing up for a general election campaign over the coming months. In stark contrast to last year’s decidedly conservative budget, which was pitched by the government as a “balance-the-books” budget, Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe has today delivered an overwhelmingly generous budget, with tax cuts across the board guaranteed to play well to an economically resurgent Ireland. However, in both the Donohoe’s statement and the subsequent media coverage, higher education funding has featured as nothing more than a mere footnote.
The lobbying of student groups for accommodation has come at a cost of neglecting the core student issue: higher education funding.
While significant concessions have been made to Fine Gael’s base in middle Ireland, with changes to inheritance tax brackets certain to appeal to middle-class voters who have long felt squeezed by successive budgets, this has been another disheartening budget for students who have yet again been forgotten about as the government chooses to focus on the middle-class voters that returned it to power in 2016.
Despite a renewed focus on questions of higher education funding in last year’s Budget, which promised €310 million to the sector over the next three years, that focus seems to have fallen by the wayside this year with just €150 million to be invested over the coming year. While few expected any major movement on the development of a new funding model for higher education, the announcement will certainly have come as as a blow to the Union of Students Ireland (USI), who this morning protested against an anticipated allocation of €300 million. Síona Cahill, the President of the USI, said the organisation is “extremely disappointed”.
While, in 2016, the Cassells Report recommended the investment of €600 million per year in the higher education sector by 2021 to prevent the malaise of our third-level system, the government has shown little enthusiasm in the years since to combat the alarming decline of Ireland’s universities. As Trinity and University College Dublin continue to slip in the rankings, this year’s budget offers colleges little room to manoeuvre as they endeavour to halt that slide.
This budget yet again highlights the disheartening reality that politicians don’t view students as a coherent voting block.
In light of the focus on middle Ireland and older voters, this budget yet again highlights the disheartening reality that politicians don’t view students as a coherent voting block. The knock-on effect of this is that successive budgets have sought to court the votes of other social groups at the expense of students.
It is important to note that students efforts in combating the housing crisis have been rewarded, with €2.3 billion to be invested in housing next year, a move which will surely alleviate some of the pressure on Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy. The decision comes in light of last week’s housing march which saw 3,000 students march to Leinster House and highlight the fact that students retain the ability to influence the national debate.
The budget has given students one good thing: dramatically increased investment in housing. With USI and other student lobby groups having shifted focus away from higher education to housing in recent months, it many ways, they’ve gotten what they’ve asked. But it’s come at a cost. It gives rise to the question: have we been fighting hard enough to bring this funding crisis to an end, if even dedicated student groups don’t consider it their top priority?
While this year’s budget has increased funding for the sector as a whole, the failure to move towards the funding levels outlined in in the Cassells Report is a disheartening admission by the government that the gradual decline in the standard of Irish universities is still not a priority.