Grant issues

In the middle of the economic crisis affecting this country, two decisions were taken in Ireland that would of necessity have a major impact on the affordability of higher education for students. First, in the revised programme for government the coalition parties promised they would not reintroduce tuition fees; and shortly afterwards the higher education grant for students from less wealthy families was cut by 5 per cent in the Budget of December 2009. Although this was probably not a deliberate strategy and the two decisions were not necessarily connected, the effect is to indicate that access to higher education for the disadvantaged is not as important in terms of policy priorities as the protection of middle class interests. Asking students from wealthier families to contribute to the cost of their studies was seen as politically undesirable; cutting the support for poorer students was not such a problem.

And if you thought that this might indicate a questionable set of priorities, look at what has actually happened to grant payments for those who are eligible: a very significant number of students have had their payments delayed. So for example, some €2 million in grants are currently outstanding for DCU students alone. This has huge implications for the students concerned, because they will have been unable to pay the student registration charge, and so they will be unable to access key services including the library and access to examination results. If you then factor in that the kind of jobs that students might typically have done in the past to supplement their income while studying are now often not available, these circumstances are placing a burden on disadvantaged students that may well see some of them having to drop out of their studies.

This is an unacceptable state of affairs, and appears to indicate that as a country we do not place equal opportunities and the right to access higher education amongst our priorities. It also suggests, to me at least, that the commitment to avoid tuition fees is particularly related to the desire to protect better off voters.

This issue needs to get more public attention, and the delay in grant payments needs to be resolved immediately.

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18 Comments on “Grant issues”

  1. Geoff Says:

    When I was in UCD from 2000-2004 grant recipients did not have to pay the student registration fee. Has this changed or is it done on a college by college basis?

    • It’s still the case, but only in the sense that the council pays it for you. But if the council is not paying, you’re not paying, and this places you in the position that you are not entitled to the services in question.

  2. Vincent Says:

    Now I must qualify what I’m about to write in that the info in ten or more years out of date. Nevertheless there is nothing to indicate that things are much different.
    Put simply the Grant is completely in the hands of the County Councils. So if one student has gotten the Grant then the Exchequer has sent the moneys out to all the Local Authorities. So the delay is not the error of central Government, but that this Grant money has been put by the LA to other uses.
    To my mind this is a issue for the Courts. Where a test could be carried before a Red Judge -that was- payed for in a Pro Bono Publico basis by the SU and all of the Colleges. It would have the added advantage of sharpening the teeth of the baby lawyers.
    On the cuts for those that can least afford it rather that lift Taxes one iota. Remember that the cut to the unemployed is almost 7% not the 4% spoken about in the Budget. For if the Politicians can amalgamate over the calendar year rather that over each budget the cuts per week comes to 12 euro.
    All in all you would have to wonder what bet -strategy is wat to strong a word- FF are making. For myself, I think its in two parts. First, that huge numbers will have gone before any general election. Second, that FG will do the usual and hack off all but those hoping that the hooks in the Hanghouse are brought back into use. Lord help FF if Labour ever gets its arse into gear and decides it actually wants Power and distances itself from Liberty Hall.

  3. Jilly Says:

    It’s worth noting (without in anyway defending the thinking of FF) that ultimately it was the Greens who forced through the shelving of any plan to reintroduce fees. Knowing that they were likely to be wiped out in any coming election, they took a deeply cynical decision to try and appeal to their core vote: middle-class urban voters, many of whom would have been required to pay fees if they’d been reintroduced. This was, as you say, done with no effort whatsoever to protect low-income students. And THEN they’ve had to gall to claim that their contribution to the coalition has been to ‘protect education’ in the current economic climate, when in fact what they were protecting was their middle-class electorate, even as the 3rd level system in this country crumbles before our eyes.

    I’m actually very conflicted about the reintroduction of fees. On the one hand, I’ve seen the figures and I know that free 3rd level hasn’t really improved equality of access, and instead has diverted vast sums of middle-class income to fee-paying schools with which they effectively buy higher Leaving Cert points for their children, thus ‘buying’ a college place which is then funded (very badly) by lower-income tax payers.

    On the other hand, I personally benefitted from the abolition of fees: I’d started college the year before as a mature student, with 1 year’s worth of fees to my name. I had no idea where the other years’ fees were going to come from, and would quite possibly never have graduated if they hadn’t been abolished. Also, my partner went to college in the days of fees, and was a classic example of a genuinely working-class, low-income student who was told that his PAYE parents’ income was just too much to qualify for any fee reduction, only to get to college (at great sacrifice by his parents) to find lots of middle-class students from non-PAYE families who had managed to ‘hide’ enough of their income to qualify for fee reductions. So the old system was iniquitous too.

    My big concern about the reintroduction of fees would be that it would be as unequally-structured as the old system, thus still excluding poorer students. I mean, who would trust the current government to design a fair and equal system?

    • Vincent Says:

      Ah but Jilly the real beauty of the Old system was the Covenents. Where it did not matter if you were in any way connected to the Scholar you could still gain. Ten members of say the Golf Club, with or without kids could manage their moneys such that they were making very real money out of sending their sprog to Uni’. This was how the Free fees were mostly revenue neutral.

    • kevin denny Says:

      The level of access by low income groups has increased but not by very much and this is probably to expansion of the system (i.e. supply) rather than the abolition of fees (i.e. demand) since low income kids wouldn’t have been paying anyway in general.
      The Labour Party were responsible for the abolition in 1995 and insist, despite the fact that its an obvious lie, that abolition somehow helped make for a more level playing field when in fact it did the reverse. Since it removed the one advantage the low income kids: they were exempt from fees. So that was pretty cynical but I am sure it bought them some nice middle class votes and- this is important- probably didn’t cost them any votes. Working class communities probably didn’t realize how they were getting screwed on this one.
      The old system wasn’t perfect, as you say, because some self-employed people can milk the system but that’s not a reason to abolish it: its a reason to reform it. For example, if you average people’s income over a number of years and also take account of assets which are harder to hide.
      The problem is that there are several distinct policy targets here: how to finance universities and how to improve access and basically you need multiple instruments (there is a rule of thumb in economic policy that you need as many instruments as you have objectives). So re-introducing fees will help the first problem. Its unlikely we would go right back to the old system but an income contingent loan scheme like Oz or the UK. At the same time, you need financial support for low income students: fees remission and maintenance. On top of that you need access programs to directly help low income students. If I can plug my own work, the link below has an evaluation that I was involved in of the effect of the UCD one, New ERA. Its the only quantitative evidence we have of the effects of such programs.

      • Jilly Says:

        That all seems very reasonable, Kevin. Except that again, it’s reliant on the government thinking it through and implementing it in that reasoned and nuanced way. Whereas, as today’s post emphasises, political expediency and lack of detailed planning would seem the more likely approach. In which case, we’d be back with the bad old system of exclusionary college fees.

    • Jilly, we would clearly have to have a very different system from the one that existed before free fees were introduced – I agree entirely that the old system was unacceptable, for the reasons you give. Vincent is right about the covenants, by the way.

  4. Perry Share Says:

    It will be interesting to see if the Hunt Committee set out a strategy for an Australian HECS-style scheme, or some other alternative, even though ‘fees’ are allegedly off the political agenda. As Jilly points out, any such approach would require an unprecedented level of joined-up thinking.

    F – I don’t suppose you have any idea when we are likely to see the report?

  5. Ros Says:

    This is the first time I’ve seen any reaction to the cut in the HEA grant. At least if the cut had been delayed until next year it wouldn’t have been so bad, but to cut it half way through the year is beyond belief and shows the total disregard and contempt in which the current ‘government’ hold those of us who try to change our circumstances through education. Don’t they realize that students and their families have based their academic year expenses on what they were allocated last year. Rents have been set and loans guaranteed on the basis of this. I’ve been hit on the double as my widow’s pension was cut by 8 Euro 50 cent leaving me with the grand total of 201 Euro per week to live on. If I’d seen this coming I may have continued in the job I had to leave in order to study full-time. I didn’t mind having to make sacrifices for what I believe is a wonderful opportunity which is helping me re-build my life and will pay dividends in the long-term, but if we could just see some humanity from those who claim to be working in our country’s best interests it would make these bitter pills a little less difficult to swallow. Thank you for raising this issue Ferdinand and I hope you won’t disappear from view when you step down in the summer.

    • Thank you, Ros. Like you I was struck that absolutely *nobody* has been commenting on this in public. I intend to become more vocal still about it.

      • kevin denny Says:

        It may because the media, or at least certain prominent parts of it, are distinctively uninterested in this. Its all very well to say nice things about equality,access,help the poor, disadvantaged blah blah. However when it comes to educational finance one can’t avoid the question of the middle class making a contribution and the obvious inequity of the present system. So nice people don’t want to talk about horrid things like that.
        Let me give you another example and this might seem like quite a jump but its not. When the Report on child abuse in the Dublin Archdiocese was released recently, the Irish Times helpfully had a map of where the offending priests were based. Almost without exception they were in working class areas. One could not help notice it, it was so blindingly obvious. Yet as far as I am aware no one has thought this worthy of mention. Concern for the underpriveleged only goes so deep.

  6. Steve Says:

    Todays Sindo story on the grant makes for interesting reading, and for the record I get the grant and it certainly doesn’t go on booze or fags…

    • Perry Share Says:

      Big deal: usual Sindo student-bashing. Is there a contributor to this blog that could, hand on heart, say they spend more in a year on booze than books? 2004/5 weekly household expenditure in Ireland according to the CSO Household Budget Survey): €3.67 on books; €35.19 on alcohol). Its not all students!

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