Students took to the streets in Dublin on 3 November 2010, protesting against a proposed increase in registration fees for third level courses. Undergraduate education in Ireland is nominally free, though the spiralling level of registration fees (from  €900 euro in 2008 to €1500 this year) raises important questions about what exactly ‘free’ means. The emphasis on fees, however, directs attention away from the other important barrier to participation in third level education. The only state support provided to students is an annual maintenance grant, which is means-tested. A student who qualifies for a full grant, and who lives more than 24km from the college she plans to attend, gets €3,250 a year to cover living expenses. Taking the college year at 35 weeks, this works out at €92.85 a week to cover all living expenses, including rent, food, bills and travel. This grant has been already reduced by 5% this year, and may well be reduced further. ‘Disadvantaged’ students may receive an additional €3,105 a year, but only if they meet a range of stringent conditions.

Unlike many other OECD countries, Ireland has no state-backed loan scheme to help students fund education, so students turn to part-time jobs or commercial loans, both of which are increasingly difficult to access. The way in which grants are paid out further contributes to financial worry for students – they are paid out by VECs or local authorities in 3 installments throughout the year, but there are considerable variations in the timing of the payments, and payments are often late. As a result, some students are experiencing significant financial hardship, which in turns affects their ability to complete their third-level education. Third-level institutions can provide emergency support from student hardship funds, but this is a stop-gap measure only.

If Ireland as a ‘knowledge society’ has any validity, then we need to address barriers to third-level participation and completion. Fees are an important factor, certainly, but so too is financial assistance for those bright and capable people with limited means to afford the other costs associated with studying (like living expenses). Let’s not forget this important fact as the debate over fees takes centre stage.

Mary Gilmartin