Transition Year Overall Winner: Robyn Maxwell, Coláiste Muire, Co. Clare
It is blatantly obvious to any remotely observant individual in Ireland that the current system for the funding of third-level education is not sustainable and, if not reformed, could bring about even more issues in the already suffering sector. The Cassels report of July 2016 recognises this and highlights more suitable methods of funding third-level that would allow the quality of higher education in Ireland to return to its former glory. I disagree with the proposition from Niamh Hourigan of the Sociology Department at UCC in which she claimed that tax is the best way to fund third-level and that the implementation of student loans would cause graduates to ‘flee’. My belief is that a combination of student loans and increased funding from the government is the best way to fund third-level education.
Since the onset of the recession in 2008, there has been a significant deterioration in the quality of third-level education in Ireland. Facilities and student-to-staff ratios have been among the areas that have suffered. Third-level education is becoming increasingly inaccessible for students and parents when faced steep costs of accommodation as well the annual €3,000 fee. An estimation by DIT put the annual cost of attending college away from home at an expensive €11,000 per year! As a result of cutbacks in recent years, the positions of leading Irish colleges in the world rankings have plummeted. Trinity College is currently the only Irish College rated in the top 100 of the international rankings. With the number of students progressing to higher education predicted to increase by a third in the next ten years, it is clear that something needs to change in order to avoid further damage to the third-level system.
The concept of student loans involves education that is ‘free’ for students at the point of access. After students graduate and begin to earn over a set minimum amount, they would be obliged to begin paying for their education while also having the option of paying up front. For numerous reasons, I consider this to be a highly attractive option when paired with increased funding from the state. Firstly, it lessens the debilitating pressure on parents countrywide to save enough money to send their children to college. There is no doubt in my mind that many parents would still want to help their children in paying for their college education, but there would no longer be such a pressure because some or all of the responsibility could pass to the student. It puts students on a much more level playing field when deciding whether or not to further their education, as the financial situation of the family is less of a factor to consider. Many people disagree with the prospect of debt hanging over the head of young graduates before they even begin working. I, however, think that the implementation of a ‘study now, pay later’ scheme would put a greater value on education for students and motivate them to work harder and get a good job. Students would learn earlier the importance of managing their money and living independently. As with anything in life, if you are paying for your education out of your own pocket, you want to ensure it is a worthwhile investment!
Of course, these loans would have to be offered at extremely low interest rates, of at most 3%, in order for it to be an attractive offer to second-level students. High interest rates on these loans are just not an option as it would further drive up the already exorbitant price of going to college. In order for the system to work, the cost of attending third-level cannot afford to increase any further.
Furthermore, I consider it vital that there would be an increase in funding from the Irish government. The current government funding of 64% is significantly below the EU average of 79%. A higher percentage of state funding would prevent the further increase of the cost of attending college and allow students of a more wide variety of backgrounds to receive qualifications and degrees. In my opinion, the third-level sector is an extremely worthy recipient of state money. By investing money in the students of today, the state would be enabling the graduates of tomorrow to attend college, progress into successful careers and make a positive impact not only in Ireland but around the world. These students are the politicians, the engineers, the lawyers, the doctors and the scientists of the future who could potentially go on to make notable advancements in their respective fields. Is it not worthwhile investing in the students that will one day be the bright people running this country? In addition to this, a high percentage of skilled graduates would make Ireland very attractive to companies thinking of setting up here. This would result in more jobs and increased economic stability for Ireland.
Contrary to Niamh Hourigan’s view, I do not think that tax is the most feasible option for funding third-level education. I believe that if additional taxes were imposed on Irish earners, there would be very strong objections. Undoubtedly, these taxes would have to be quite high in order for there to be sufficient funding available, and I do not think that the Irish people would be happy to see more money deducted from their payslips, especially if they did not think that their children would ever attend college. In my opinion, the majority of people would rather pay a specific amount of money for the education of their families than spend their lives paying tax for the education of other students.
In conclusion, a student loan system aided by a considerable increase in state funding is a far superior option to tax funding and would allow all students to consider the option of attending college, regardless of their financial background. With careful reform, I think that Ireland has the potential to make up for the lost ground of recent years and reclaim its reputation for excellent third-level education.