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Transition Year Runner Up: Tara Whittington, Coláiste na Sceilge, Co. Kerry

Transition Year Runner Up: Tara Whittington, Coláiste na Sceilge, Co. Kerry

Student loans are undoubtedly a frightening prospect, often linked to crippling debt and a subsequent inability to support yourself or get onto the property ladder. A look at our neighbour the UK can easily leave us horror-stricken at the effects of student loans.  In 2016 The Institute for Fiscal Studies in the UK concluded that ‘two-thirds of students will never pay off their debt’. These students are expected to pay for thirty long years until their debt is eventually written off, leaving them without ownership of their own home and too old to take out a mortgage, all for a course lasting just three to five years.

In this respect, I would have to agree with Niamh Hourigan’s statement that “student loans will make graduates flee”. This is certainly the situation emerging in the US where the average student debt is $28,000, causing increasing numbers of graduates to leave the states. Lawyer and author Adam Minsky gives an explanation for this as a ‘sense of hopelessness’ and a feeling that there are ‘greater opportunities overseas’ that will allow graduates to pay off or evade their debts.

Student loans in Ireland could certainly encourage the same levels of emigration. We are known for being dispersed worldwide and not averse to travelling.  It would not take a large amount of debt to attract our university graduates to opportunities abroad. Equally, with high quality, low-cost undergraduate courses available in Scandinavia, the Netherlands and Germany and many offered in English, those going into 3rd level may be drawn elsewhere. However, with the effects of government spending cuts and increases in class sizes between 2007 and 2014 becoming evident, 2016 league tables show only one Irish university not falling in international rankings.  It’s therefore clear that our 3rd level system does need reform.

Colleges and ITs must be funded in some way, but as most students rely on SUSI grants and many are already being driven into debt by city living costs that even a full annual maintenance grant of €3025 cannot cover, how can we fund our 3rd level system fairly?

Sadly, with a 2016 article in the Irish Times showing Ireland’s debt burden per capita as second only to Japan, increased government funding cannot be relied upon. This is especially true in a country suffering from a ‘skills shortage’ in areas such as engineering, science and ICT, where not all degrees fit gaps in the jobs market. The government has little incentive to increase funding. The average cost to the state of sending a student through university is already €8500.

This skills shortage being addressed lies at the heart of my proposed solution and is a central reason for the proposed ‘graduate tax’ Niamh Hourigan refers to not being ideal. A ‘graduate tax’ is a tax on graduates calculated as a percentage of their income and paid for a number of years after receiving their degree. My concern is that this undermines the link between the actual cost of a degree and the amount a graduate pays for it, with graduates who go on to earn high wages after graduation paying for those who do not, causing feelings of injustice and resentment.

The solution to our funding issue may not be clear cut. My proposal is to pilot a scheme in which college courses are combined with apprenticeships, a movement already emerging in the UK and US under the name of “degree apprenticeships.” These are government-backed partnerships between employers and higher education institutions. They involve a mix of on-the-job training and study on campus. Though current apprenticeships have been gaining popularity in recent years, most are still limited to ‘traditional’ areas such as construction and engineering. They bring many advantages:

Firstly, they challenge any remaining stigma surrounding apprenticeships. In 2016, Ireland’s Education minister announced plans for 50,000 apprenticeships and traineeships by 2020 and for a wider range of apprenticeships to be available. Degree apprenticeships are an effective way of doing this, giving practical experience while still offering a degree and the college life wanted by many high school graduates.

Practical experience is known to improve employability after graduation, leading even unpaid work placements to be a selling point for many existing courses. However, degree apprenticeships would also offer wages to students, helping to cover living expenses while providing valuable knowledge.

Degree apprenticeships can also combat ‘overtraining’ in various courses as places can only be offered to as many students as paid placements can be found for. Many companies will easily find space for unpaid students, but this is sadly not representative of the number of jobs available in that sector after graduation. This combined with the extra space made available by some students being on work placements at any one time, would reduce overcrowding.

Critics may suggest that degree apprenticeships have a disadvantage in that most apprenticeships tie apprentices to a company for a number of years. However, I don’t believe this has to be seen as a negative. After all, another fear, for students and parents alike, is choosing a ‘useless degree’, a qualification that may not even pay for itself or deliver employment in the degree’s area. This fear is certainly a reasonable one. With 2017 figures in the Irish Times showing almost 60% of Irish school-leavers attending universities or ITs, the times of having a degree being rare are long gone. Employment with the training partner after completing a degree has the potential to address students’ concerns.

Through this essay, I hope to have demonstrated the advantages of degree apprenticeships. This approach, through filling ‘skill gaps’ and creating a higher average income, would not only benefit young people, but would also increase government tax revenues.

Even if degree apprenticeships couldn’t guarantee the introduction of student loans or reduction of grants being avoided indefinitely, a salary for students over the course of their degree and higher likelihood of employment afterwards would undoubtedly ease the financial burden on students, putting them in a better position to cope with these changes.