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Fifth Year Overall Winner: Sonja Murphy, Laurel Hill Coláiste, Co. Limerick

Fifth Year Overall Winner: Sonja Murphy, Laurel Hill Coláiste, Co. Limerick

Universities have become a long forgotten concept. All the old study halls are now covered with mould. The grass and ivy that used to grow outside rotted. Where students used to walk, vermin roam—the sole occupants of these dissembled buildings. The books of scholars became nests. We used to be called the island of saints and scholars, but now, there are no remnants of Ireland’s former glory. With the deteriorating state of our third-level education system, we will lose parts of our culture and our history, as well as our reputation.

Is this what we want for the future of Ireland: a derelict education system and an evacuation of our educated to countries with brighter prospects? If we don’t search for a solution, we might as well drive out our graduates with pitchforks and torches. It is our duty to supply our students with the best education possible, available to as many people as possible. Instead, we could do nothing and say that third-level education is a privilege, not a right. Is it?

This brings me to the state of our education as it stands. At present, there are around 95,310 full-time university students. How many of them will emigrate once they’ve finished their education here? Even before the addition of student loans, our graduates leave the country to find work elsewhere. 39,820 graduates emigrated from Ireland in 2015. Of the total number of emigrants that year, a seventh were unemployed, indicating that jobs are available to our graduates, but they aren’t satisfied with the opportunities here. Graduates who spent years’ worth of expenditure and time on a university education begin to doubt if they will ever make a return on their investments.

Graduates can only pay back student loans after they begin earning a certain amount. However, in the UK, there are no records of employment for 368,000 graduates, due to lack of available jobs or emigration. How will our graduates be able to pay off their loans if they’re still struggling for employment? On average, it takes Americans twenty-one years to repay student loans. Is this what we want for our graduates?

Our already high rates of emigration will only multiply if we give our graduates another excuse to leave. If the debt of student loans does not follow graduates abroad, why stay? We cling to the hope that our graduates find an excuse to remain, instead of creating reasons for them. Will we eventually become a country whose sole purpose is creating an educated workforce for the benefit of every nation but our own?

The past has made it clear that third level cannot be entirely funded by tax. The attempt in the 1990’s would be, by all accounts, impossible to replicate today. With each year, the numbers of university entrants climb. By 2028, university enrolments will increase by a third. By then, funding for third level needs to increase by one billion. It is up to the government to decide where this money will come from. This means the government will decide the quality of our education. Will they cut corners for bargain’s sake? The money won’t come from thin air. Over the past few years, decreased funding led to the steady decline of our universities. In 2010, Trinity and UCD ranked within the top 100 colleges worldwide, but now, fall at 175 and 240 respectively. When budgets grew tighter, it was our universities that suffered. Increased taxation is also necessary for other aspects of Irish life, making it difficult to see a solution on the horizon.

Even a publicly-funded education system wouldn’t be without expense for the student. Take Sweden, for example. It is a country well renowned for its free education system, funded by the taxpayers. However, this does not prevent 85% of students from graduating with debt, compared to the US average of 50%. The students take out grants to pay for accommodation and general cost of living. Is education ever free? When a student is in full-time study, expected to pay of themselves, no amount of taxation could relieve debt from the students.

A compromise must be reached. We cannot afford an education system built solely on tax; nor can we sustain a student loan scheme that encourages our graduates to emigrate to avoid their debt.

A combination of tax and student expenditure is the best option. This relieves pressure from both the students and the taxpayer, and places responsibility on the government to ensure the money is used wisely. A potential ‘Graduate Tax’ would mean a small deduction of the graduate’s monthly wage to pay off their university fees. This is less of an upfront cost than the student loans, and thus, wouldn’t encourage as many graduates to emigrate.

It would be a complete misinterpretation to assume education is something that can be overlooked. Is it not one of the most powerful tools humanity has ever wielded? Our government has been failing us, leaving students and professors to their own devices in a broken system. So, I ask you again, what do we want for the future of Ireland? Is any of this worth investing in? We have the potential to become renowned for our education again. Becoming the best educated country worldwide will not only benefit graduates. Industries will be drawn into Ireland, discouraging our educated from emigrating to find work elsewhere. A better quality of life would become available to everyone in our nation. An investment in education can only create profit.

Malcom X described education as ‘the passport to the future,’ stating that ‘tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today.’ To prevent the fallout of our education system, we must start preparation now. The answer to this problem could be locked within the mind of somebody who might not have access to third-level education without it being made affordable to them. If we put restrictions on third level, we are not only depriving a student from an education, but we are also depriving ourselves from the mind of that student.