The government’s decade-long underfunding of universities has presented the sector with a myriad of issues, and the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed unreliable non-exchequer sources of income. Staff and students nationwide are crying out for the government to take action and reintroduce the funding levels seen before the last recession. Universities like UCD have survived by remodelling their structures to increase income from international students and commercial activities. Critics have widely condemned the universities for their “commercialisation” and the government for halving funding over the past decade. This interview is part of a new series that seeks to address the key issues in higher education today, and how to solve them. 

Craig McHugh is the Union of Students in Ireland’s (USI) Vice President for the Dublin Region and is currently running for the group’s campaigns officer next year. As a seasoned student activist, The College Tribune spoke to him about government underfunding, university commercialisation and the biggest issues students will face over the next 12 months. 

McHugh sees a number of key issues coming to the forefront of students’ lives over the next 12 months. Proper access to online resources will be essential for students next year. “In order to be able to work from home,” McHugh says, “you have to have the capacity to be able to work from home.” He also predicts that “students aren’t going to be able to work” in a post-pandemic society. A lot of sectors won’t open until at least phase 5, according to the USI Vice President, which will hit students financially. Even if the hospitality sectors open, because of the recession, he thinks the jobs might not be there, posing financial issues on students. Because of this struggle, “getting in the door [to college] is going to me much harder than it’s ever been before.”

McHugh also sees mental health coming to the forefront, with first years struggling to socialise next term under social distancing measures. Socially in that first period “it’s going to be very, very different,” and students will struggle more than any year before with meeting new friends.


Government Underfunding

In the short term, he sees the solution to these issues as increased government funding to third level institutions. “What we’re hearing from certain sectors is that we should encourage internationals to come over here during the pandemic, […] I think that’s a bit ridiculous. I think we should be focusing on funding here. I think the government has neglected higher education funding for years. […] We’ve had nearly a decade of neglect. But funding in the short term, has to definitely be matched by funding in the long term.”

McHugh says that higher education in Ireland has needed a €600 million injection every year since 2016 to keep the system afloat, lamenting that “we haven’t had that at all.”

Since the 2008 financial crash, government funding for universities has been significantly decreased, with many institutions, including UCD, seeking to increase alternate income streams such as international students who pay higher fees to the institutions. McHugh refers to international students as “pothole fillers”, which have stopped coming because of the pandemic and has revealed the extent of government funding to higher education. 

McHugh criticises universities for “prioritising [international students] to come in, not for the sake of trying to educate the [them], but just for their money. […] International students have been used as cash cows in this whole thing for the last number of years.”

In a recent interview on RTÉ Radio 1, Jim Miley, Director General of the Irish Universities Association, admitted that as a result of this new business model for universities, “international student fee revenue was in effect cross subsidising the education for Irish students within the system.” McHugh criticises this practice: “I think it’s wrong.”

“The solution has to be funding. There’s no two ways around it. We’ve cut too many corners in the past for there to be any more corners left to chew off. We’re literally running a skeleton service.”

When asked whether a potential Fine Gael/Fianna Fáil/Green Party coalition will solve this funding issue in the next government, McHugh admits: “who knows?” In a recent interview with The College Tribune, Fianna Fáil Leader Micheál Martin promised an additional €100 million a year for higher education. McHugh says “that’s really not enough. […] We’ve needed more than that in the past, that’s not going to get us over the line – we need significant injection.”

McHugh says the last government was too reliant on a “competitive funding model” with “each institution competing against each other.” He believes “education should be a public good and each institution should be working off each other to make sure that students in the State can actually access and experience a decent quality education.”

The government is “kind of like that procrastinator that’s not looking at his emails,” McHugh explains, “and all of a sudden the big meeting comes up. He’s going to be scrambling to try and figure out ‘OK, right I need the answers.’ This is that point. There’s no waiting around anymore. There can be no kicking the can down the road and this pandemic has blown the lid off that whole thing now.”

He says he doesn’t think it’s a case of “party politics” anymore, it’s “staring you right in the face,” and it’s a “crisis that’s so enormous, it has to be dealt with.”

It is projected that Ireland must repay sizeable debts following this pandemic, which will pose additional difficulties to competing sectors for government funding in the future. McHugh says that higher education funding “has to be prioritised” and “if it isn’t, we are going to suffer greatly.” According to the USI representative, the government is in a unique position during this pandemic where it has the opportunity to invest in higher education to stimulate long term economic growth.


Unaffordable Student Accommodation

Moving on to the issue of student accommodation in Dublin, McHugh says that expensive student accommodation being built in Dublin is driving up prices rather than reducing them. In what McHugh calls “glorified hotels,” he says, “when you build a load of these about the place, and you don’t have rent caps whatsoever, you elevate the expected cost of staying somewhere because the average cost rises.”

McHugh says that universities should receive additional funding from the government to subsidise the construction and maintenance of purpose-built student accommodation, which will help control the average prices in Dublin and keep it affordable for students. 

“The types in which you are building is so, so important. If you look at the student accommodation that exists around the country, […] students don’t need swimming pools, they don’t need gyms, they don’t need a lovely garden out the back.” He says there’s plenty to do in the city and “you don’t need that [type of accommodation]. You need a bed, you need a toilet, you need a kitchen, you need the basic amenities. You don’t need luxury.”

UCD has responded to criticisms of increasing on campus rents by explaining that an increase in supply will ultimately drive down prices. McHugh comments on this, saying “this idea that ramping up supply will bring down price is correct, but what is the type of supply and what’s the market price in which you’re introducing?”

“We are seeing a reverse affect”, he explains, as supply increases so does the price. “It’s fucking bizarre.” He believes the solution is investing in higher education and building affordable accommodation for students.


The Future of USI

Speaking about how the student organisation will adapt to the government restrictions next year when campaigning, McHugh says “it’s going to be totally different, but exciting, […] we will have to adapt.” He doesn’t see large crowds gathering due to social distancing, but still aims for campaigning to continue within the national health guidelines. He also sees this time as an opportunity to “dig in deep” and “get the facts together” to support future campaigning and lobbying. McHugh predicts there to be an increase in online campaigns on social media to educate people on the issues that need addressing in higher education.

UCD Students’ Union is not currently a member of USI, although has been in the past. When asked whether UCDSU should reaffiliate with USI, McHugh says “Yes. Of course! We need a united movement more than ever.” McHugh believes if students pool their resources and come together, it will prove a more effective. “A lot of important groups that we sit in for example, in terms of medium- and long-term contingency planning during the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re speaking on behalf of our members but UCD isn’t in that room.”

“I do have to commend, I think UCD [Students’ Union] has done a fantastic job this year in terms of the work [they’ve] done on rents. […] There’s so much that can be done when we are together. I think it would be smart to join. But again, it’s the students’ decision if that ever came before them.” UCDSU can only reaffiliate with USI following a referendum put to its members. “There’s a really good opportunity here to be in the room and have your voice heard, and that’s important. In the crisis that we are going into now, I think it’s going to be even more important that we’re all united.”


Conor Capplis – Editor