The Union of Students in Ireland (USI) has expressed disappointment at the lack of detail on how key aspects affecting students in the Programme for Government set out by Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party will be achieved, especially surrounding the fact that there are no plans to reduce Irish college and university fees, which they say are currently the highest in the European Union.

In a statement issued on June 18th, the Union criticised the decision to maintain the student contribution charge at its current level instead of reducing it, particularly in light of the predicted economic recession arising from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The student contribution charge, which stands at €3,000 for undergraduate students and €4,000 to €9,000 plus for postgraduate students, was described as a “barrier to education for many” by the USI. In their Student Manifesto for General Election 2020, the USI proposes to “improve access to third-level education through the removal of the student contribution charges”. They suggest that these fees, which are the highest college and university fees in the European Union, should be replaced with a state contribution.

The draft programme, which covers a period of five-years, also intends to ensure more accommodation is built on and off-campus, “using cost rental models and others”. The USI has expressed dissatisfaction at the lack of clarity regarding the definition of cost rental models and maintains the accommodation must be affordable. The Union also demands that these models should include publicly funded projects as opposed to the continuation of the National Student Accommodation strategy policy of relying on the private market.

The USI, which represents over 374,000 students across the island of Ireland, did however welcome a number of commitments outlined in the Programme for Government.

These include a plan to develop a long-term sustainable funding model for higher education, a review of SUSI eligibility and adjacency rates, a promise to address the gap in postgraduate grants, the provision of free, adequate, safe and suitable period products in all publicly-funded educational settings, the recognition of the work of the Universities of Sanctuary project, and finally the commitment that the State will further increase the supports for people in Direct Provision to access third-level education.

The Union has campaigned for a number of years for the end of Direct Provision, saying – “We are are glad to see this commitment in the programme and we will continue to work with others to ensure it is replaced by a humane and expeditious alternative”.

In light of the unanticipated growth in unemployment due to the pandemic, the Union has called for a review of the Back to Education Allowance to be undertaken with urgency.

The USI also condemned the lack of detail in the Programme’s commitment to “ensure that mental health supports are available for students in Higher and Further Education”.

“The student movement will campaign, lobby and hold the government to account as it has always done, to ensure the promises that are in line with our policy become a reality”, they concluded.

Nessa Collins – Reporter