Students up the ante
BY MICHAEL PIERSE
Students intensified their protests this week with an occupation of the offices of the Department of the Environment, as part of their campaign for increased student maintenance grants.
The Union of Students in Ireland (USI) campaign has so far seen marches and rallies in major cities and towns throughout the country, which has attracted surprisingly scant media coverage.
The disparity between students from different social backgrounds grew in the period between 1992 and 1998. More recent findings suggest the situation hasn’t improved much, if at all, in recent years
The students barricaded themselves into the Department of Environment offices at the Customs House, Dublin on Monday, as part of a new, more militant approach.
Sinn Féin’s Colm Ó Floinn, who took part in the occupation along with two other Sinn Féin third-level representatives, said the protests are in response to government’s ignoring of students’ concerns.
USI is demanding that the student maintenance grant, which is currently set at a maximum of £49 per week, be increased to social welfare levels. They have calculated that this move would cost less than 2.5 pence of every pound in the budget surplus.
”In protest after protest, we have attempted to draw attention to the inadequacy - the insult - of the current student grant,” he said. “It wouldn’t even pay the rent, never mind living expenses.
”So far our efforts have been ignored, almost systematically, by the government and the establishment media.”
According to USI, 17,000 students have so far taken to the streets this year, calling for an increase in the student grant. Despite this, however, O’Floinn believes that there is an “enduring obstinacy” on this issue on the part of the Dublin government.
”We are simply being ignored. USI has met with the Minister for Education - and he has ignored us. We have marched the streets in protest - this has not been enough. So now we have started to take more militant action.”
The students involved in the protest at the Customs House were arrested but have not been charged, pending consultation with the Director of Public Prosecutions. While the protestors had intended to continue their occupation on Monday night, they were surprised when approximately 20 Gardaí came through the wall of the room they were occupying in the Department of the Environment with a battering ram, arrested the occupants and confiscated their cameras.
In 1994, the then Minister for Education, Niamh Breathnach, argued that the introduction of free fees would result in better third-level educational access for the economically disadvantaged. She was wrong. In fact, as the Clancy Wall report shows, the disparity between students from different social backgrounds grew in the period between 1992 and 1998. More recent findings suggest the situation hasn’t improved much, if at all, in recent years.
Breathnach had argued against the contention that resources would be more equitably channeled into the student grants system than meted out for fees without discrimination. Rather than making the situation slightly better for the rich and those on middle incomes (those from poorer backgrounds already had free fees), it was argued, she should have targeted those most disadvantaged by the education system with increased grants while eradicating fees only for those who could not afford to pay them.
Since then, both Mícheál Martin and his successor in the education brief, Michael Woods, have failed to tackle this inequality in any meaningful way. As USI points out, while less than five per cent of students from the Dublin 1 area go to college, almost half of those from the more affluent Dublin 4 do.
Students, just like many other sections of society, have been marginalised by the ugly dynamics of the Celtic Tiger economy. In Dublin alone there has been a 97 per cent increase in the cost of rented accommodation in the last three years, while in Munster there has been an increase of 50 per cent. There have been commensurate increases elsewhere. Amazingly, with unprecedented budget surpluses, the student accommodation grant has only increased by a modest nine per cent during the same period.
One of the five per cent who reach third level from the Dublin 1 area, Karen Dowling, empathises with the call for an increased student grant. As a mature student, studying law at Trinity College, she receives a grant at the level of social welfare payments, but her financial difficulties don’t end there.
Although she has two children, Karen still receives slightly less than the lone-parent allowance, and is exempted from added extras such as Christmas bonuses. Crêche facilities for her children cost £106 per week and added to this she has the cost of law books, some of them over £110 apiece. One half of her Corporation grant covers the cost of these books, but the other half only barely covers two months of her crêche payments. Karen has received a bursary from the Docklands Authority and the St. Vincent de Paul have been helpful, she says, but without the support of her partner, she would be unable to cope with the ancillary costs of a university education.
”I know a lot of people who have dropped out or who have become badly tied up with debts,” she says. “The whole concept of ‘free education’ is a joke when you consider how much of it is actually free. On the one hand the opportunity for access is put in front of us - dangled like a carrot on a string. But it’s only building people’s hopes up. The picture the government paints of the opportunities for mature access to education are unrealistic at least. One thing that’s a definite - the drop-out rate for mature students is huge.”
Supporting the call by student protesters this week for improved grants, Cavan/Monaghan TD Caoimhghín Caoláin cited a report from the Higher Education Authority this year.
”It has shown that there has been no significant improvement in the number of school-leavers from poor backgrounds reaching university over the past five years. The figures show that of 14,000 students graduating from universities in this State only 2.2 per cent come from households headed by an unskilled or semi-skilled worker. This is a disgraceful figure.
”The abolition of university fees has done nothing to help the children of the least well off to get into college. They still cannot get to the starting line because of the prohibitive costs of going to college. They cannot live on the totally inadequate grants now available. Students from outside the university cities face the additional disincentive of the acute shortage of accommodation and the high cost of that accommodation if they are lucky enough to obtain it.
”The government must act to allow access to university to all, on the basis of educational merit. It must provide increased maintenance grants to students from low-income backgrounds. It needs also to initiate special measures to provide student accommodation in the context of addressing the overall housing crisis.”