Thursday, 19 November 2020
Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science: Statements
I begin by acknowledging the experience of our third level students this year. It has been an extremely difficult time in their young lives, when what should be their first taste of freedom is being spent locked away from the social life and contact they normally would have. The vast majority of them are behaving brilliantly and doing their bit. They are a credit to themselves and their families. Unfortunately, they do not get any credit from those who hold their nose and criticise young people while enjoying coffees and drinks in the evening with their friends and families in mixed households.
It is likewise hypocritical that in a country which prides itself on its commitment to equality, that this equality should not include the poor. A survey conducted by my party colleague, Deputy Conway-Walsh, found that many families are having to put themselves in debt and deeper poverty to give their children the chance of a third level education. This year, many families are experiencing further hardship by being forced to fork out outrageous rents for accommodation their children are not even using. Deputy Conway-Walsh mentioned that there are many students in private rented accommodation who have been refused refunds.
Too many families are excluded from or penalised by the SUSI grant system because its assessment criteria do not reflect the reality of the income available to households. That has to change. One might imagine that in a so-called republic of equality, a student from a poor background would have the same chance of accessing third level education as one from the leafier parts of the country. That is simply not the case and this lack of equality will deteriorate further as a result of the severe economic impact on families of the Covid-19 crisis. Maynooth University is in my home town and we are very lucky to have it. It is, by any standards, an outstanding university that is doing its utmost to tackle the innate inequality inherent in third level education, including through the provision of opportunities for part-time study. My party and I believe that grants should apply equally to part-time study. Such funding should not be viewed as a cost but as an investment in our people's future and the future of the State.
The Covid crisis has shown us the need for, and given us an opportunity to, reflect on our third level system and the urgent necessity to institute not only equality of access and support for the duration but additional supports and incentives for those who are struggling financially. There is no place in the 21st century for 20th century thinking on educational opportunity. It perpetuates a social and educational wrong whereby students from a poor background have to achieve twice as much to do even half as well as their better-off counterparts. It is damaging and degrading for the people concerned and, indeed, for the State.