1 Oct 2013

Irish students take to the streets to protest against cuts

Austerity kids: young people in Ireland are demonstrating against education cuts and rising student fees. One student on the march tells Channel 4 News about the “mental strain” of having no money.

Thousands of students across Ireland are taking a break from freshers’ week festivities and travelling to Dublin, Sligo and Cork for demonstrations against further cuts to education.

The protests come ahead of the government’s budget day on 15 October, when cuts to higher education of up to 100m euros, and a rise in student fees, are rumoured to be announced. The Union of Students in Ireland (USI) is also trying to drive voter registration to mobilise a 50,000-strong voting block of students in an attempt to show their electoral power.

Irish students technically pay no university fees, and there is no UK-equivalent student loan system in place. But the so-called student contribution, which was originally intended as funding for frontline student services such as counselling or medical services, has risen to 2,500 euros in 2013/14. This is up from 800 euros in 2006, and just 150 euros when it was first introduced in 1996.

People couldn’t turn to their families, which they may have done previously Cat O’Driscoll, USI

In addition, student maintenance grants have been cut, as have the number of people eligible for them.

Ireland is still recovering from a deep recession, and the government has had a range of austerity measures imposed by international lenders, in return for being bailed out in 2010. In the country’s sixth austerity budget set out last December, the government introduced 3.5bn euros’ worth of tax increases and spending cuts, which included a 250 euro rise in students’ annual fees, welfare cuts and a new property tax.

But USI President Joe O Connor said that students and their families are being targeted unfairly, and added: “Higher education is not public spending – it is public investment.”

Austerity kids: Ireland

Barry Lalor, an economics student at Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT), is one of the thousands taking to the streets. He works 20 hours a week on top of a full-time degree, but says it is important to take time out to protest.

Why is he protesting? “I want them to stop increasing fees,” he said. “It’s gone up 500 euros in two years. I put a bit of money away every week… But that’s 10 weeks of savings for me. And I get absolutely nothing towards my degree.”

Barry left his home in Portlaoise aged 18, and worked in Dublin for six years. After full-time work dried up in the midst of the recession, he decided to get a degree. But he says he has been forced to make “huge compromises”, including moving back home to live with his parents and travelling an hour and 20 minutes to get to university. “Your own wellbeing, and sense of independence is affected,” he told Channel 4 News.

Against the backdrop of public service cuts, and the semi-privatised nature of the health and some emergency services, the cost of living in the country has also increased. A recent study estimated that students need an average of around 10,000 euros to meet the annual costs of rent, bills, food and travel – including fees.

‘Mental strain’

Last year many students were forced to rely on food parcels, charity and vouchers to meet basic needs, after the organisation responsible for sending out grants became centralised, and failed to manage the growing number of requests for grants.

Barry applied for a grant, but did not find out that he wasn’t eligible – by a tiny margin – until January. And this year, he couldn’t face applying again.

“I wasn’t going to put myself through it all again. I couldn’t face it,” he told Channel 4 News. “It puts a lot of mental strain on you. Realistically, we shouldn’t have to come into uni worrying about our finances every day.”

Cat O’Driscoll, USI’s vice president for academic and quality assurance, told Channel 4 News that the crisis last year showed how students had become even more reliant on grants. “People couldn’t turn to their families, which they may have done previously,” she said. “It got to Christmas and many students hadn’t received a letter to say if they were going to get a grant.”

Aside from not being able to afford basic living requirements, this also prohibited their university access. “Because fees hadn’t been paid on their behalf, they didn’t have access to their timetable, they had no access to the library, anything that required a swipe card to get in,” Ms O’Driscoll added.

Emigration nation

The USI is also calling on the government to address rising emigration among graduates through a national jobs plan for young people, and more investment in the European youth guarantee. On average, 200 people a day emigrated from Ireland in 2012, and 57 per cent of students say they believe they will have to emigrate when they graduate.

“There’s a hopelessness among final year students,” Ms O’Driscoll told Channel 4 News. “They’re resigned to having to leave, especially in certain subjects. Construction, is a particularly poignant one.

“It’s a combination between the high cost of living and few prospects of enhancements. Many of them leave a job behind, because it’s not what they want to do or they don’t see any career progression. High skilled graduates are much more valued abroad.”

Get involved in Austerity Kids
  • Are you aged between 15-25?
  • Do you live in Spain, Greece, Italy, Ireland, Portugal, Cyprus, Romania, the UK, Germany or France?
  • Has your life been hit by austerity Europe? For example, you or someone in your family might have lost your job; you may have had to turn to food banks to help feed your family; or you might have taken part in or even organised anti-austerity protests.
  • Are you up for telling us your story over the next few months in text, film, pictures and audio?

    Get in touch: email us on austeritykids@itn.co.uk, tweet us @austeritykids or with the hashtag #austeritykids, or post on our Facebook or Google+ pages.