Photo credit: Gráinne Loughran

Accommodation, access to third level education and student fees were the major issues raised at the general election debate this evening.

The Economics Society and UCD Students’ Union teamed up to host an engaging inter-party debate specifically relating to student issues ahead of the 2016 general election.

Members of the panel were Fine Gael councillor Barry Ward, Green Party leader Eamon Ryan, Minister of State Aodhán Ó Ríordáin of the Labour Party, Sinn Féin senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh, Anti-Austerity Alliance (AAA) TD Paul Murphy, former government Minister and Fianna Fáil election candidate Mary Hanafin and joint leader of the Social Democrats, Stephen Donnelly.

The debate was chaired by UCD Professor David Farrell of the School of Politics and International Relations.

In her introduction to the event, SU Education Officer Dannii Curtis said to the students gathered, “You have every right to feel ignored and disillusioned by politics.” Farrell added that this “may be the most important general election in the history of the state”.

Topics covered included student fees, the accommodation crisis and graduate job opportunities, as well as access to education, the minimum wage, student grants, third level funding, direct provision, the eighth amendment and job opportunities for arts students.

Each panel member had five minutes to speak, which was followed by questions from the audience.

One topic raised repeatedly by the panel was the lack of action by the current government on third level education.

Stephen Donnelly said, “The government directed €24 million to education. How much of that went to higher education?… €0. That’s how much the government cares about higher education.”

Mary Hanafin said, “It really hurts me as a former Education Minister to see the damage that has been done to higher education.”

SU President Marcus O’Halloran asked to applause from the audience what would be done about student accommodation were any of the parties present elected to government. “What is access to education if people can’t afford to live here? … It’s heartbreaking the number of students who come to me who can’t afford accommodation. We need it now, we don’t need it in five or ten years.”

Stephen Donnelly replied, “In the short term, one of the solutions is money. When money is not given to higher level education, that money is not available.” He also said that in the longer term he would support a sustainable housing model for students.

Trevor Ó Clochartaigh continued, “It [third level education] should be a right for you as a citizen, no matter how much you have in your pocket, your skin colour or your gender.” He said that it was important to remember that the housing crisis was not limited to those in third level education, and that “building more units of social housing” would take the pressure off the rental market for students. He also added that the ghettoisation of student housing may become a problem in the future.

Aodhán Ó Ríordáin said he would support a “student housing co-op type model”, while Eamon Ryan said that much of the land in and surrounding UCD should be used to build student accommodation. Barry Ward also favoured campus accommodation as the favoured solution for housing shortages, saying that “freezing rents is not the solution”.

With regard to student fees, Mary Hanafin said that the Fianna Fáil commitment is to “freeze those fees for the next five years and reintroduce the postgraduate maintenance grant.”

Paul Murphy said that the Anti-Austerity Alliance were in favour of discontinuing student fees and the gradual introduction of a system of third level education which was “free at the point of access” in order to improve access to education. Trevor Ó Clochartaigh also said that Sinn Féin is “committed to eradicating student fees” and that “We have huge questions about the legality of what SUSI do.”

Barry Ward said however that “The decision for free fees was the worst thing for access to education… the single biggest barrier to education is expectation. We need to dispel this myth that free fees make it easier to come to college; it makes it easier for the middle classes to come to college.”

When discussion turned to the possibility of creating a broader tax base to fund third level education, Aodháin Ó Ríordáin said to groans from the audience that “We have the most progressive taxation in the OECD… you’re economics students, you should know that.” He also defended the government’s reform of the Leaving Cert and Junior Cert programmes as aiming to put literacy at the centre of education.

Access to education was also pointed out by the Social Democrats as “needing to be taken seriously.” Stephen Donnelly said that investing in college outreach programmes was very important, while Mary Hanafin advocated DEIS schemes, saying that “In Dublin 10, 10 per cent of young people go on to college. In Dublin 16, 99 per cent go on to college. The government has done nothing but compound these inequalities.” Paul Murphy added that under the AAA, a living grant would be granted to all students.

The discussion of repealing the eighth amendment also had the parties in disagreement, with Aodhán Ó’Ríordáin saying that Labour were supporting a referendum and that further information would be released by the Labour Party on Wednesday. Stephen Donnelly also said that he would strongly support repealing the eighth, but that the Social Democrats would favour a looser whip system and that no party member would be expelled for voting a certain way. Mary Hanafin said that that constitution “should have the right to life of the unborn”.

The debate comes after a voter registration drive which was held today by the Economics Society and UCD SU.