Budgeting students out of University

With an increase of 66 per cent to the registration fee, Peter Molloy investigates the impact of this on students.Last week’s budget was never going to be a herald of glad tidings. It’s a straightforward fact that this country is experiencing a severe economic downturn, and in such a climate it must be accepted as a pragmatic necessity that financial constraints and re-adjustments have to be imposed.Yet what was striking about last Tuesday’s pronouncements, and what it seems will remain as the enduring popular image of Budget ’08, is that some of the severest of these restrictions and impositions appear to have been made upon sections of Irish society least able to bear them.Domestic media attention throughout the last seven days has been firmly focused upon the Government’s decision to curtail subsidised medical services to the elderly. Public sentiments of uncertainty and unease about the merits of this step, although verging at moments upon the hysterical, would nonetheless appear valid.However, what it seems had been largely overlooked in the midst of this collective outpouring of dissatisfaction is another, equally inequitable provision of this year’s Budget – the unilateral move to increase the third-level Registration fee by €600 from the 2009/10 academic year onwards.With even the most objective and dispassionate analysis, such a step is extreme and unprecedented. At a single stroke, the standard annual obligation for all college students has been raised from €900 to €1500 - an increase of 66 per cent.Closer to home again is the particularly relevant fact that for students of this university, the new yearly bill will now amount to a grand total of €1650, once the ever-debatable annual levy for UCD’s new Student Centre is taken into account.In short, it would seem enormously difficult to argue against an assertion that the overall financial burden for Irish students has been compounded considerably in the last few days. So what practical effects might be expected?It must be fundamentally recognised that despite barbed remarks aired in public over the last few months about pampered, affluent Irish students, the reality of the student demographic is considerably greyer than the black and white polarisation such commentary implies.For every student prince or princess out there, fraught only by choosing between the relative merits of Club XXI on a Monday, or Club 92 on a Saturday, there is a significant proportion of students for whom paying such fees is more challenging than awaiting the opening of the parental pocketbook.Aside from the obvious grouping of those from marginal or impoverished backgrounds, other groups within student society, such as mature students, have already felt a significant financial pinch as things stood before 14th October.The options facing those students now are less then optimistic. One seemingly obvious remedy – having students seek part-time employment to fund their studies – is a great deal less than satisfactory.Such an instinctive response ignores the basic reality that the very recession which has triggered the Government’s drastic moves has had a very real effect on the labour market as well, trickling right down to the level of 19 and 20-year-olds working evenings and weekends as lounge staff or shop assistants.Simply put – the jobs just aren’t all that widely available any more.Anyone dubious about this is best advised to take the empirical approach to research, dust down their CV, and start footing it from shop to pub searching for part-time work.Anecdotal evidence from students suggests that calls to interview may be quite some time in materialising. In any case, a crude solution to the problem like this skips around the rather crucial logic that the more time students spend working inevitably results in less discretionary time available for study and course work.Particularly for a university like UCD, where criticism exists towards the negative effect that semesterisation and continuous assessment has on extra-curricular activity, such an outcome will ultimately have a detrimental effect on general student life, and the continued existence of university clubs and societies. Undoubtedly, this is something, which should, in the proper order of things, come just after academics in student priorities.It may also be worth examining just how this new development ties in to that much larger issue dominating contemporary Irish student politics – the greatly increased speculation about fees being re-introduced to third-level education. The salient point about this year’s budget is that the move to increase student registration fees has not by any means cancelled out the prospect of full fees being re-introduced.If that were the case, and if this development represented some form of compromise between the mooted intent of the government and the opposition of a large segment of student society, than at least the worst fears of some students would have been allayed.However, it seems instead that this rise exists independently of any ultimate plans to resurrect college fees. In other words, if and when such measures do see fruition, then they will be imposed on top of this already stringent financial requirement.Certain fundamental problems with last week’s news also become apparent if one is tempted to play accountant and query where exactly these funds will ultimately end up.Despite the instinctive and understandable student tendency to outrage at the mere mention of college fees, strong and compelling arguments in support of such a move do exist. Chief amongst these points is the observation made by government figures that the increase in revenue engendered would represent capital which could be diverted straight back into third-level education.It is claimed that this would bring about a resultant improvement in infrastructure, facilities and staff, and all the long-term benefits to students that this would mean. As unpalatable as the prospect of fees may remain to some students, this essential truism at least may make that bitter bill somewhat easier to swallow.Worryingly, however, such a general reassurance appears notable in its absence from this current increase in student financial obligations. Basic Registration fees have now risen, but as of yet, no firm guarantee whatsoever has emerged to suggest that the increased funds generated from 2009 onwards will ever be used to further investment in Irish education.Put baldly, Irish students can be forgiven for a suspicion that the money they part with from next year on may not have any direct benefit for them - an unease shared last week by Vice-President for Students, Dr Martin Butler. “I don’t know what’s going to happen, will we get the balance between the €900 and the €1600… will it become part of the student charge, and can it then be used to enhance the student experience. I don’t know that”