Following the 2011 general election, Katie Hughes examines the various education policies of the parties and argues that there is a new dawn on the horizon

With the general election and the surrounding hype coming to a close, there is a general feeling of what’s done is done and who’s elected will bring change. However, it must be remembered that these elected politicians are going to determine our higher-education futures as well as those of current second-level students.

Despite the student proportion of the electorate standing at only a fraction of that of the general population, it was held in high esteem by the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) who went so far as to launch a national campaign encouraging students to vote in last week’s general election.

Given that the majority of the voters are graduates or simply people unaffiliated with the third-level system, they would not be voting based on a party’s educational policies; they would instead be voting based on the parties beliefs regarding taxes, the health system and unemployment.

With the expected outcome of the voting prior to the election being a Fine Gael-Labour coalition, it is those parties’ policies regarding education that were the most scrutinised in the lead up to polling day.

It was admittedly the Labour Party who initially abolished third-level fees in 1995, and who are still decidedly against their re-introduction – so much so that they signed a pledge with USI promising to not back down from this stance should they enter into Government. They continued to say that they will strive to bring the current registration fee back down to €1,500.

With a reformation of the means test and a proposal to reform the grant system by transferring the burden to the Department of Social Protection, which they believe will “reduce the bureaucracy associated with student support”, the Labour Party hope to make the system more equitable.

However, the policies of Fine Gael are different on all accounts. With the idea of completely abolishing the registration fee and replacing it with a graduate tax, the party aspires to make entry into third-level education a more feasible option for second-level students regardless of their background.

Fine Gael’s graduate tax plan is a new one, and one that, if introduced, will more than likely be met with various reactions from students of different disciplines. The proposed system would require a graduate, who entered university free of charge, to pay back 30 per cent of the cost of their degree through a special graduate tax. The money from this tax would be directly put back into the education sector.

The downside of the graduate tax plan is that the cost of studying different disciplines has various amounts: while a Business degree costs €8,100, a medical one comes to a total of €22,000. Paying back 30 per cent of €8,100 is significantly less substantial than the €6,600 medical graduates would be required to pay.

What a uniform registration fee does, is allow students freedom of choice when it comes to selecting their degree – the knowledge that they will have heavy taxes to pay if they choose a more expensive university pathway could deter students in pursuing their ideal career path.

Fine Gael are less detailed with regard to their policies on the grant system, simply promising a “more cost-effective” system through a Payments and Entitlements Service. Though if their initiative to abolish the registration fee comes to fruition, there would not appear to be much need for their proposed “one-stop-shop” grants system.

Fine Gael coming into power would also severely compromise the status of the Irish language in society, and hence requirements for entry into universities. However, they do state that Irish would only become an optional Leaving Certificate subject following “consultation” on several matters including the overhaul of the second-level curriculum and teacher training methods.

With a new government in power and the beginning of the 31st Dáil, we are most definitely coming into a period of transition and reform in all aspects of the education sector.

This can be referred to as the government of the students’ generation, with both USI and UCD Students’ Union informing their members of every aspect of the election from registration to the voting itself, meaning that there is no one but ourselves to blame if student voices were not heard.

With the first graduates of free third-level education beginning to be elected to the Dáil, a new beginning for third-level education and politics could be on the cards. But it is up to students to keep their voices loud and audible, as it is their future that this new government will shape.