What is the value of education and knowledge? This is a perennial question, often put to students of arts and humanities. What is it intrinsically worth learning to translate, to interpret, to argue and express yourself lucidly? Whatever its philosophical value, higher education has a central role in creating jobs, improving living standards and supporting personal development. Irish universities, however, are under strain, and their role as a multiplier of social development is threatened.

The value and worth of education and knowledge may soon become all too apparent to would-be students who find themselves locked out of higher education, as universities warn that they may need to restrict domestic and EU students in favour of more lucrative, fee-paying international students.

A 2015 report on the impact of University College Dublin (UCD) on the Irish economy over the academic year 2013/2014 showed that the university generated €1.3 billion worth of economic activity, supporting almost 9,000 jobs. The report, entitled Delivering Impact: The Economic, Cultural and Social Impact of University College Dublin, also showed that university staff contributed over 22,000 pro-bono days to public service activities. A similar report from 2014 on the impact of Dublin City University (DCU) showed that the university contributed just shy of €200 million to the Irish economy.

Almost six years on, as student numbers expand rapidly and construction crews and cranes become indelible elements of its landscape, UCD is clearly set to become a more vital organ of the Irish economy than ever before. The crucial role of UCD, and of other Irish universities, was only reaffirmed in the last month as the Irish Universities Association (IUA) launched an impact assessment report which found that the Republic’s seven universities contribute €8.9 billion to the economy. Despite this mammoth contribution, research published by the European Universities Association (EUA) shows that Ireland joins Serbia as the only countries in the EU to have higher education systems “in danger.”

This is an issue recognised by all education stakeholders, and tacitly acknowledged by political parties, who have refused to tackle the crisis since the 2016 publication of the Cassells Report on the Future Funding of Higher Education. At that time, the report called for “urgent reform” of the sector’s funding model, which was described as “not fit for purpose”. €600 million of core annual funding was needed by 2021, the report stated, with a capital investment plan of €5.5 billion over 15 years.

The State’s budget, finalised and released every October, should be the priority of every third level students’ union in the country – this year more than ever. UCD Students’ Union is no different, and the incoming sabbatical team should use the opportunity to campaign for a radical expansion in third level funding. Being seen to seriously demand an end to the sector’s funding crisis would be an early semester boost for the Union, and could define student engagement for the academic year. The Union, therefore, must engage early with education stakeholders such as the university, the IUA, and other students’ unions, to either develop a common approach to end political paralysis, or rule one out and organise its own defiant protest.

Tuition fees, student levies which are not covered by SUSI or tax relief provisions, and an endless accommodation crisis undoubtedly leave many students feeling robbed of a fretless college experience. Hawkish university practices, such as a bewildering €30 charge for a replacement UCard, however unjustifiable, are the result of a system tearing at the seams. The economic and social advantages of a third level education are positive and indisputable and the Government’s failure to address the unsustainable status quo is reckless. Students’ unions need to force change or else future students will pay a greater price.