Orla Keaveney weighs in on who should bear the burden of third level and asks if debt is the only solution.


WHENEVER anyone mentions that Ireland offers free third-level education there is always some agitation caused by the word ‘free’. Compared to many other countries we have a sweet deal but as Irish students know all too well, the list of university expenses doesn’t begin and end with tuition fees. Accommodation, transport, study materials, food and healthcare are among the countless features of student life that makes holes in our pockets. This burden falls on both students and their families. But how evenly should the costs be divided between students and parents?

Most parents want to give their children the best possible start in life, but the point at which parental duty ends can be unclear. University gives young people a new level of freedom, particularly if you are living away from home for the first time.

For many parents, their broods are old enough to handle some of the responsibilities and benefits of adulthood, and the management of finances that comes with that. Some believe their kids won’t appreciate their education if they have everything handed to them. Others think that paying their own way will be an incentive to avoid poor grades and attendance, failing, or dropping out.

A survey carried out by the Irish League of Credit Unions reported that 60% of parents get into debt funding their kids’ third-level education, in spite of the current SUSI grant scheme. This can range from small, short-term loans to cover registration fees or books, to dealings with high-interest moneylenders. Many parents don’t have the means to support their children unaided. In cases such as these is it fair for students to ask their parents to clock up debts on their behalf?

University can be just as demanding on students as a full-time job. In the competitive employment climate, an impeccable GPA is not enough. Time must be given to societies, clubs and volunteering to meet employers’ demands. Part-time jobs and summer work are great ways for students to earn some cash, but managing both work and study can turn into a precarious balancing act.

Making enough money to support yourself in university is a waste of time if you end up failing the course you’ve been working so hard to fund. Besides, the minimum wage paid for unskilled jobs can’t compare with the income of a more experienced parent. In truth, it would take a lot longer for a student to earn a month’s rent than the average parent.

In theory, student loans sound like the perfect solution when parents can’t cope – graduates use their qualifications to pay back the money they borrowed to earn them. But if you dip a toe into the realm of student loans online, you’ll unleash a torrent of frustration and anger from international students.

The system’s main flaw is that the interest mounts constantly in the background until new graduates find themselves buried in debt before they’ve even secured their first job. This forces many to default on their loans, which leads to further increases in interest rates for incoming students. While Ireland needs a way to alleviate the strain of funding college on families, we should learn from the mistakes of other countries, rather than starting a vicious cycle here.

Despite the so-called economic recovery, asking the government to do more than the bare minimum can seem as useful as asking Santa, but they seem to be the obvious candidate to alleviate the problem. As eye-roll-inducing as this suggestion may be – it’s as much in the state’s interests as ours to sort out the problem of student expenses.

After all, skilled graduates create businesses, attract foreign investment, and (most importantly from a revenue perspective), contribute more in taxes to the national budget. The government needs to tackle emigration and rising dropout rates, and the cost of college is a major contributing factor to these issues.

So what can the politicians do to make life easier for both students and parents? One option could be to establish a regulated version of America’s student loans, keeping an eye on the banks so they don’t lead us into the pitfalls experienced abroad. These loans could be interest-free for the duration of a course, so the debts would stay small and manageable rather than spiralling out of control.

In truth, any economic students out there can probably point out several holes in this half-baked notion. But the core point is that clocking up a mountain of debt doesn’t have to be the only answer when neither students nor parents can meet the financial demands of university. Third-level education may never be truly “free”, but the idea of it being manageable for Irish families is by no means beyond the realms of possibility.