Every year the budget sparks a kind of giddiness as analysts and commentators meticulously examine the document to determine who are the ‘winners and losers.’ This year’s budget, announced amid a global pandemic, is unprecedented in its scale and ambition.

Ultimately, students can be counted as big winners this year with the newly formed department of further and higher education receiving a staggering €3.3 billion investment. This is an unprecedented level of funding for a department that has only been created this year. Higher education in Ireland has been hugely underfunded and affordability for students is still a massive issue in a country with some of the highest fees in Europe. This year’s budget will see some impressive supports for those struggling the most, however, long term funding remains an issue.

The headline announcement from the budget for students was a €50 million financial support fund for students. This is an impressive package that could amount to €250 per student if this fund is to be distributed on a per-student basis.

Whilst the amount is less than the USI’s proposal of €500 per student, the fund is an impressive financial support. We are still waiting on how exactly the fund exactly be distributed to students. Speaking to RTÉ earlier, USI president Lorna Fitzpatrick said the announcement was ‘good news’, but highlighted some of the structural issues in higher education that have yet to be addressed.

Another big-ticket item announced today was the increase in funding for the SUSI grant. The additional €20 million of funding is sorely needed as is the increase in the postgraduate grant from €1,500 to €3,500. This is a very important allocation as many will look to continue their education given the impact of Covid-19 on the graduate jobs market.

The SUSI grant is also in line for a ‘full review’ by summer 2021, according to the minister Simon Harris. These announcements regarding SUSI, along with the €8 million for the Mitigating Educational Disadvantage Fund are excellent steps in breaking down the barriers to higher and further education faced by disadvantaged students.

The supports offered in the budget have only served to highlight the shortcomings by universities in Ireland to adequately support students financially during the Covid-19 pandemic. As universities refuse to offer reduced fees for students this year, the government has stepped up and offered some relief.

However, it is important to ask; is it right that the burden of entirely supporting students is passed on to the government? Whilst announcing the measures today, Harris acknowledged that this is a ‘tough year’ for students. What separates this rhetoric from similar statements from UCD is that it is backed up with supports that can provide some relief to struggling students.

While today’s announcements have been welcome news to students, it is important to recognise that these supports are simply a response to the difficulties faced by students due to Covid-19. This is another budget that has passed in which the long-term funding issues in higher education has yet to be addressed.

Ultimately, the new department of further and higher education will be mostly judged on its ability to bring about much needed and meaningful reform over the coming years.

Conor Paterson – Features Editor

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