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Conway-Walsh: Sinn Féin Higher Education Spokesperson on “Unsustainable” Model | Interview

On the 22nd of July, Rose Conway-Walsh, Sinn Féin TD and opposition spokesperson on Higher Education, Innovation, and Science, spoke with The College Tribune on a number of ongoing student topics. The interview began with the matter of government funding.

 

Do you think that government underfunding has contributed to the commercialisation of colleges such as University College Dublin (UCD)?

“Yes, we’ve been behind on funding for the last 10 years. We have 50% less funding per student than we did in 2008. That’s unsustainable and addressing that underfunding has been delayed. The Cassels report and the Oireachtas committee were to review the findings we sent to the European commission. The Cassels report said we needed an increase in spending on higher ed by €600 million by 2021. The impact that Covid-19 will have the funding go down by a further €181 million, so that gives you a picture of how serious the funding issue is.”

 

Do you believe that the €168 million euro of funds for higher education secured by the government is substantial?

“I think they are going in the right direction, but what I would be suspicious of: is that amount ringfenced until they look at what is needed. It is very far off that €600 million by 2021. We need to look at higher education as an investment that will give us returns many times over right across society, as supposed to looking at third level education as a cost that is a burden on the state. We need to be in control of our own situation here rather than rely on international fees. Covid-19 has taught us we cannot afford to be in that situation.”

 

What action should the government be taking over the next few years to improve the situation for student accommodation?

“Ourselves (Sinn Féin) and other opposition parties worked very hard for student accommodation to be included in the rent pressure zone legislation, but that isn’t good enough. We need to introduce a rent freeze across all types of accommodation until 2023, and that should include purpose- built student housing. There also should be better tenancy rights for students as well.”

“I am concerned about the push-back of the leaving cert results being pushed back to September and the impact that will have on accommodation. We’re going to be in a very short window when the CAO offers come out, in regard to students trying to get accommodation. This will give more power to landlords. It doesn’t give students enough time to shop around for a place to live, it will create a panicked situation.”

 

What kind of knock-on effects do you believe that the late release of results and CAO offers will have, accommodation aside?

“I know first-hand of the mental health pressures due to the uncertainty of the leaving cert this year, as my son is awaiting results. We initially hoped the results would be out in mid-august. We are also concerned that there is no clarity on how results are going to be appealed. There is also a huge concern for students who sat the leaving cert in previous years but applied to the CAO this year. So, they have their results but have no idea what the points will be. This all amounts to financial pressure and anxiety in leaving cert students.”

 

Given the report that the USI came out with in 2019, stating that 1/3 colleges students struggle with mental health, what can the government do with universities to reduce this figure?

“First off, the government and universities need to make sure they aren’t actively compounding the situation. Services need to become more consistent across campuses and there needs to be funding implemented to insure this. Counselling services have been hit badly in the university’s reduction of staff. Having a 6-month waiting list is off the wall.”

 

Do you think colleges, particularly UCD, over-rely on the outsourcing of mental health services?

“I absolutely do. I think more focus needs to be put on the setting up of peer mentor groups, bringing in mental health nurses into the student health centre, and have the proper training for all staff to understand signs of distress and to know how to intervene on that. Outsourcing is a lazy way of tackling mental health issues, it needs to be accessible. If it isn’t, it may as well not be there at all.”

“On the topic of outsourcing, imagine you had a case of someone living 3 hours from Dublin, it’s impossible to give the support that is needed, and then have to wait several months on top that. I am really fearful of the growing situation since February, we already had an inadequate mental health service and the Covid-19 situation has made it worse. The impact on young people is huge. The government need to begin communicating with students and student unions, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel here. We have to listen and respond with targeted resources; which students know will work with them.”

 

Earlier this year, a survey indicated that almost one in three women had experienced some sort of non-consensual sex during their time in college, and half of first years experience a form of sexual assault. What do universities need to do to tackle these issues, and what can the government do to assist them?

“Firstly, I want to commend the survey that was done. It is an extremely useful report, that paints a shocking picture. The survey was substantial in that 6,000 people did the survey, so we know it is the reality. The main issue is that we need to understand why these attacks aren’t being reported. Many will say its due to how they see other reports are dealt with. They see no action taken and victim blaming also.”

“Staff need to be trained to deal with reporting traumatic experiences of this kind, there needs to be resources put in to raise awareness. Colleges needs to be a safe place for students. How we need to act is with a dedicated funding line for resources, I’m aware the USI have suggested €600,000 for resources. We are looking to see if that is a sufficient amount of money to do what needs to be done. Aside from the human impact of this problem, we need to realise the impact on education this will have too.”

 

Coming to the end of the interview, Conway-Walsh brought up the matter of SUSI grants and the matter of how grants are issued.

“One of my biggest concerns right now is student funding. First of all, it is too low. Secondly, it is assessed on gross income, which it never should be. Where there are 2-3 students accessing education, the overall costs are not considered at all. Only the gross income of the family. I am pressing the minister and the government to make immediate changes. Especially this year, where a lot of job opportunities have been lost, and families would have relied on that money to fund their children at third level. We cannot base student funding on a families 2019 income, that needs to immediately change.”

“Another big problem with SUSI is that mature students and older students are treated as dependent on their families for financial support. I know people in their 30s and 40s trying to access higher education, but they’re denied grants based on their parent’s income when they have nothing to do with their parents financially at all. It is ludacris.”

 

Finally, Conway-Walsh spoke about the notion of higher education being accessible on an all-island basis.

“Being a Sinn Féin TD, I’m looking at higher education across the island of Ireland and I would like to break down the barriers for those trying to access education from both sides of the border.”

Rose finished on a poignant note, stating that “education is a human right and we have to start breaking down the barriers so people can exercise their right, access education, and have a full wholesome experience within third level education.”

Luke Murphy, Co-Editor