The Government budget held no surprises and kept with the trend of their previous four budgets in their time in office. The focus was primarily on tax cuts and credits to middle and higher earners, with reductions in the USC, tax credits for the self-employed and an easing on inheritance tax. The other key talking points were a 50 cent tax hike
on cigarettes, an extended roll-out of free GP care to under 12s, and the laudable increase in the minimum wage to €9.15 an hour. The theme of the budget was regressive, opting for less investment and more emphasis on tax concessions. The €27 billion Capital Plan was the investment arc of the budget, and was launched with a commitment to several high profile public projects over the next six years. But those in UCD and students elsewhere looking to find what the budget has in store for them will be left searching.
There were no measures introduced to deal with the future funding of third-level and higher education institutions. There was no restoration of investment despite the third-level sector taking years of sustained cuts and asset stripping during the recession; UCD itself witnessed a 13% cutback in core funding from the state in 2014 alone. There was no change on the issue of student fees, and the established parties seem to view the fee structure as a permanent and welcome alleviation on the state’s fiscal affairs.
A policy impetus to deal with the student accommodation crisis in urban areas failed to materialize in this budget; a supreme lack of forward planning as this crisis is set to escalate substantially in the coming years as third level enrollment rises. The increase on the minimum wage while welcome was not coupled with any effort to improve workers rights for young people. The problem of the insecure zero-hour contracts many students find themselves in was not addressed, and the potentially exploitative JobBridge internship scheme was not reformed. Students and the colleges or universities they attend were simply left out of Budget 2016.
The traditionally impotent lobby effort from students has seen their priorities marginalized by the established parties, and the pre-budget submissions from the new political projects offer no clear alternative. Renua’s higher education platform favoured a Student Loans scheme in order to make Ireland’s colleges “competitive on an international stage”. Their proposed continual shift of the monetary cost of third-level funding onto students shoulders will be unlikely to cache much youth support for Renua. The Green party press officer outlined to the Tribune their stance on third-level education, that “substantial additional funding will be needed just to keep up with the predicted growth in enrolment”. The Social Democrats’ alternative budget costed a positive 10% increase in third-level funding through state investment, but their main education policy centered on equality in education for under 5s.
The government claims the fiscal affairs of the country are stabilized, but the nature of this election budget threatens a return to the old ways of excessive tax cuts and piecemeal dividends to prospective voters. It will be one of the crucial questions the electorate will answer this spring, whether to maintain the current budgetary narrative, or to instead demand a sustainable investment in Ireland’s public services.
- Jack Power, Politics and Innovation Editor