Budget Day, always one of unparalleled importance within the Irish political calendar, although this year’s budget will endure a heightened sense of meaning.
No matter what path the Minister for Finance, Paschal Donohoe, took with the upcoming budget, there were certain to be those who would feel a certain degree of despondence. However, given the government’s fanciful goal as stated by Minister for Public Expenditure, Michael McGrath, with their “wanting to give meaningful support to as many people as possible,”expectations were high that this budget would appease the majority.
Unfortunately, as is often the case in political circles, the promise was not delivered upon. In attempting to please the masses, the coalition has given a little to a lot of people and areas of the economy, but are these meagre concessions enough to actually make a meaningful difference for any sector of Irish society?
Populist economics is not what the members of the Irish middle and lower classes need as they stare down the barrel of a cost-of-living crisis only in its infancy at present. With talk of fuel rationing and further inflation regarding goods and services, this budget should have targeted those in need first and foremost. Instead, what has been presented to the populous is an amalgamation of hastily approved and extremely minimal cuts and subsidies.
In a thinly veiled attempt to halt the rapid rise in support for the coalition’s opposition amongst the under 25 demographic, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have announced their plan to help students battle the cost-of-living crisis.
Do not be fooled by the proposed reduction in college fees. Ireland has not gone down the Swedish root of providing free third level education to all, but rather opted for a kind of “Goldilocks” approach to economics whereby it can’t decide who to provide ‘meaningful’ assistance to. Whilst on the face of it, a €1000 reduction in fees is welcome news to the Irish student body, the reality is that it is little more than a smokescreen to hide the government’s negligence surrounding the key issue affecting students – housing.
Furthermore, the €1000 reduction is not a permanent fixture, but rather a once-off attempt to purchase the loyalty of younger voters at a cheap price. The proposals regarding the reduction in third-level fees stipulate that following on from 2023, fees will return to normal unless a household collectively earns under €100k and €62k, in which instance fees will be reduced by €500 and €1500 respectively.
However welcome it may be to some to see an additional €1000 in their bank balances by the end of the Spring trimester, the issue of paying their fees was not the principal root of angst amongst students in Ireland’s suburban centres, but rather, the long-standing concern of the availability of affordable student housing.
The stories are well-publicised at this stage of the academic year, with videos of queues for house viewings plaguing social media alongside desperate pleas as many still search for an adequate place to call home. But the true gravity of the situation may still be lost on many who are fortunate enough to already live within reasonable commuting distances of college.
Many domestic students, hailing from outside of Dublin, are making painstaking commutes twice a day, five days per week, as their search for affordable accommodation lingers. A large swathe of international students are left in the same predicament too, as they travel from surrounding counties, leaving at dawn and arriving home well after dusk. Such commutes are not sustainable, nor is it fair to allow such an entry barrier to be erected around third level education in this country.
If the government truly wished to absolve third-level students of their current economic hardships, then the reduction in fees would have been far better placed in helping to provide some sort of affordable housing solution, or at the very least making funds available which would allow for capabilities to reintroduce a hybrid learning structure, affording those commuting large distances the respite of at-home learning.
Alas, third-level students are once again proved to be little more than an afterthought within the Irish political system, as the powers that be favour reserving their more substantial efforts for the age demographics which boast higher voter turnout.
Fee reductions should merely be viewed as akin to the tale of Sisyphus, as the Irish government leaves students to push the metaphorical rock of housing up the hill for what seems an eternity.
Rory Fleming – Politics Correspondent