For many students from ordinary backgrounds in Ireland, the first lesson is one about class.
To many, private schools conjure images of something akin to Hogwarts rather than 21st
Century Ireland. Growing up in Wexford, I didn’t know anyone who was a private school
student – yet in university, these students seem ever-present in every student body; society;
or course. There are two Irelands – the haves and the have nots. Class will denote your
reliance on SUSI, your ability to travel and your requirement to work to support yourself. The
sad reality is that poorer students have these extra stresses piled on from day one to make
sure that rent is paid; that the leap card is topped up; and that you don’t go hungry during
the day. Have-nots will understand that working is a necessity just to survive in college from
day to day in a country where SUSI grants haven’t been increased in over a decade.
Fast forward to March 2020, where 823,000 people were left without a job. As shocking as
these numbers are, they do not tell the full story. I, like many students who attend college
long distances from home, rely on solely seasonal work to pay for much of college. Many will
be aware that SUSI penalises students who work during the semester, and many more will
simply not have time or employment prospects at home to work.
The real story for these students is of complete desertion, where prospective employers, one
by one, call or email you to tell you they will no longer be able to hire you. You cannot claim
the pandemic payment, as you were not working in February. You cannot claim the dole, as
you are legally a full-time college student. Thus, students are left in limbo. The skills we build
up over years of seasonal work are untransferable as entire industries are shut down. SUSI,
this September, will only assess your income until November 2019. If your parents have lost
their jobs, this will not be considered by SUSI. I count myself as one of the lucky ones, as I
finished college in May, meaning I can claim the dole. But what is next for those who don’t
have the same privilege?
The government has no plan and no vision for students in my position. No extra SUSI
supports. No Pandemic Unemployment Payment. No dole for college students. The
pandemic has cost me €5,000 in lost wages, and I know other students will be in the same
position. Aodhán Ó Ríordáin tackled Education Minister Joe McHugh on this subject, and the
minister was completely unable to give a proper answer. While students are further
burdened with the stresses of how they can possibly pay for their next year of college, the
government is unable to provide a straightforward answer, policy or protection for those who
need it the most – the ordinary people of Ireland. With no other avenue, many students may
be left with a simple option – take out a loan for a degree in the middle of a steep recession,
or simply leave college. Either way, universities will be faced with an unprecedented student
poverty crisis as students face a crisis trying to pay extortionate student rents to absentee
landlords; and attempting to afford food and books.
This completely avoidable crisis does not bear thinking about. The time to act for change is