By Mark Nother
There is no escaping the election at present and as we move into the final week of canvassing we bring you a comprehensive look at where the major parties stand on some of the more important issues to students.
Given there are upwards of 215,000 students in higher education in Ireland it is important that we understand where the parties stand on these issues and how you’re vote may affect not only yourself but your friends, classmates and second level students that will undertake the journey over the next five years.
Election manifestos tend to be weighty tomes of information and if you’re a final year student or are just in the midst of assignments you probably won’t have the inclination to examine where parties stand on individual issues, as such we’ve done the hard work for you and selected a number of issues to given an indication of what our political parties stand for. We have chosen third level fees; the student contribution; repealing the eighth amendment; postgraduate funding; and the minimum. Also for those who may find themselves in their final semester and are about to leave the security of college we look at tax.
Third level grants and loans
At present roughly 40 percent of students are in receipt of the student grant; it is recognised as a crucial factor in many students being able to afford to attend third level education however the system is widely viewed as unsustainable. This has led debate on the future of the current system and whether or not Ireland will adapt a UK style system of student loans. So where do Irish parties stand on this issue?
Fianna Fail (FF) and Fine Gael (FG) say they will maintain the current grant structure and explore the possibility of a new loan system for students and their parents who are struggling to pay for higher education that will be income contingent.
Renua are seeking to introduce a loan system that graduates will repay once their income goes over €25,000. The Social Democrats (SDs) want to review the current grant system and provide “better targeting of supports”. The Green Party (GP) are opposed to any increase in costs of attending third level, specifically any cuts to the student grant.
The Labour party have announced they will hold an internal party debate on student’s grants, fees, etc. but not until after the election.
Third level fees & the Student Contribution
Following on from the issues of grants and funding there is another suggested approach to the future of third level funding in the introduction of higher fees. Given over the lifetime of the incumbent government we saw an increase of 50 percent in the cost of the student contribution from €2,000 to €3,000. Again parties differ on the subject of altering the current rate.
FF want to freeze the student contribution at current levels, €3,000, for the next five years. Labour and the SDs want to lower it to €2,500 and €2,000 respectively. The GP do not state a preferred amount but rather are committed to increasing state funding on the sector in order to keep the cost of education of the shoulders of students while the Anti Austerity Alliance and People Before Profit coalition (AAA/PBP) are in favour of abolishing the student contribution altogether. SF are also committed to an abolition of the student contribution also with the shortfall replaced with central government funding.
Up until 2012 there were maintenance grants available to postgraduate students, similar to those afforded to undergraduates. However these were cut to only provide a contribution towards course fees. With an increasing amount of graduates entering the jobs market every year there are more and more opting to continue to Masters level and as such the opportunities for funding may be a crucial issue for many.
Both FF and the SDs want to reintroduce postgrad grants with the former doing so at 2010 levels and criteria. SF want to introduce the same restorations but with a higher amount of access. Again Labour are not committing to a plan on third level until post-election.
Repealing the Eighth Amendment
The 8th Amendment of the constitution has since 1983 provided for a constitutional ban on abortion in Ireland, including in the cases of fatal foetal abnormality and pregnancy as a result of rape. It has been an emotive issue on and off campuses all over the island. Whilst practically every party is open to a referendum or review committee on the issue, where they themselves stand varies. It is important to note that the repeal would need to be supported by an introduction of legislation in order to clarify when abortion is permitted.
Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are allowing their members an open vote, that is to say, the ability to vote as they see fit rather than by party lines. The views within the parties are varied however. Fine Gael are committed to a citizen’s convention to make recommendations for the consideration of the Oireachtas on what course of action to take. Renua are also for allowing an open vote but it would seem the majority of members would take a no stance.
Unsurprisingly the parties to the left of centre and far left such as Sinn Fein, Labour, the Social Democrats, the Green Party and the AAA/PBP alliance are in favour of a referendum to allow citizens the option of repealing the Eighth. The majority of these advocating allowing abortion in the cases of pregnancy through incest, rape, and also in cases of fatal foetal abnormality.
Whilst income tax may not be at the forefront of most students minds while in college it quickly becomes an issue when having to move to a more expensive part of the country for work and trying to estimate how to allocate ones salary after tax. With the economy drastically improved compared to 2011 there is now room for tax cuts and the parties are taking full advantage of the new found ‘fiscal space’.
Perhaps the most public of the manifesto promises are Renua’s flat rate of 23 percent for all earners and FG’s proposal to eliminate the USC incrementally over five years. The other half of the coalition, Labour, want to eliminate USC for all those earning below €70,000 whilst Sinn Fein will do the same for those on under approximately €20,000. AAA/PBP will introduce a millionaire’s tax for those with earnings in excess of €1,000,000 and a higher rate of tax for those on greater than €100,000.
With the high cost of education there are very few students who are not working part-time be they undergrad or postgrad. The recent increase of on the minimum wage to €9.15 may not seem like a huge jump from €8.65 but for a student working 20 hours a week its and extra €300 a semester.
AAA/PBP are for increasing the minimum wage, with SF, the SDs and Labour looking to introduce a living wage, which the latter estimate at €11.30 per hour. FG are to continue to rely on the Low Pay Commission to suggest any alterations to the current system but are advocating an increase in the current rate to €10.50 per hour.
The Green party are similar in wanting to base any changes on the change in costs of living but with the current rate set as a base level. FF want to introduce a living wage across all government departments, they value this at €11.50 per hour, and ensure all internships are required to be minimum wage positions.
Use your vote
The end of February is a busy time for students and politics can be a subject of disinterest for many, however from reading this you can see how many variances we could experience in the future of Irish third level education. As was stated at the start there are a substantial number of students among the electorate, these votes matter. Nobody else is going to vote based on student issues, nobody else is going to go into the voting booth worrying about the cost of your education, the point where you have to protest at implemented fee increases is too late. So get out and vote on the Friday 26th, it could cost you if you don’t.