Budget offers temporary relief for students… but what’s next?
“The real cost of living support for students was keeping pints the same price”, jokes a mate over her Guinness when someone brings up third level fees being cut. We’re waiting for the second half of Ireland’s (last, as it would happen) RWC match to start up, and someone mentioning the minimum wage being upped has sent us down a ‘talk-about-anything-other-than-the-score’ rabbit hole.
Budget conversations are usually one of two things: excessively mundane or exercises in complaining about the marginally increased cost of cigarettes. But this time, whether under the influence of a reasonably priced Guinness or the still-lingering hype and hope for the match, the table is taking a positive spin. The consensus is we’ve done alright. Even the vapers at the table can breathe a (watermelon ice-flavoured) sigh of relief at the fact e-cig products will remain untaxed for a wee while longer.
For a group of students, after all, Budget 2024 can easily appear like a win. Just from glancing over the headlines the past while, you will have heard about some of the meaningful new measures that were introduced, from fairly significant rent credits to considerably slashed college fees. In fact, if you really want to get into the numbers of it all, the Department of Further and Higher Education received a whopping €4.15bn in total, a 25% increase on last year, making it the sixth largest Budget allocation across the 18 departments.
Per the recent announcements, the contribution charge will be reduced all round by €1k, and students in households earning less than €100k will qualify for additional fee reductions of €500, thus halving these students’ overall costs. It would be difficult and disingenuous to regard these reductions as anything other than a significant boost for those attending third-level and their families, especially during such financially-tight times. But as undoubtedly welcome as they may be, there is a sort of caveat to these measures in the fact that they are, unfortunately, a one-off.
This has been the case with many similar measures in the past, and what it ultimately means is that although there’ll be a reduction this year, after that, the original contribution charge will be reinstated. Come the 2024/25 academic year (unless the next Budget decides differently of course), Irish students will be back to paying the €3,000 contribution charge… the highest third-level fees in the European Union.
And then there’s what must be the biggest relatively-unaddressed-elephant-in-the-room for students in this year’s Budget: accommodation.
Don’t get me wrong, the increase in rent tax credit from €500 to €750 and extension of that credit to those living in digs is huge, and will do a lot for a lot of people in terms of putting some much-needed money back into their pockets. But in the same way this year’s slashed-fees feel more like a band-aid solution for a long-term problem, it feels as though the measures introduced for students with regards to accommodation fail to address the roots of the issue.
Each of the students I sat watching the game with recently has at least one horror story from the last couple years to tell about accommodation. Frankly, I don’t think I know one student who doesn’t. People are paying inordinate amounts, or commuting for hours each day, or having to opt for couchsurfing or Airbnbs or digs, where their tenancy rights are not protected. I’ve heard from several people it’s been a major deterrent to continuing their higher education in Ireland at all.
There was a real opportunity here for Government to come up with more creative, meaningful, long-term ways to ease the burden accommodation is putting on students. Extending the RTC to include digs is welcome, yes, as is the policy encouraging people to rent out a room for €14,000 tax-free, but there’s still no actual protections in place for students in such accommodation that will keep them from being kicked out on the weekend to rent out to tourists, or from being kicked out full stop, without any notice. €750 instead of €500 is great, yes, but it barely covers a month in Dublin (or even Galway these days), and it’ll make no difference to those who couldn’t find somewhere in the first place and are facing long commutes every day.
It’s true that this Budget did do a lot for students, both in direct and indirect ways; the news that students with household income below €56k will pay no fees from September 2024 is a great example of the former, and the public transport reduction for 25s and under is a great example of the latter. But it does feel as though we’ve been left wanting in terms of long-term solutions to the same problems the Budget seems to hastily throw band-aids over each year.
Because realistically, the Government could’ve done a lot more in this Budget for students. They could’ve introduced measures to reduce fees that weren’t just a once-off, as has become typical. They could’ve followed up on last year’s promise to subsidise 4,500 beds for students (which there’s been no real news on since). They could’ve worked with the RTB to improve and expand student specific accommodation policies to safeguard students tenancy rights. They could’ve worked with colleges to create more affordable accommodation in the first place. The list goes on.
But at the end of the day, for all the Government could’ve done, and for all the longer term solutions that could’ve (and indeed frankly should’ve) been implemented, there is a reason that at a glance, this Budget feels like a net win. Meaningful progress has been made with this year’s measures, and while it’s easy to be cynical about any Budget, that progress is worth acknowledging. Hopefully, instead of being short-lived once-offs, this year’s measures end up being indicative of the direction we’re going in, and something to build on as we move forward.