Miriam Donohoe: Students need to suck it up and learn that financial woes build character
PITY the country's poor college students. More used to being in the news for hosting boisterous rag weeks and organising radical marches, they are pulling at the nation's heartstrings this week with reports that many are living on the breadline, hungry and in danger of being evicted from their flats as they can't afford to pay rent.
Struggling students have apparently been forced to accept free food boxes due to the outrageous delay in the payment of grants through the new Student Universal Support Ireland (Susi).
I don't doubt for a minute that, as with many sectors, there are students out there seriously struggling to make ends meet. But the last time I checked living on a tight budget and not having all of life's luxuries went hand in hand with going to college (unless you have very wealthy parents). I can't help but ask has the student lifestyle gotten a bit too cushy and have expectations been unrealistically heightened due to the boom years?
While students have to eat properly and have a roof over their heads, not too long ago living on a shoestring in less than desirable accommodation was part and parcel of student life.
In Dublin's Rathmines and Rathgar, along the Western Road in Cork, and in Salthill in Galway, notorious bedsits have been home to thousands and thousands of students over the decades.
They are to be outlawed now. It will be illegal for landlords to rent out bedsit-type accommodation under new regulations due to come into force next month. All rented accommodation must have its own sanitary facilities in a separate room, which means the days of rented rooms sharing a single bathroom will come to an end.
Having had some of the best craic of my life – with not a bob in my pocket – in very grotty bedsits during my own student days, I can't help but feel a little bit nostalgic.
The students I see today are an intelligent, confident and sophisticated bunch. They have grown up in an Ireland that went through a radical economic boom. Families took several holidays a year, wages were high and households were equipped with the most up-to-date gadgets. Kids had it pretty good.
Despite the downturn, most students today still manage to be armed with the latest technology – laptops, smartphones, tablets. Some even have cars. You can bet that they still manage to find the money to have a good night out, with bars in towns doing special discounts on drink during the week. And I envy the girls' sense of style and grooming.
Indeed, a friend of mine who does voluntary work with St Vincent de Paul said he was amazed to see that a group of students from one college is on a ski trip this week to France, a trip organised by the Students' Union. He made the point that he doesn't begrudge anyone a holiday, but said: "It makes one very dubious as to the genuine plight of students – although a realist understands that there are financial issues with some students."
Like everyone else, students have to cut their cloth to suit their measure. I seriously doubt that students are actually going hungry, or sleeping on the side of the road because of the delay in payment of grants. The Department of Education insists that help is available to students with serious financial struggles, with a student assistance fund for those waiting for a grant to come through, or whether they apply for a grant or not.
We shouldn't lose sight of the fact that Ireland still has one of the best third-level education systems in the world. We don't have college fees (albeit there is a hefty college registration fee) and unlike in America we don't see students saddled with massive debts after graduation because they are forced to borrow thousands to see them through college life.
Some of the struggles attached to being a student are character forming, and on the curriculum for getting a degree in life.