Sunday 18 August 2019

Hugh O'Connell: 'Voters will make Fine Gael pay for its approach to our young'


Education minister Joe McHugh. Photo: Frank McGrath
Education minister Joe McHugh. Photo: Frank McGrath
Hugh O'Connell

Hugh O'Connell

For a party that repeatedly faces claims it is arrogant and out of touch, Fine Gael does itself no favours sometimes.

The tone-deaf comments of Education Minister Joe McHugh and his "super" Junior Minister Mary Mitchell O'Connor in recent days have only added to the perception the party leading the minority Government does not get the struggles facing many ordinary people.

Amid the rising cost of student accommodation across the country, Mr McHugh suggested families who can't afford to send their children to university should look at regional colleges. There are many fine third-level institutes outside Dublin, but Fine Gael's message to those less well-off appears to be that if you aspire to attend Trinity or UCD but can't afford the rent, then too bad, go somewhere cheaper.

Ms Mitchell O'Connor compounded matters by saying the Susi grant could be used to pay for accommodation. This is of course partly what the grant is for, but students need this money for college essentials too, not nights on the tear (although it would be naïve to say some of the grant isn't used for this), but books, food, field trips and other costs. The suggestion that your grant will cover your rent conveniently ignores the fact the average Susi grant - the Union of Students in Ireland estimates it is €336 per month - would not meet the cost of most student-only accommodation around the country or many of the available house shares in Dublin.

What happened to the principle of equal access for all when it comes to education? No wonder Fianna Fáil accused Ms Mitchell O'Connor of a "let them eat cake" moment.

It's not just student accommodation where Fine Gael is failing. Mr McHugh's commitment to freeze fees - which are already among the highest in the EU - and pledge not to bring in student loans does nothing to address the funding crisis facing the sector.

Mr McHugh believes this will be a matter for another government, while Ms Mitchell O'Connor said taxpayers already put significant amounts into third level as it is. This is echoed by those in Government who argue the financial commitment to higher education is up almost €350m in the last four years, while capital investment has doubled since 2016.

But the reality facing many students getting their first round CAO offers today is they will face crippling accommodation costs in order to attend institutions that desperately need a roadmap for their financial futures.

Fine Gael's attitude to higher level education will not go unnoticed by an increasingly energised sector of the electorate.

Even if they don't vote in their droves at the next election, they all have parents who aspire to send their children to third-level education. Fine Gael will incur their wrath without changing its stand-off approach.

Irish Independent

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