Sunday 18 August 2019

Editorial: 'Spirit of O'Malley demands inclusive vision on education'

Donogh O’Malley, who announced his free education scheme in 1966. Photo: Currach Press
Donogh O’Malley, who announced his free education scheme in 1966. Photo: Currach Press


Education is universally regarded as the great leveller. It makes it possible for people to stand out as equals, beyond social or economic barriers - or at least that is what we like to tell ourselves.

When Donogh O'Malley caught the whole country on the hop in 1966 with his free secondary education announcement - including, famously, the Department of Education which had not sanctioned it - it was a game-changer for our State.

It was a profound act of faith in the future of our people, and it paid off beyond anything he could have imagined 53 years ago.

But how does the current Government stand the test of time in its commitment to students?

The answer is it doesn't.

Third-level colleges are facing an unprecedented investment crisis, while students are facing what has been described as the worst accommodation crisis yet.

True, more student accommodation spaces have been granted permission this year than any other type of housing, but the problem is they are far too unaffordable for far too many. With a third-level qualification now vital to most career paths, demand for college places could not be higher.

When you factor in an intractable housing crisis in our major cities, university students are literally left out in the cold. Rural students are at a particular disadvantage. When the cost is so high to study in Dublin as to be prohibitive, then those living outside the capital are effectively being discriminated against because of where they were born.

As the number of school-leavers is only going to rise - an increase of 27pc by 2030 - this is an issue the Government must urgently confront.

Apart from the huge cost of accommodation which places an unbearable strain on parents, there is another question: Why is it that while existing student accommodation is currently under Rent Pressure Zone legislation, some 14,000 new units coming on stream will be exempt from rent caps? Instead of easing the market pressure, the extra units could drive costs higher.

Irish students, just like prospective homeowners, find themselves hopelessly seeking accommodation in the private sector - one where huge investor funds now play a significant role. Not only do they profit from inflated rents, they also pay minimal tax.

When you factor in that State funding per student is half what it was 10 years ago, the financial pressure is crushing. Small wonder then that parents of four in 10 students are finding themselves driven into debt. Donogh O'Malley's vision was pivotal to the social evolution of our country.

But where is the vision for tomorrow?

University education has rightly been identified by the Government as the key driver of our economy. Therefore it makes no sense not to ring-fence resources or produce policies to protect it, affording access to students all over the country.

Irish Independent

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