Rural students hardest hit under loan scheme

NUI Galway

Third-level students from a rural background could be disproportionately hit in the pocket if a proposed income contingency loan scheme goes ahead.

That’s according to the President of NUI Galway Students’ Union which represents over 17,000 Galway students.

The introduction of a loans scheme for students would see a shake-up in the assessment methods used for third level grants – and, according to the President of the NUI Galway Student’s Union, Phelim Kelly, that could leave rural students with a much heavier financial burden than their urban counterparts.

In NUI Galway, 46 per cent of students are currently in receipt of third level grant funding from Student Universal Support Ireland (SUSI).

Mr Kelly notes that the university would be known for having a large rural student body, with sizable numbers coming from outside the city as well as Mayo, Sligo, Clare and Donegal.

According to Mr Kelly, these students face costs that students in an urban setting are largely unaffected by – including transport costs, rental accommodation as well as food and living costs. These are expenses that students from urban areas can avoid by going to college in their home city.

“Take for example a student from Donegal, they have to travel a considerable journey to get to college and they would have to pay for their rent and food,” he said.

This is clearly visible in DIT Campus Life’s ‘Cost of living’ survey which pointed to a €4,000 difference in the costs associated with college for people in urban and rural areas. Urban students spend on average €7,000 per annum while their rural counterparts face an average cost of €11,000.

The Union of Students in Ireland (USI) is urging students to vote for a party in the general election that will protect their interests and pledge not to introduce any such loan scheme.

Following two successful voter registration drives at NUI Galway, the Students’ Union believes that this could be enough to sway political party’s respective policies on education.

“We registered over 4,000 students before the Marriage Equality Referendum and a further 2,012 last semester, for the General Election. About 50 per cent of those are registered in the Galway region alone,” said Mr Kelly.

According to the USI, the proposed changes to the grants system could see means testing carried out on assets as well as income, something that is likely to affect those from farming backgrounds the most.

The average annual income of farmers, according to Teagasc’s National Farm Survey, is just under €27,000 which means that the children of these farming families are almost certain to qualify for support with current income thresholds. This certainty would be lost if land and property were to be part of any means testing.

While the student loan scheme will likely only be one of a number of proposals on the funding of third level that any future government will have to consider, it seems to be the one gaining the most traction.

An alternative, supported by the USI and backed by NUI Galway’s Student’s Union, is an education charge on corporations.

According to Mr Kelly, a high-quality and well-funded third level sector provides many benefits for large corporations in Ireland.

“One of the main things we saw is that large corporations don’t pay proper tax and they rely on skilled graduates and an educated workforce,” he said.

Mr Kelly called for a reduction in student registration fees, which have risen to €3,000 since the beginning of the economic crash.

“We are in a period of economic recovery so I think it’s time we saw a reduction in fees,” he said.

Both the NUI Galway Student’s Union and the USI are vehemently opposed to the introduction of an income contingency loan scheme. Mr Kelly pointed to the UK, the US and Australia where similar systems are in place.

“We have comparisons with different countries – they have completely crippled the UK government, the US system is just a disaster and in Australia, 18 per cent of the loans won’t be paid back. Why would it work here?” said Mr Kelly.