With the dust settling on what was an undoubtedly historic General Election and parties continuing negotiations to form a government in these unprecedented times, many students and young people across the Republic are wondering what impact a Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael led coalition might have on them.
Admittingly, I write this as a Northerner without a vote in elections to the Dáil. However, the issues faced by students in the Republic of Ireland mirror those of students in Northern Ireland and across the UK. In addition to this, as co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement, whomever is in power in Leinster House is of great importance to many people living in the North.
Throughout the short election campaign, the hashtags #VoteLeft and #TransferLeft gained prominence on social media. This signified that many people, students in particular, were fed up with the fiscally conservative policies of the Varadkar government. This undoubtedly aided the surge in votes for left leaning parties such as Sinn Féin, who were campaigning on issues such as housing for all and a fairer tax system.
Prior to the 2020 General Election, the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) released a student manifesto that was circulated to all political parties contesting the election. This highlighted the main areas of concern for students, from the amount that they are expected to contribute towards their education to affordable student accommodation and the introduction of a living wage. While talks to form a government are still ongoing, the draft document released by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have addressed some of these issues.
Across the island of Ireland, one of the main issues affecting students is affordable accommodation. This is arguably one of the issues that USI are most active on, as students are asked to pay astronomical amounts for accommodation that are cramped, overcrowded and often unsanitary.
While Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have committed themselves to “housing for all”, their main focus appears to be on affordable homes for first time buyers. While their document makes reference to the development of a cost-rental model for student accommodation, an idea that was first presented to the Oireachtas Housing Committee by a Dublin community regeneration group in 2018, USI argue in their manifesto that students could be better served by the government “providing HEIs with funding to build affordable publicly owned purpose built student accommodation, thus easing pressure on the private market.”
One group of students who are often overlooked are student parents. These people are often the students who find themselves in financial difficulty throughout their studies as they have the added expenses of childcare and looking after a dependant. As such, it will be welcome news that the incoming government are proposing to reduce the cost and increase the standard of childcare.
Some welcome news for students comes in the form of a commitment to agree a long-term sustainable funding model for higher-level education, with no increase in the student contribution. However, the Republic of Ireland is close to having the highest level of student contribution across the EU and no doubt students will continue to demand that it is lowered.
When we eventually overcome COVID-19, the Irish economy, like most economies around the globe will have been drastically affected and we will be facing another recession. With that comes added pressure on public services as the government is faced with raising taxes, increasing borrowing to boost the state capital or implementing austerity measures to reduce the deficit.
These decisions will have an impact on the majority of people within our society, but in particular, students and young people will be negatively affected as they graduate into an economy that is shrinking and a job market that is comparable to the 2008 financial crash.
To that extent, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are proposing to launch a National Economic Plan to help the economy recover from COVID-19 and to introduce a living wage by the end of their time in government. While this will go a long way to help those on low incomes, their plans are mainly focused on developing sectors within the STEM industries and there doesn’t appear to be much in the way of support for other industries into which students will be graduating.
While Micheál Martin and Leo Varadkar continue to talk to the smaller parties in the hope of forming a government, the future for students looks bleak.