Studies must come first when juggling college work and employment

Scrimping and saving is part of the student experience, writes Sharon Ní Chonchúir. But always put your college course before a part-time job.

This is an exciting yet daunting time for anyone starting life as a third-level student. A record 80,887 people applied for college this year and yesterday, many received offers of places at universities and institutes of technology.

That’s the exciting part; now for the daunting one. According to the Dublin Institute of Technology Campus Life Cost of Living Guide, students living away from home can now expect to spend more than €11,000 a year on student fees, rent, food and other costs. It’s never been more expensive to be a student.

A recent report by the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) reveals that students are suffering as a result of these escalating costs. Of 878 interviewed, 58.1% said they missed meals to save money. 34.2% went without heat and a further 25.4% said they had approached their students’ union, St Vincent de Paul or a food bank for help.

“Students are making real sacrifices in order to continue going to college,” says Jack Leahy, the Deputy Head of the Union of Students in Ireland (USI). “The cost of third-level education has risen considerably in recent years while the grant has either stayed the same or been cut and part-time work has been hard to come by. This has made life very difficult for students.”

Bob Quinn of the financial planning firm, The Money Advisers thinks that funding college has always been a challenge. “I remember what it was like in 1999,” he says. “Rents were crazy then too. Students and their families have always been under ferocious financial pressure.”

Bob supported himself through college by working 30 hours a week in a café. “I can still make a mean cup of coffee but working so much wasn’t a good idea,” he says. “I’d have liked more time to study.”

Both Bob and Jack would like to see changes made to the current system of financing students. The USI would remove the student registration fee, invest in student accommodation and devise a better grant system.

“When you think that the cost of going to college is €11,000 and the maximum grant is about €6,200, that’s a shortfall of almost €5,000,” Jack says.

Bob favours introducing a state-backed finance scheme where students are loaned money that they repay from future paycheques. “We must admit that third-level education simply isn’t free in Ireland and do something about it,” he says. “We can’t control the cost of rents, college materials or socialising. A loan system is something we can control.”

Bob urges anyone considering taking out a loan this year to be careful which option they choose. “There’s a big difference between credit union or bank loans, credit cards and payday loans,” he says. “Payday loans are criminally expensive to repay. Credit cards should only be used if you can repay your bill in full every month. A bank or credit union loan is by far the better option.”

Jack recommends the credit union too. “It’s sad that I’m forced to suggest that students take on debt but at least the credit union is a risk-free and low-interest option,” he says.

Despite wishing he hadn’t had to work as a student, Bob sees some merit in working part-time. “If it’s what you have to do, do it,” he says. “You shouldn’t miss out on the experience of going to college as it is something that will determine the course your life will take in the future. But be careful what work you take on. There are more options now than there were when I was a student. You can make money using the internet rather than working for 30-something hours in a café.”

Finally, Jack reminds students that students’ unions and other services are there to help. “There is advice and support out there,” he says. “I know it can feel awkward to talk about money but believe me when I say, it shouldn’t be. Most other students share your same concerns.”

Three well-known personalities share how they managed to fund their lives as students:


Studies must come first when juggling college work and employment

Aoife Hearne is the dietician with Operation Transformation and the founder of Nutrition Solutions, a private nutrition consultancy service. “My story is different in that I was approached by scouts from an American university who offered me a sports scholarship in the States,” she says. “The long and short of it is that I ran my way through college.”

That scholarship paid for her fees and most of her living expenses but there were extra costs, such as flights home to Ireland.

“I was lucky in that my parents were able to help,” says Aoife. “I am an only child so there wasn’t anyone else at home with any other costs.”

She also worked in her local corner shop. “I started when I was 14 and worked there every summer I was home from college,” she says. “Whatever I earned, I put towards college.”

She has two pieces of advice for today’s students. “Do something you love to do and work hard to make it a success,” is the first. “And look at all the opportunities open to you. You don’t have to limit yourself to Ireland. There may be better – and more affordable – options elsewhere.”


Studies must come first when juggling college work and employment

Philip Treacy is a milliner and fashion designer from Ahascragh in County Galway. His hats have been worn by members of the British royal family as well as by celebrities such as Lady Gaga and Sarah Jessica Parker.

“I started studying at the regional technical college in Galway and did a degree at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin,” says Philip. “Then I did an MA at the Royal College of Art in London. I received a state grant for the first two courses and a scholarship for the MA. I would not have been able to study without that financial help. In fact, grants and scholarships were everything to everybody I knew back then. We couldn’t have survived without them.”

Despite this financial help, Philip still had a £5,000 overdraft to repay when he left college 20 years ago. “It took me five years to pay it off,” he says.

Philip also worked while he was in college to cover his shortfall in funds. “I had to,” he says. “I accepted commissions and I worked as a dresser in a theatre. I would work from 7am in the morning to 1am at night. It was a long day but you’re able to do that when you’re 20.”

He urges today’s students to be inventive. “It shouldn’t be the case that only wealthy students embark on third-level education,” he says. “Not having enough money is not a good enough reason not to go to college. You might have to take out a loan. You might have to be entrepreneurial. But if you want to do it, do it. Think positively and try. Be daring.”


Studies must come first when juggling college work and employment

Edward Hayden is a TV chef, food writer and culinary lecturer. His third-level education started with a certificate in professional cooking. Then he completed a degree in culinary arts and finally graduated with a master’s degree in learning and teaching.

He lived at home in Kilkenny while he studied for his certificate at Waterford IT. “I commuted to and from college every day and my costs were low because I was living at home,” he says. “This meant that my parents were able to cover them for me.”

Later on, he was able to combine his part time degree and master’s studies with working full-time. “I worked six days a week and spent my day off in college,” he says. “It meant I didn’t have any financial pressure but it also meant I worked very hard. All of my spare time was spent studying.”

His advice to anyone considering a career in the food industry is to get a part-time job in catering. “It’s a good thing to do for several reasons,” he says. “Not only will it give you a few bob to pay for college but it will also hone the skills you will need in future and help you to decide if this is the career for you.”


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