Action is urgently required to meet challenge of rising education costs

A record 80,887 students applied to the nation’s third-level institutions this year and the majority will ultimately join the growing number of workers — presently over 50% — who boast a third-level education.

For a growing number, however, the latest figures only serve as more evidence of an unhealthy fixation on judging educational success against third-level attainment.

They point to very unfavourable comparisons between youth unemployment rates here and elsewhere in the EU and suggest a recalibration of educational success, not to the number who attain a third-level degree but rather to the number who enter employment.

Whatever the merits of that, perhaps today is better spent paying tribute to the 52,000 students and families celebrating the realisation of their aspirations.

The contributions made by educators and taxpayers alike also mean we can, with some pride, point to an education system where the opportunity of third level lies within the reach of most.

It is best, however, not to dwell too long in self-congratulation, because the aspiration of universal opportunity — for those who work for and have earned it — is undoubtedly coming under greater threat due to rising costs.

In recent weeks The Irish League of Credit Unions found 60% of parents get into debt funding third-level education.

The DIT Campus Life Cost of Living Guide revealed students living away from home can expect to spend at least €11,000 a year on fees, rent, food and other costs.

In separate research Zurich Life put the cost of educating one child from primary to graduation at approximately €40,000.

It would be folly to suggest the aspiration of universal access is not being impacted by these growing costs.

Indeed earlier this year an expert group on future funding for third level, chaired by Peter Cassells, described the funding system as unfit for purpose.

“It fails to recognise the... pressures facing education institutions... changing demographics... and the pressures on families and students.”

According to the group a fundamental change in the funding model is now required to provide “a sharing of costs in a fair and attainable manner”.

The USI reacted in an absolutely understandable — if predictable — fashion. Calling on Government to reduce fees and increase student supports and investment in accommodation.

Others suggest US-style early life high-yield educational saving plans and/or UK-style student loan schemes which, advocates claim, could bridge the educational funding gap.

All these suggestions are contentious but the absence of a sustainable and fair model serves no one, not least talented students from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

Surely it is within our grasp to develop a funding model which protects the aspiration of universal access and secures the value-for-money concerns at the heart of taxpayers’ discontent on this and many other public funding issues.

On a final note, it should not be forgotten that of the 80,000-plus who did apply, around 10%-15% will ultimately not earn a third-level place.

Another indicator of the need for reform perhaps, but to them we merely urge against despondency and point to the warning words of Graham Alexander Bell.

“We often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has just opened for us.”

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