It’s hard to put into words the level of anger that I felt this week when I heard the Department for the Economy’s proposals to save money in their budget for the next three years.
The Department has been left with a significant shortfall as a result of budget cuts and the loss of EU funding which will be felt this year. In response, Department officials have drawn up a list of options for where cuts can be made. Seven out of the eight options are in further and higher education – and officials have made it clear that most of them would need to be introduced in some form to simply break even.
If these proposals pass they would represent the biggest cut to third level education in over a decade. The long term impact this could have on society is devastating.
Students and young people have sacrificed so much over the last few years. They have seen their education severely interrupted, struggled with financial hardships with few support options to fall back on, and have lost out on vital life experiences at a pivotal time in their lives. And as repayment their government is now working on plans to devastate their futures and leave thousands with no option but to travel to receive an education.
Officials have proposed a series of different cuts. Some involve slashing course places: cutting apprenticeship places by up to 50%, ending all higher level apprenticeships, introducing no new apprenticeship programmes and introducing caps to youth training.
They’ve suggested cutting Educational Maintenance Allowance, a weekly £30 payment that many 16 to 19 year olds rely on to help them meet the cost of education – like buying stationery, and food for lunch. One proposal would see higher education course places cut by over 6,000, with student grants removed and tuition fees increased to £7,200.
It’s hard to truly imagine the impact that even one of these proposals would have, never mind all of them at once. I spoke to my fellow student officers across Northern Ireland on Wednesday, and as we tried to digest the scale of what was being proposed, the feeling I met time and again was pure shock. This isn’t just a cut to education, it feels like an attack on a whole generation.
This will leave thousands of people from low income backgrounds struggling to survive if they continue in education. Already many go into debt just to get by, work long hours on top of their courses which affects their mental and physical health, choose over and over again between heating their home or buying food that week. To take away even more of their support funding withdraws a lifeline.
And let’s not forget the impact of slashing apprenticeship and course places. We already send away more of our young people than we keep. Now we’re making it even harder for them to stay.
That sends a message loud and clear that Northern Ireland just doesn’t care about its younger generations.
The Department has had almost six years to prepare for the impact of Brexit. Six years to work out how funding streams can be moved around to ensure that young people don’t suffer the worst impact of a decision they didn’t even get the chance to vote for. Six years to ensure that Westminster would uphold their promise to make up funding shortfalls. They’ve failed to prepare, and now it’s students who will be preparing to fail.
What’s even more galling is that just this month the Department for the Economy handed back £40m in funding which it “couldn’t spend” in this financial year, and made zero bids for additional funding to support students. Is the Department entirely unaware that thousands of students, who are on low incomes but unable to access fuel poverty support funds, might need help heating their homes in the midst of rising energy costs? No wonder they think cutting their student finance even further is an even remotely acceptable moral position to take.
I have a message for the Economy Minister. Even if you’re not prepared to fight for our future, the student movement is. We have always fought for the students who will come after us, and we will do so again.
If these proposals were to pass it would be a betrayal of a generation. We can’t let that happen.