On the brink of starvation

Impoverished. Struggling. Starving.

The grant may have been spared in this year’s Budget, but some students can still barely keep up with rising costs of living.

Many students are unable to afford basic human essentials like food and heat, and this is becoming more and more common.

University sections of the St. Vincent de Paul Society have had to change their approach to come to the aid of fellow students who are in extreme financial difficulty.

In one case, a DCU student had been living off free tea and coffee provided in the university’s Interfaith centre before the campus SVP intervened.

Fr. Joe Jones, President of DCU SVP said that he noticed a foreign student’s physical appearance deteriorating as they visited the Interfaith centre. The chaplain approached the student and discovered that they had not been eating because they just could not afford food.

DCU SVP were able to support the student to the end of their course by providing them with money to buy food.

“It was just one of those very difficult situations,” said Fr. Joe.

Although this happened three years ago, Fr. Joe and his colleagues remain vigilant for the emergence of other starving students.

“The very fact that it happened means it could possibly happen again, so we have to keep an eye on students if they’re in with us a lot.”

The need for the campus SVP to help students was not as strong seven years ago when Fr. Joe began working in DCU. That was before the recession hit Ireland in 2008, slicing into the student maintenance grant and hiking up contribution fees.

Now, however, DCU SVP is often approached by a student who cannot afford food.

“If you look forward six years at the way the economy is now, poverty is growing, it’s a huge issue,” Fr. Joe said.

Students are hiding poverty problems from their friends. “I’ve met students where they could be living in a house with other students and they don’t tell the other students that they have no money and they will actually go hungry,” Fr. Joe said.

The problem is not limited to DCU.

NUI Maynooth Students’ SVP have set up a Student Welfare Fund to deal with the daily requests they receive from struggling students. The demands range from petitions for food to money for necessities like text books, electricity, heating, and transport.

The Student Welfare Fund was launched in February 2013 and received 40 applications that semester. The students apply through a confidential email account and attend an interview with two college officials, to prevent prejudice or bias.

Students are provided with financial assistance in the form of food vouchers from Dunnes Stores and book vouchers from the university bookshop. The vouchers can be worth up to a maximum of €70. No cash is offered to students.

The resources available for campus SVPs are limited, restricting the level of aid that they can provide.

“When the majority of our donors are students it creates the problem that to provide for more students we have to depend on the generosity of fellow students to donate more money and time to help the whole student body,” said Kieran Timmons, President of Maynooth Students’ SVP.

The Irish League of Credit Unions 2013 Third Level Education Survey found that finance and debt are the greatest worries for over half of college students. 59% of those surveyed admitted that financial worries negatively impact their overall college experience.

DCU Student Welfare Officer Lorna Finnegan says that she would have students approach her every day with financial queries or worries. Fees and accommodation are the two biggest costs for students, she said, and the recent increase in rent has made budgeting more difficult.

The Student Contribution Charge also continues to climb as the government will now take €2750 from students in 2014 and €3000 in 2015.

Students across the country will be relieved that the maintenance grant was untouched, but a sometimes forgotten group have been hit again by the Government’s seventh austerity budget. Those whose parent’s income is slightly too high to qualify for the grant can find it hard to make ends meet.

“It’s often a catch-22 situation where students who miss out on the grant struggle just as much with money, if not more,” said Finnegan.

The Student Assistance Fund was set up in Irish colleges and universities to aid students with the daily costs of third level education. However, it does not cover the tuition or registration fees that are a major cost for students that are scraping the line of grant-eligibility.

The Minister for Education has once again backtracked on a promise made. Last year, Ruairi Quinn announced a €25m cut to funding in third-level institutions. This was supposed to be a one-off. Yet the Minister reopened the wound this year by imposing another €25m cut. Students will suffer as colleges and universities are hit again.

“Cutting funding to higher education will put universities and colleges under great pressure and will likely lead to redundancies. This will clearly impact on teaching and quality standards and students’ education will suffer,” said Fianna Fail TD and Education Spokesperson Charlie McConalogue.

The Union of Students in Ireland has said the preservation of the grant in Budget 2014 marks a turning point for Irish students, but past measures have treated them harshly.

President of the USI Joe O’Connor said, “Students all over Ireland have suffered for years under policies designed to target them as a soft touch for cuts. As a result, far too many students have suffered extremes of poverty in Ireland.

The USI has vowed to stand strong against the rising Student Contribution Charge which, it says, is endangering students.

Next year heralds little relief for Irish third-level students, because in reality, not much will change. The grant remains at a level so low that some students are starving, while mounting fees press more and more upon the already squeezed middle-class. Promises continue to be broken as the students of Ireland feel the pinch.

Rachel McLaughlin

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