Writing by Conor Thompson, Policy Officer at AONTAS
Budget 2024 has made some progress in making access to education for adults fairer, but there are also areas that urgently need to be funded and prioritised that were missing from last week’s budget announcement.
Simon Harris TD, Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation, and Science, announced last week that students won’t have to pay fees for specific part-time undergraduate courses from September 2024.
We welcome this news, as we have been asking the Government to make this change for many years, along with other organisations like the Irish Universities Association, who wrote a paper about the issue.
We hope that this will make studying at university easier for a lot of people who don’t have the time or freedom to study full-time.
Speaking about the removal of fees for part-time undergraduate courses, our CEO Dearbháil Lawless said:
“This will be life-changing. In my own time teaching, I have come across so many people who, due to personal or financial constraints, haven't been able to commit to a full-time programme. This news is wonderful, and it really will change people's lives.”
Minister Harris also said that the Government will look at providing SUSI grants for part-time students. We are asking the Minister and his department to urgently work on this and make SUSI grants for part-time students who need financial support in place for September 2024.
In Further Education and Training (FET), Budget 2024 has made some positive changes for learners.
The Government has fully removed all Post Leaving Cert (PLC) course fees. This means that full-time learners won’t have to pay fees on Level 5 and 6 courses in Education and Training Boards (ETBs).
The Government will also give funding to make improvements to FET centre and college buildings and facilities. We hope this will be spent on making FET centres fully accessible to people with disabilities. This will make FET more accessible, along with increased funding for FET students with disabilities. Also, free period products will be provided to FET learners.
Minister Harris also announced that the SUSI maintenance grant will increase from January 2024. Students on SUSI maintenance grants will get €342 more this year, and up to €615 in the full 2024-2025 academic year.
This is an important increase, but it is still not available to FET learners at Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI) Levels 1 to 4. We are asking the Government to make SUSI grants available to all FET learners who need extra financial support.
Before the Budget, AONTAS called for specific funding for the community education sector.
Community education often helps people who have been let down by the traditional education system in Ireland, and who need some care and guidance to get back into learning again. Even though community education has such a strong role in communities across the island of Ireland, it doesn’t get enough funding. We wanted to see the Government providing funding to community education to make sure that staff have good contracts and adequate pay, and that the buildings and facilities can be improved.
A lot of learners in FET receive social welfare payments to supply or support their income. Budget 2024 increased these payments by €12. This is not enough to keep up with the increasing cost of living, and the cost of taking part in FET courses.
In Budget 2024, we wanted to see increases in social welfare payments for FET learners that would let people learn in a safe and secure way, knowing that they have enough money to cover all the basics so they can take the time to get the most out of their course.
With costs increasing for everyone, Budget 2024 did not do enough to support FET learners.
The Government also announced that it will reduce childcare fees next year, which is definitely good news for parents in FET. But people still have problems finding childcare places for their children. Some centres have childcare services on site, but many do not, and often FET learners leave courses because of this.
We wanted to see specific funding set aside to improve affordable childcare for all FET learners who need it.
As well as this, SUSI grants are still not available to FET learners at QQI Levels 1 to 4, and this needs to be changed.
We also wanted to see increased travel and accommodation allowances for apprentices in FET.
At the moment, apprentices get just €69.90 a week for accommodation when learning in a FET training centre.
Travel continues to be a major problem for FET learners in rural areas. This will need action from the Department of Transport and the Department of Further and Higher Education.
We will continue to work with Minister Harris and the Department to advocate for these changes, and keep working to be a catalyst for change in adult and community education across the island of Ireland.
For more information contact Conor at firstname.lastname@example.org