Students from GMIT Castlebar, CCFE, and Sligo IT united together on Wednesday to stage a rally against cuts to student grants and an increase in college fees. The crowd gathered at GMIT Castlebar before departing to the Taoiseach's office.
The protest was headed by Clare Lawlor, president of GMIT Students Union Castlebar, who said: “Our students are suffering already this year, with the increase of fees and not having their grant sorted yet. People are struggling to feed themselves and their families and it will get even worse if the Government continues to hit them with fee hikes and cuts.
“We are asking them to be reasonable to people who are trying to get an education.”
A massive turnout showed their support, with a rough estimate of between 350 and 400 students joining the rally. Sinn Féin councillor Thérèse Ruane showed her solidarity as students struggle to cope with devastating cuts to grants, back to education allowance, and registration fee hikes.
Cllr Ruane said: “Students and their families are being put to the pin of their collar; they are under serious pressure with registration fees and bank loans to support their children’s tuition. Student Universal Support Ireland (SUSI ) debacle is making the situation untenable for many students. I've been inundated with calls from students who are in severe financial difficulty and are facing dropping out of college if they do not receive their grants immediately.”
The GMIT in Castlebar has started a food fund in the college to support students who cannot put food on the table.
It is not surprising therefore that they showed up in their hundreds, as currently only one in six college grant applications have been approved. Just over half of the GMIT Castlebar student population, 54.7 per cent of the 1,200 students, are receiving some form of maintenance grants, rates varying depending on means. Therefore, 543 students pay full fees, without any State assistance, and 656 students are receiving some form of grant.
Part of USI’s campaign is to raise awareness of how cuts to third level education will inflict economic damage on college towns like Castlebar. Research carried out by USI has shown that the loss to Castlebar’s local economy over four years from increases in fees would be €1,357,500. The loss to the local economy from cuts to the student maintenance grant would be €387,040. Therefore, the total loss to the local economy from cuts to higher education would be €1,744,540 over the next four years or €436,135 a year.
“Students and parents who are forced to absorb the harsh fee increases and grant cuts being planned by the Government will be left with significantly reduced disposable income, which will have a direct effect on local businesses in Castlebar,” according to USI.