My house has an A level student, an AS level student and a GCSE student all embarking on exams over the next week. The exams will last a little longer than a month. It’s been a marathon to get here and the next five weeks will be emotional to say the least.
My kids are more focussed than I ever was. There was no lying in the sun last weekend. Even though they have no guarantee they will see another blue sky until 2018! The pressure is just too intense and the standards are so high, if they want to get the grades they need for third level sacrifices are required.
Despite their and their peers’ dedication there is a growing crisis in access to education. It disturbs me that few voices speak up for the thousands of young people sitting exams. Tuition fees get introduced and go up. Grants become extinct. Loans become more difficult to get. Student accommodation becomes exorbitant. Arts and language courses are closed. Childcare on campus is now a distant memory and financial help with childcare disgracefully reduced. How did all of that happen without the city being set on fire by radical students? Not that I am advocating illegitimate forms of protest, but like where is the spirit of Paris ’68? When did everyone get so complicit with the man counting the beans?
The surreal focus on an immediate economic benefit to any course runs against my instinct of the value of education for learning’s own sake. I really don’t think we could have had a Heaney or a Longley under the current system. Poets who studied and wrote, not to make money or import grants, merely to develop something beautiful.
There is a real threat to students born and raised here and their potential to study down south at the minute. Because we are all in the EU there are grants which make attendance at southern third level institutions, if not easy (it’s a bit of a nightmare), at least possible. After Brexit that may end. The Good Friday Agreement tells our children they are entitled to equal Irish citizenship, but soon they will be living in a Brexited statelet, and no one has an answer for that partition-inducing conundrum. Irish students wanting to study in their own country, born into an occupied, partitioned zone potentially face particular discrimination, Irish citizens but denied equal access to Irish education on the island of Ireland. Right now only the intake for 2017 is guaranteed. I admit the Brexit debate is pretty numbing, but it’s really not just about farmers or border communities. It’s about whether we, and especially our young people, will have equal Irish citizenship.
The British Tory Government is deliberately wrecking universal access to education. The worst excesses of this were mitigated by the devolved Executive when it kept fees to a minimum. But that decision is under pressure and threat. In coming months there is a real need to focus on this issue. Going to Third Level cannot ever become once again only for the elites. Educate that you, and we, all may be free. The continued denial of Irish freedom could mean that very soon our young people will be denied equal access to education both north and south of the imposed border.