Two problems are currently at the fore for Irish students, one major, the other minor.
The major one is the rather stark reality that most of them will have to leave the country to find work as soon as they've finished their degrees.
Lack of work at home has meant that the tragedy of forced emigration is part of young Irish students' lives again; commentators have even speculated that this wave of emigration could turn out worse than the last one we endured in the 80s.
The comparatively minor one is that there's a slight increase in the amount of college fees payable each year: €350 worth, to be precise.
Dublin's leading social policy think-tank, the ESRI, recently estimated that around 70,000 of our youngest and brightest left for foreign shores last year (the exact figure has yet to be determined) while this website's Cathal Dervan reports that emigration to Britain, the quintessential receptacle of Irish emigrants in times of economic hardship, has sky-rocketed to near record levels.
Compared to the whole forced emigration upset, the altogether less drastic news that college 'fees' are increasing by a paltry €350 -- from €1,650 to €2,000 -- seems like a relatively minor headache, all the more so when the education Minister's recent announcement that the fee can now be paid in two, rather than one, instalments is borne in mind.
This is why it seems somewhat strange that Irish students, or at least students' unions, seem more concerned with criticizing the relatively minuscule increase in the already rock-bottom college fees than with the fact that most of them will have to leave this country to find work after graduating.
The education Minister's recent announcement that the 'fee' would indeed increase (despite a short-lasting pre-election pledge that he would oppose this happening), was met with the rather paramilitary-style threat that 'all hell would break loose' if this were to happen by the Union of Students in Ireland (USI), while the ongoing student emigration fracas has tended to be countered with much more tepid pronouncements, such as protests, demonstrations, and oft-repeated 'astonishment' that this issue appears to be so clearly off the government's radar.
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Which makes me wonder: would it not make more sense for us students to direct our abundant supplies of whining and groaning to the more important issue of graduate emigration and unemployment, and accept the minor increase in fees as a necessary (albeit unpalatable) part of Ireland's painful economic hangover?
Would we loose too much face if we were to admit that all this bluff and bluster about fees was really just a lot of hot air?
On a side point, I should note the Union of Students in Ireland (USI), the body collectively representing Irish third-level students, or at least the vast majority of students, has made a strong and principled stand against student emigration as recently as last year. My worry is rather that this is slipping off the agenda, and risks being totally eclipsed by a fees 'crisis' that really isn't turning out to be all that big of a deal.
This concern about fees seems like a case of us getting our priorities mixed up, and the very real problem of not having a job to work at in Ireland after graduation surely amounts to a more substantial threat than the risk of having to pay an extra €350 per annum to stay in college.
Even if college were (hypothetically) totally free, with zero fees and expenses, what good would attending such a place do if there were no jobs to be filled after graduating? It's the forced emigration and unemployment, not a few hundred euro, that threatens the future of our young people.
Irish students have plenty to complain about at the moment, as indeed all Irish currently do (it helps that we specialize at this skill, too), but perhaps it's time for students to ask themselves if the very slight increase in college fees is really that big a deal, and if their time, energies, protest, and letters to politicians, would not be better directed at the real and crippling problem of there being no jobs to go round after graduating.