Government Penny Pinching May Do More Harm Than Good

covBackbenchers from Fine Gael and Labour have warned of impending trouble within the coalition over the issue of means testing for third level grants. The Government has indicated that proposals regarding the inclusion of assets worth over €750,000 are still being discussed – meaning farms and business assets could now come under scrutiny when applying for education grants. The issue first reared its head last summer and has once more come to the fore this week. Education Minister Ruairi Quinn has argued previously that farmers and the self-employed are not averse to manipulating their incomes to ensure their children receive third level grants.

The proposals have come from Labour’s side of the table, where TDs such as Minister for Education, Ruairi Quinn, and Dublin North Central TD Aodhán Ó Ríordáin are arguing for what they see will be a more level playing field. Speaking to RTE’s Morning Ireland programme, Ó Ríordáin said that too many people were currently eligible for the grant scheme that wouldn’t be if cumulative wealth was taken into account, and that those on much lower incomes “should not be fishing out of the same pond as those who have quite an amount in their savings accounts or quite a number of assets”. While apparently seeking to demonstrate how Labour haven’t really sold out for a taste of power, one thing this actually shows is Labour’s clear misunderstanding of how farming in Ireland works, something farmers and farming organisations have been quick to point out, arguing that any such move will simply deny students from low-income farms the opportunity to pursue a third level education. IFA president John Bryan in particular has described calculations used by Teagasc as flawed. “The proposed threshold of €750,000 would buy a 75-acre farm. Depending on location, soil type and enterprise, it is ludicrous to suggest that every farm makes an income of over €40,000,” he stated.

A raft of senior Fine Gael politicians are understood to be opposed to any such moves. Taoiseach Enda Kenny, Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney, Environment Minister Phil Hogan and Arts Minister Jimmy Deegan are all reportedly against their Labour colleagues’ plans to include farm land as an asset which can be used as a means of rejecting a grant application. And rightly so. Land for farmers is a tool rather than a simple asset, a means of making their income. Should the children of carpenters and plumbers have their parents’ tool boxes opened and examined to determine their worth? And why is a farmer any different? How will a tillage farmer grow crops without land? Or a dairy farmer graze their cattle without it? Because if land is now considered an asset which can be examined as part of a grant application then the government is suggesting that farmers who don’t have the cash on hand to pay for their kids’ education expenses, they should have to sell off part of their business and their livelihood simply so their children can get an education. In the 21st century, education, like health, shouldn’t be a privilege that only some can afford or should have to sell their life for – it should be a basic right, provided by a government to whom the vast majority of working people pay substantial amounts of our wages each week. The issue is not assets on hand but the ability to pay, and, as statistics from 2012 pointed out, average farm income stands around €21,000, in the same region as the average industrial wage, with around 12,000 farmers on the Farm Assist Programme. Just because land is worth a substantial amount of paper doesn’t mean the farmer who owns it is making near its value each year.

Agriculture has long been an important part of the Irish economy and while it suffered during the 90s and through the boom years of the Celtic Tiger, when the crash of 2008 changed everything and construction and finance became mired in crisis, agri food in particular suddenly became a real player on the stage. But though farming may be once more a viable option for some, CAP reforms and cuts to farmers’ subsidies are looming on the near horizon and agriculture remains a harsh and sometimes unforgiving industry. Perhaps instead of seeking to make cuts to an industry in which many of its workers are still under considerable pressure while trying to ensure their children receive a proper education so they can attempt to make a life for themselves, the government should look to ensuring every citizen in the country gets an education, even if it means they have to cut back on their wine expenditure to pay for it.

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