In the past week, there has been a strong reaction to the headline on the Daily Mail and Extra.ie on Monday, the 3rd of May, that students are practically ‘lying in bed’ picking up 125 million in the Pandemic Unemployment Payment loophole. According to Extra.ie, ‘thousands of students are raking in hundreds of euro a week in a Pandemic Unemployment Payment loophole that allows them to claim benefit… The cash – ranging from 203 to 350 euro a week – was meant to support people laid off due to pandemic disruption… But students realised they could claim the benefit and 47,000 third-level students make up the current 403,095 PUP recipients’. One senior Minister was angry at the prospect that students were receiving the PUP who said that ‘having 47,000 students lying in bed enjoying the PUP grant is an astonishing number’.
According to Extra.ie, ‘the cash is running out… Paschal [Donoghue] and Michael [McGrath] are getting fretful… They will be looking for low-hanging fruit and the sleepy students are high up the list… It’s a possible 125 million-a-year-bill… The government came close to removing students from the payment before the last budget, but we were dealing with so many crises they slipped through again… One source noted: Simon Harris put the kybosh on that… He had no intention of going to war with 50,000 screaming students in the middle of a pandemic’.
Union of Students of Ireland president, Lorna Fitzpatrick, said that ‘the type of jobs that students traditionally do have been hardest hit by this pandemic and the public health restrictions – cafes, restaurants, hotels, retail outlets and pubs are all closed… These figures show the number of students that need to work to put themselves through college and it would be very concerning to us if the government started pitting worker against worker… in terms of the PUP’.
In short, this government concern and headline shows utter contempt to these 47,000 students, who are on the PUP because they lost their jobs, as a result of the public health restrictions due to the Covid-19 pandemic. A majority of students work part-time jobs to help pay their tuition fees, which are the highest in the EU. If anything, it is the fault of the government for its continuation of underfunding third-level institutions as they require high tuition fees and student contribution fees to help stay afloat.
As a result, students who do not qualify for the SUSI grant and even students who qualify for a portion of the SUSI grant, end up having to work part-time to ensure they have enough money to get through college. Through no fault of their own, these students lost their jobs due to the outset of the Covid-19 pandemic and they needed some form of income to make up for this lost income. If they were lying in bed, it was because they were and continue to struggle with mental health problems. Young people are struggling with mental health issues and headlines such as this, show utter contempt to them.
It surely amazes many young people across the country that it appears that the government is unhappy that it has to continue to provide student supports through the PUP, but previous governments were happy to protect the assets of bondholders, bankers, etc, in the banking crisis through the Banking Guarantee and a further era of austerity whilst listening to the recommendations of the Troika. If anything, they might not be on the PUP if the government did not continue its mismanagement of the Covid-19 crisis, as it opened up quickly in the summer of last year. Whilst case numbers fell to a handful a day, the government was not able to sustain these numbers.
Instead, despite promising that there would be no further lockdowns, the government brought us into a lockdown at the start of October, which lasted until mid-December, culminating in the so-called opening up for a ‘meaningful Christmas’. After that utter failure, the government brought us yet again into a lockdown, this time, the third lockdown in January, which lasted until mid-April as restrictions began to be lifted.
It broke promises time and time again which were responsible for the deaths of thousands of people. In short, students are on the PUP because the government did not put in place the appropriate measures, to ensure that Covid-19 cases remained as close to zero as possible, such as mandatory quarantine for all people travelling into Ireland for non-essential reasons, a rapid suppression of the virus, through regional lockdowns and opening ups, which was successfully achieved in Australia, New Zealand and Vietnam.
Despite these enormous successes, the government continued to deflect from the possibility of implementing a rapid suppression of the virus, as it said that ‘we’re not like New Zealand, we’re too close and aligned with the EU’. These supports for students must continue to be maintained throughout the duration of restrictions, as long as, students are without their job that they lost due to the Covid-19 pandemic. It remains to be seen whether these supports continue for the duration of the restrictions, but, if these supports are withdrawn at any stage, in the next few months, before restrictions are lifted, this will be met with significant resistance by young students across the country.
We must not forget that these young people have the entitlement to vote at elections, and if the government continues its rhetoric and crack-down on students on the PUP, they will feel this catastrophic impact at the ballot boxes.