I’m paying just €17 a semester to the University of Vienna to participate in a Masters programme, writes Liam Duffy Originally posted here.

In 2011, the final year of my degree in public and social policy, my class had a seminar on funding third level education led by a PhD student who argued that the system of “free fees” (due to rise to €3,000 for 2013) was unsustainable. He argued more sources of funding had to be found, and should come from students, those who benefit most. His bottom line was that the State must cut exchequer funding of education for the good of the country.

I have lived in Ireland for just one of the last four years. Before my final year I had the privilege to participate in an exchange programme at the University of Helsinki. I made many friends, not only Finns and Europeans but from throughout Asia, Africa and the Americas as well. Those studying full-time secured a place to study in Finland by no other means than their merit. You see, Finland offers a fully free education, not only for Finns, or Europeans but anyone who can cover their living expenses and meet the appropriate academic acquirements. Those who live and work in Finland can also avail of monthly financial support and subsidised housing to help them in their studies to doctoral level.

At home it took two years of arguing with my council before they released the grant I was entitled to. Luckily I had a part-time job to help support myself. With each budget putting more strain on families and individual students attempting to fund their education, many of us participated in a variety of protests against the rising registration fee. These protests were either aimless annual marches organised by student unions or else occupations and other forms of direct action which came under attack for their use of civil disobedience.

In Finland, the education system and social system wished to invest in my development for no reason other than I had potential and they had the methods and knowledge to help me reach it.

After watching Ireland fall further into crisis from afar, I returned determined to get more out of my studies with a belief that educational development is a right which the Anglo-sphere is unique in constructing as a privilege. Coming to the end of my degree in Ireland I began looking for a masters programme. Aware of the opportunities abroad I only limited my search by cost and the content of the course. I applied for and was accepted for a unique programme called the 4Cities UNICA Euromasters in Urban Studies, which takes students through six Universities, in four countries over two years. I pay €17 a semester to the University of Vienna in order to participate in this programme.

The opportunities this course offers in terms of content are exceptional, and the €68 I pay for this degree is insignificant compared to the €4-8,000 I would expect to pay at home. I’ve been able to cover my costs of living through a combination of savings, support from my family and part-time work, much as I would have done if I stayed in Ireland.

I’m the first Irish person to do this programme and moving to different countries with such a diverse group has resulted in some interesting perspectives on the different societies and cultures we move to, and how we perceive ourselves as emigrants.

I have learned many things during this programme and have been able to watch our current financial crisis unfold in different ways, but what is most noticeable is the inaction of the Irish people. My first few months in Brussels saw their first general strike in over two decades, in Vienna students took to the streets over threats to limit access and raise fees for non-EU students (they previously engaged in mass occupations and protests in 2009 which quashed attempts to raise fees), while in Copenhagen I saw thousands of students protest against a proposal to limit the financial support the government provides to students from six to five years. I’m now in Madrid to finish my course where hundreds of thousands of students have been marching since 2011. Yet in Ireland, civil disobedience is attacked in the face of growing inequality, rising fees, cut grants and non existent support past graduate level.

I think back to that seminar two years ago and I wonder how we can ever hope to be “competitive” by putting up more and more barriers to education as the rest of the world seeks to support its students. I wonder about the complacency not only of Irish students, but our society in general. We are bearing some of the worst austerity and reacting the least. I agree that “something’s got to give” but if it’s at the expense of students, we’re going to find that those who could be most capable of renewing the country will leave or worse, waste away on the dole. Until we join the rest of European society and provide at least the international minimum of support that students require, for ever more “shall our children, like our cattle, be brought up for export”, to quote De Valera.