I grew up in Co. Armagh – one of nine children: eight boys and a girl, which as anyone can imagine placed serious financial pressure on my parents growing up.
This was especially true as I come from a working-class background and grew up on a council estate marked by all the challenges you would expect from such an environment such as anti-social behaviour, drug abuse, teenage pregnancy and lone-parent families.
The word ‘struggle’ probably best epitomises the day-to-day lives of people in an environment where, for example, some parents aren’t sure how they’re going to afford a school uniform for their child. These worries don’t abate as the children get older and are finishing their secondary school exams in the hope of securing a place at university.
Anyone who has been to university, or has had family members who has attended college, is acutely aware that progressing to third level is expensive – the whole package of academic fees, accommodation costs and travel expenses adds up to a hefty amount.
In my case then, given my social and economic background, and for most of my peers, student loans have been not a convenience but a necessity in the attending of university. Without them, I would not be where I am today – a fourth-year theology student at Trinity College Dublin.
I receive means-tested loans from Student Finance NI, which are to be paid back in small instalments once I earn over a certain amount of money, currently £17,775 (€20,142) pre-tax per year.
These loans have alleviated countless financial burdens for both my parents and myself. This is not to evoke pity of course, but to simply affirm that without student loans, many bright people with potentially brighter futures would never get to see that future realised, through no fault of their own.
Obviously, having a job would help with the monetary situation, but if a student is travelling to a new city for the first time, the loan is needed to pay multi-layered fees before employment can be secured. Even then, working a job often is still a financially inadequate option considering full-time employment isn’t possible and minimum wage is a given.
Also, student loans don’t just provide mere sustenance, but enable students to have an active and social life in the university environment.
It allows students to go beyond just paying rent on a house (an over-priced house if it’s in Dublin), with cheap noodles as an affordable food source, but to explore the city they’re in and be able to make and nurture new friendships.
The university does not exist just to cater to academic achievement but to form well-rounded individuals who will be making a huge impact on the world in the future. Student loans, in part, create the opportunity for this formation to actually be possible.
All of these various points lead to one conclusion: student loans are needed for the not-so-well-off to actually attend university, enjoy university and complete university.
They create an academic environment that is not wholly exclusive to a particular elite or class, but one where meritocracy is extolled and factions between social standings are ameliorated.
As ongoing discussions about the efficacy of a student loan system in Ireland take place, I think that the Northern Irish model is a worthy conversation point, because what’s at stake is not just money but a society based on justice and care.
Why study theology…
I’m often amused by the bewilderment on people’s faces when they find out that I study theology. I get shot-gunned questions such as: “Are you going to be a priest?”, “What job can you get after that?” and even “What is theology?”
Although theology was once recognised to be the queen of the sciences, it has now unfortunately been de-crowned. Despite its dwindling popularity, due in part to secular priorities, I think theology still remains one of the most informative and vital subjects one can pursue as it draws upon not only religious concepts but linguistics, history, law, philosophy as well as a multitude of other disciplines.
With just a perfunctory glance of theology, one may not see the relevance of it today, but on closer examination it is evident that the subject runs along all the crevices of our society. Think of some contemporary global issues today: Islamic extremism, the right to life, same-sex marriage, the refugee crisis and euthanasia. These questions at their root require theological input, without which, can lead to stagnant discussions and conclusions. So, I’m studying theology because I’m curious; curious about myself, people and the world, and how I can make a real difference within it.