The end to the pandemic unemployment payment (PUP) for students all started with an inflammatory article in the Irish Daily Mail almost a month ago. Government bigwigs – all speaking on the condition of anonymity – launched a scathing attack on college-goers that claimed the payment.
One minister quoted in the article said that “having 47,000 students lying in bed enjoying the PUP grant is an astonishing number” and said that “it seems a lot of them must have been talking to each other about this good thing”.
They spoke of an impending “culture of welfare” among students, with another senior political source describing “sleepy students” as “low hanging fruit” for a government supposedly short on cash.
That source even said that the idea of cutting students’ payments had merely slipped through the cracks at the time of the last budget. Another source said that Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris had “put the kybosh on that”, as he has “no intention of going to war with 50,000 screaming students in the middle of a pandemic”.
Whoever the anonymous sources were, they demonstrated an astonishing gift for annoying almost everyone.
The Union of Students in Ireland (USI), for example, was appalled by the comments. In a statement at the time, its president Lorna Fitzpatrick described them as “an astonishing and completely unnecessary attack on students”.
“Students are only receiving the Pandemic Unemployment Payment if they have lost their jobs and income, just like everyone else on the PUP”, she said.
Harris was irate when the article was brought up during an RTÉ Radio One interview with him, saying that if he “knew the name of that minister, I would have rang them up and told them that their comments were inappropriate, ignorant and downright stupid”.
He also said that the government would be working towards getting people off PUP, but emphasised that he opposed targeting students.
“I’m not aware of any plans to specifically target students”, he said, “and I wouldn’t support any approach that would specifically target one group in society, I don’t think we should take a divisive approach of targeting one group over another”.
Less than a month later, the government has turned around and done just that: targeted students. All other workers have escaped the immediate scrapping of the unemployment payment, and will instead see it gradually wind down as the government works to get the economy back on its feet. Students, on the other hand, will lose the payment entirely on September 7th.
So what does this say about the general mood towards students in the country?
The comments in the Irish Daily Mail certainly acted as a good litmus test for a response to the abolition of PUP for students.
The government undoubtedly noted the vitriolic reaction of students, who saw the comments as a direct assault on both their finances and their character.
But clearly the response was not so bad that it sent the government running for the hills.
Cutting the payment for students just as they are heading into term time – with all the expenses that that entails – seems like one of the most financially painful times to do it. So it is doubtful that the government sees this going down well among students.
But the Irish Daily Mail article did deftly play into how many across the country see college-goers: sleepy and entitled. The government is likely betting that there are more people in that camp, than the student-sympathiser one.