From top: Gary Gannon; and Erica Fleming; Bill Tormey’s most recent tweet; Gary Gannon.
Erica Fleming, who secured a place at Trinity College while homeless, has been told she is ineligible for the back-to-education allowance (BTEA).
Gary Gannon writes:
I often talk about the importance of education in my life. I am from a post code where less than 21% of the population have a third level degree so it isn’t difficult to measure the advantage my degree has giving me over many of my childhood friends who haven’t been so fortunate in this regard.
I am approaching thirty. I currently have two jobs which I enjoy and my rent is always on time.
It wasn’t education alone which changed my life though. There is a secret to university life that is known only to those of us privileged enough to have benefittd from it.
That secret is that for many people, the hardest thing about university is actually being accepted into one.
My life changed drastically on the very morning that I was granted a place on the Trinity Access Programme (TAP). It changed my identity; it altered the aspiration I possessed for my own future and it immediately enhanced my earning potential.
Very briefly, TAP is a pre-university year that provides an alternative means of entry into Ireland’s most prestigious university for students who come from socio- economic groups who aren’t strongly represented in higher education.
Erica Fleming is both a friend and a person I have the utmost admiration for. Having witnessed first-hand the affect that single room living can have on the mental health of those forced into this existence, I am constantly amazed at Erica’s strength in being able to stand and so passionately hold our system to account.
I met Erica in late February of this year. By that time she had already spent a considerable amount of time in single room accommodation with her daughter Emily.
She was organising a demonstration to bring further attention to the issue and was requesting any advice that I could offer in this regard. I was useless on the topic of protest but we got to speaking about our lives and I shared with Erica my story of Trinity and how access to education had radically altered my life’s course.
Erica spoke of how strongly she desired for her daughter Emily to go to college and I was surprised that somebody as obviously intelligent as Erica wasn’t considering university as a path that was in anyway open to herself.
I strongly encouraged Erica to apply for TAP as I was then as I am now convinced that she would thrive in such an environment.It took a little persuasion but Erica did indeed apply for the Trinity Access Programme and it was little surprise to me that she was accepted on to the course for this forthcoming academic year.
I miscalculated though and I was somewhat ignorant to the fact that the impediments to Erica entering college were much more pronounced than those which faced me previously. I had no children, a part-time job which funded my social life and I lived at home at the time.
This week the department of social protection saw fit to deny Erica’s application for Back to Education Allowance on the grounds that she was not in receipt of the appropriate payment from the department.
This decision is a consequence of Labour’s ‘activation’ reforms. Erica works part-time and as her daughter Emily is over the age of seven, she was moved from the One Parent Family payment to the more restrictive Family Income Supplement.
As you will imagine, Erica did not take this decision lying down and was once again this week being held up as the physical embodiment of poor government policies which are impacting so negatively upon the lives of real people.
Erica terrifies the establishment in this country as she does not fit neatly into their trite understanding of what a person of low-income looks, acts or sounds like.
As Erica has held a looking glass up the woefully ineffective policies of this State, she has of course had to endure quite considerable abuse not only from the conventional trolls of the online world but also from public figures who seem disjointed by Erica’s audacity in challenging them.
I watched in disbelief some time back as a former government appointed Senator not long out of office attempted to smear Erica by claiming that she was a ‘homeless campaigner’ who had in brackets, ‘turned down offers of help’.
It was one of the most egregious acts of smear that I have witnessed from a person who has held high public office towards a citizen of the State and as yet, that former representative has failed to elaborate upon or divulge her source of information in making this claim.
Former Fine Gael Councillor Bill Tormey was a lot more conventional in his abuse of Erica. In classic right wing fashion, the good doctor Tormey tweeted “How many taxpayers are needed to pay for this Fleming woman weekly” in response to Erica’s call for Minister Varadker to provide a common sense solution to these nonsensical policies of his predecessor.
In those statements, Dr Tormey captured perfectly the ignorance of those who have long since used education as a means of locking in their privilege.
Erica has gone on record to explain that she saw university as her way of escaping poverty and even a crude calculation of that ambition can highlight the flaw in Bill Tormey’s ignorance and Joan Burton’s ‘activation’ policies.
If she was to accept her place in Trinity, it is Erica’s intention to pursue a four year degree in Social Studies while availing of a Back to Education Allowance of E219 euro a week.
Over a four year period, this payment would come to a total of E45,552.
The starting salary for a qualified Social Worker in Ireland is E43,000 per annum according to grad Ireland. At current rates of taxation, Erica would contribute E8,068 per year in taxes from her first year as a professional social worker.
The entire cost of Erica’s education to the State would be repaid within a period of nine years.
The thorough tragedy of Erica’s situation is that she is just a single example of a policy which will in the next couple of weeks prove to bar hundreds of young women and men from gaining the possibility of entry into our education system.
Bill Tormey and his ilk rarely raise their head when tax payers’ money is being wasted to the tune of some E46 Million per year on hotel accommodation for homeless families in our State while measures such as providing security of tenure against ever-increasing rent hikes or the building of social housing were ignored throughout the period of austerity.
It all comes down to who Bill and those who have written policy over the last couple of years have saw fit to place their trust in.
Providing greater access to education and investing in those who are seeking to escape poverty would reap considerable payback for the State.
We must seek to eradicate bad policies that have saw fit double down on the intersectional inequalities that are crushing real people in Ireland today.
Education shouldn’t be a tool by which people like me can be held up as an example of what others may aspire to when the reality is that this is not at all the case.
Erica Fleming is once again championing this cause but as with her campaign on homelessness, she is merely embodying the frustration of the thousands of people in similar situations to her who are experiencing the effects of poor policy formation from this disabling State.