Students from Dublin colleges took to the streets against the proposed reintroduction of college fees last Wednesday. Gardaí estimated an attendance of 15,000 protestors at the rally.
The protest passed off peacefully and with general high spirits. Serious chants of “more fees means less degrees” were combined with humorous chants of “Down with this sort of thing… careful now”. Official TCD Student Union placards said “Education is a right, not a privilege”. One unofficial placard read “Fees r bad lol”.
Trinity students congregated in Front Square before setting off up to O’Connell Street to meet hundreds of other students from Dublin universities at Parnell Square. The large crowd then turned back on itself to pass Trinity once more and continued along Nassau Street. When the protest reached Leinster House, politicians and Students’ Union representatives from participating universities gave speeches on a large stage at the top of the street.
The demonstration comes as part of a wave of student protest against fees. 5,000 protested in Cork on 10 October with others doing likewise in Galway and Limerick. Last week, UCD students attempted to block the Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan’s entry into the Clinton Institute on the Belfield Campus where he was due to chair a function. Three UCD students were arrested during the protest for breaches of the peace when they attempted to break through a metal fence that surrounded the building.
During Wednesday’s protest, the speeches at Leinster House were made by Union of Students in Ireland President Shane Kelly and the Labour Party education spokesman Ruairi Quinn.
Mr Kelly said part of the reason for the rally was that the Minister for Education Batt O’Keeffe would not discuss the matter with student representatives. College heads also have found the Minister slow to commit to meetings, despite a request from the UCD president Dr Hugh Brady.
“He is very happy asking for our money but he doesn’t want to listen to what we have to say on the subject. We are here as the second biggest union in the country demanding to meet with the Minister and his Department,” Mr Kelly said after the rally.#
The demonstration “just shows how many students value free access to education and how wrong the Government would be to reverse the decision to bring in free fees,” Mr Quinn said.
The speakers were difficult to hear even from quite close to their position at the Leinster House end of Molesworth Street. The tannoy system was simply a loud-hailer. However, as a show of numbers, the demonstration was effective. City-centre traffic came to a halt, with buses on College Green and Burgh Quay simply abandoned.
Wednesday was a day of numerous large-scale demonstrations as 15,000 pensioners also came out in force in protest at the removal of automatic entitlement to medical cards for over-70s. The two groups of protestors were largely supportive of each other.
Trinity College Provost Dr John Hegarty surveyed the demonstration on Nassau Street. He called it “fantastic,” and said “students have every right to protest”.
However he said the protests had not changed his views. Dr Hegarty and other college heads favour a student loan scheme with the introduction of third level fees. The Provost recently told Trinity College staff that the College has a €7 million funding deficit this year.
Mr Hegarty stated that it was important to ensure those unable to afford fees did not have to pay upfront. The college heads also believe heavy fees on the highly wealthy could result in a brain drain to colleges overseas. College leaders believe that those who benefit from college education should pay for it once they reach an income threshold. “Deferred fees are still preferable to immediate payment,” Dr Hegarty told Trinity News.
The system of loans the college heads have proposed has been compared to the Australian system which USI recently described as “illogical and short sighted”. Dr Hegarty merely stated, “I have not proposed the Australian system.” Students were opposed to all forms of fees, with many pointing to the registration fee as a de facto college fee. The Minister for Education, Batt O’Keeffe has increased the registration fee, as an interim measure, by roughly €600 to nearly €1600.
Many students also raised the other expenses of college life, such as the costs of accommodation for those living away from home. Local authority grants for those qualifying are often late in coming, and there are borderline cases where families might be slightly too well-off to obtain a grant.
“I’m protesting for my little sister,” said Aedin Clynes, a fourth-year student.
Many lecturers were supportive of the students. Countering concerns about lack of funds for university research, Paul Horan, a Lecturer in the School of Nursing, said “If fees go through, you can say goodbye to the knowledge economy.” He pointed to his own experience of being financially unable to train as a nurse in Ireland and having to move to England. He had been lucky, he said. With fees, the Government “would be abandoning the jewels of this country.” All the Trinity College branches of the political parties were very visibly represented in Front Square before the march began, with the exception of Fianna Fáil.
A Green Party member said the party as a whole was opposed to college fees. Green Party students’ protests were no embarrassment to the Greens in government, he said. “Greens are fighting from the inside: you don’t do it by screaming and shouting,” he added.
A Young Fine Gael member rejected the suggestion by former EU commissioner Peter Sutherland that the party adopt a “Tallaght strategy,” whereby it would support the Government to remove party-political rivalry, as “absurd.”