Another year, another pre-budget student protest. And it would be all too easy to write yet another article criticising the USI and TCDSU. So… I will still do that. But before I get all negative, it should be pointed out that there were some elements of the rally that the unions deserve credit for. TCDSU were well organised and prepared. In anticipation of rain, they ordered boxes of rainproof ponchos for students to wear on the march, keeping protestors (relatively) dry and preventing mass desertion. Finn Murphy conducted the chanting well, and was helped by an on-the-ball mobile rhythm section, and he also deserves kudos for letting a taxi run over his foot. Domhnall McGlacken-Byrne, despite having described himself last year as “not a megaphone-type person”, seemed very comfortable on the loudhailer and spoke well. As for the USI, well, they at least deserve credit for holding a protest in the first place. And such faint praise is not really as damning as it might appear when you consider that, despite escalating student fees and grant cuts, the USI leadership for the previous two years failed to organise a united protest at all.
So there. I have fished some nuggets of praise out of the cereal box, but they don’t amount to much more than a toddler’s breakfast. Because this protest was crucially lacking in an element which you might think was unconditionally necessary: actual political demands. Yes, despite going to the effort of bringing students up from every part of the country, of hiring a main stage and arranging for two musical acts to play, and of coordinating a marching route with the gardaí and SU executives from over 10 different colleges, there was no actual point to the protest. It was literally pointless. Yes individual SUs and students might have raised demands on the march, but there was no unified message from the overall march organisers – the USI. The result was an incoherent and self-hobbling scattershot of opinions from the speakers on the stage. Craig McHugh, president of the Irish Second-Level Students’ Union (and member of Young Fine Gael) said that students needed education so that they could become “middle and senior-managers”. Laura Harmon, president of the USI, bemoaned high student fees and grant cuts – but she didn’t call for reversing grant cuts or fee increases. Instead, she studded her speech with some clichés about how “education matters” and – a point she repeated – how education is “key to our recovery.” Wait – threadbare clichés and an emphasis on a vague notion of “economic recovery” as a magical solution to all complaints – doesn’t that sound familiar? Yes Laura Harmon is a former member of the Labour Party (it is customary for USI officers to renounce official party membership when elected) and she remains a close sympathiser. It shouldn’t be hard to spot the conflict of interest here.
So what do you call a protest without demands? A walk? A meet-and-greet? Oh yeah – a “rally”, which, for the USI, seems to mean a crap concert and some toothless speeches. The reality is that telling students that the education they and their parents are struggling to pay for is central to economic recovery counts for little, and it’s hard to imagine that the government would feel too threatened by this claim either – in fact, minister for education Jan O’Sullivan says the exact same thing herself on her department website. If this is the message coming from the USI, I don’t see why any students should bother to show up to the USI protest next year at all, if the leadership is even arsed organising one. The USI have pointed out in their pre-budget proposal that the cost of getting an education is still rising: rents are up by 10% nationally, and 17% in Dublin (where there are four major universities / ITs as well as a smattering of other mid-range ITs, art and design schools, and colleges of further education); the cost of attending college is €13,000, €10,000 more than the average maintenance grant; 64% of parents struggle to cover college costs; and the average student maintenance grant is €84, less than the lowest rate of jobseekers’ allowance.
In light of these facts, which they have made such a (justifiably) big deal about in their pre-budget submission, one might imagine that the USI – the body which is supposed to look out for the welfare of students in Irish third-level institutions – would advocate some measures for raising financial support for students to cover the escalating costs of further education. Not so. In the face of an extra €250 being put on the contribution fee and the inflation of accommodation costs (already one of the most expensive components of the college-goers budget), the USI are merely calling for maintaining the grant at the current level. Talk about a non sequitur. This is the equivalent of blowing up a big red balloon and then promptly bursting it in your own face. And what about the rising fees? Here’s what they say about the submission: “Now, as we plan for national recovery and a less-constrained funding environment, the minister must set out a timeline for the reduction of the charge to pre-crisis levels.” This demand is so vague and non-committal that it barely counts as a demand at all. Again, one can quite easily imagine Jan O’Sullivan saying the same very thing herself. There are no actual figures offered by which the fee might be reduced, nor is there any suggestion either as to what a “timeline” might consist of.
As it happens, the USI got their wish in Budget 2015. There will be no further cuts to the maintenance grant. It is unclear whether or not the minister will set out a “timeline” for restoring the fee to “pre-crisis levels”, but it doesn’t make a material difference whether this placeholder demand is met anyway. A cynical person might thus draw any of several separate yet not necessarily incompatible conclusions: 1) Laura Harmon is using her Labour links to receive information on the education budget and tailoring the USI’s demands to make them seem successful/influential. 2) The USI leadership have at least half an eye on their careers and don’t want to rock the boat too much lest they turn off their future employers. Past presidents of the USI include Pat Rabbitte, Eamon Gilmore, Colm Keaveny, and Frank Flannery. 3) The USI leadership are afraid of appearing too radical or of taking on the establishment. 4) The USI leadership are simply politically wrong: they genuinely think that these demands are the best they can do. It’s impossible to actually prove any of these statements, and, in a sense, it doesn’t really matter what the USI leadership’s motivation or decision-making process is. What is important is that the USI are taking the wrong approach to address what is a cost of living crisis for students in Ireland. Radical action is needed. If you are going to mobilise students from all constituent institutions then you need to have demands worth fighting for. What the USI has demanded in its pre-budget submission is weak and insufficient, and these faults were exacerbated on the march when they were muddled up with a bunch of empty clichés. Trying to effect change without clear and sufficient demands is pointless, like fighting with a blunt sword.
And all this criticism can be pretty much directed at TCDSU as well. As evidenced by their Call for Action on Education, the TCDSU, like the USI, are well capable of identifying the cost of living problems faced by students but incapable of actually putting forward any political demands. The best that could be managed was a bizzare and utterly useless metaphor about – again – the value of education: “There is a saying that, in times of famine, the one thing we must not eat is our seeds. In years to come Irish society will depend on our higher education sector to deliver not only tax-payers, but the innovators, thinkers and researchers who will drive the recovery we need. We urge Trinity and governmental leaders to recognise that it is now that these seeds must be sown.” This is politically meaningless. And, incidentally, the focus on education as a means of “driving recovery” actually devalues education, reducing it to a means to an end – the key to the overall performance of the economy rather than something which is valuable in itself and available to all by right. TCDSU and the USI have shown that they are organisationally capable. But that is meaningless without proper political demands. If they are really serious about ensuring that education is not an opportunity in the abstract but a materially supported right then they have to be willing to challenge the government, to go to fight and to win.
Photo: Michael Foley