The Irish student movement has come a long way since December 2010, when the leadership of the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) first called for the renegotiation of the Croke Park deal. The union’s signing of a new agreement with SIPTU, the largest trade union in Irish higher education, in March of this year marked the renewal of a solidarity that had long been amiss in the third-level sector. That alliance was clear for all to see at last Wednesday’s pre-budget rally for education, as representatives of the Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) and the Irish Federation of University Teachers (IFUT), as well as SIPTU, marched alongside thousands of students to call for the protection of the maintenance grant and back-to-education allowance in Budget 2015.
Student solidarity with third-level staff will be an important line of defence as Irish universities become ideological battlegrounds in the coming years. The growing reliance of third-level institutions on private funding through commercial revenue, business contracts and potential student fees poses a significant threat to staff and students alike. College has clearly already begun its own process of commercialisation with the opening of a new office for “corporate partnership and knowledge exchange” during the last academic year. If certain university heads had their way, the process would be accompanied by the steady increase in student fees.
But recent trends in Irish higher education have also presented significant challenges to staff. Third-level institutions in Ireland are now at the forefront of the drive to casualised labour, as research carried out by Third Level Workplace Watch last year has indicated. The rise of short-term and hourly-paid contracts has created a new precariat of university workers, with little job security or funding. Between August 2011 and April 2014, 70 JobBridge interns worked for periods of up to nine months in College, with only 15 obtaining employment within College directly after the end of their internship, as Trinity News reported last year.
The deployment of a market-driven logic in third-level institutions also threatens the working conditions of those staff members with job security. As Provost Patrick Prendergast acknowledged at last year’s Global Graduate Forum, College’s current public nature has limited its independence in relation to “decisions on hiring, promotion [and] remuneration”. The ability to enforce compulsory redundancy would be a possible benefit of future privatisation, he suggested, as “staff are now public servants, and redundancy can only be voluntarily.”
But what has also united staff and students in recent months is a common vision of third-level education; a vision of education as a public good, and not a corporate resource. We have shared challenges and goals. That was what was most striking about the speeches at Wednesday’s USI rally. We welcome students’ return to the wider trade union movement.