It began in Amsterdam, it took hold in London and now it’s reached Dublin. Hundreds of students protested the cuts and overcrowding at NCAD last month and have threatened more protest if their demands are not met. The students that occupied the arts building of UvA (in Amsterdam) shouted the slogan, “No ifs, no buts, no education cuts” – sound familiar? The same slogan was chanted marching through the streets of Dublin at the Rally for Education. The difference is that the rally was a short parade that coordinated with law enforcement to block minimal traffic, and the UvA protests are an occupation. The Rally didn’t come with a list of demands or even concrete aims. The Union of Students in Ireland (USI) just wanted to show the country that students value their education enough to march down the street with a few megaphones. Do we not value it enough to do more than that?
Need for change
Whenever Trinity’s draconian policies are brought up at SU Council or a town hall meeting, SU officers tell us that protest is a last resort. That we need to try compromise, cooperation, that we need to work with college. College administration tell us that the government is to blame and they agree with us, so we need to work together. We can say we’re working with college all we want, they need to work with us too. Undergraduates have been nothing more than a cash source for Trinity for years. And since Trinity’s government funding has been cut, their response has been to take more from us. If students send Trinity the message that we will pay their fees, lose our resources, and watch our rankings drop without a word of complaint, they will keep taking. So we negotiate, we say we’ll give a little, they nod and smile and come back for the rest later. We never refuse them anything and they can take what they want.
If student societies agree to prevent Trinity from using its materials – its photographs, videos and publications – to raise money, they lose donations and potential students.
The biggest progress we’ve seen in Trinity negotiation this year is that the proposed introduction of a massive fee for supplemental exams was stopped. Don’t get me wrong; I’m impressed with the sabbats for that. But if the biggest achievement we get from trying to work with college management is to have fewer negative changes, we need to change strategy. All we’re getting right now is a slower descent into a more expensive, poorer quality institution. Students aren’t satisfied with the way Trinity is now. The postgraduate bathrooms are inadequate, library hours aren’t long enough, exam timetables come out too late and our administration is a bureaucratic nightmare. We should not be fighting to preserve the status quo, we need actual improvement. If our biggest successes are to slow down the introduction of charges, this is a bad sign for our relationship with Trinity. The reason students don’t want to protest is that they feel it will burn a bridge, destroy our relationship with college. What do we actually get out of that relationship? Is it really a healthy relationship when college hands down directives and we follow them?
Why protest would work
If you agree with protest in principle, the only thing left to discuss is how to make it work. Students can’t refuse to pay our fees. It might work if everyone got on board, but people won’t be convinced to take such extreme measures until it’s clear that other forms of protest won’t work; look at how long it’s taking to organise any protest at all. If a small group of students refused to pay their fees, college would cut them off, refuse to let them sit exams, and they would officially be within their rights to do so. We need to choose something public and easy to get on board with. There are things that we can do to leverage college, and we should be using them.
Hitting them where it hurts
There are forms of protest that could cost the college money in a very immediate and obvious way. If we block the gates of Trinity so that tourists can’t enter, the college loses funds. If student societies and the CSC agree to prevent the administration from using its materials – photographs and videos of events, publications – to raise money, they lose donations and potential students. Even if we can’t cost them much money in the short term, the college thrives on its reputation.
The postgraduate bathrooms are inadequate, library hours aren’t long enough, exam timetables come out too late and our administration is a bureaucratic nightmare.
The Prendervost wants to bring in funds by marketing Trinity to international students. It’s easy to make Trinity look good from far away. International students will likely not have many (or any) friends and relatives to ask for reviews. They don’t have access to all of these That means the board and the Prendervost are able to market college in a way that works for them. You’d think that rapidly falling rankings would be enough to convince the board to change their priorities, but they are convinced they can fix everything later if they bring in money now. So they build the business school and rebrand, trying to plaster over the college’s reputation.
That’s where protest comes in. LSE and UvA’s reputations are in tatters at the moment, and will be until there’s some sign of compromise. The only reason that can happen is that media attention is focused on those universities now, the kind of attention that only comes out of a dramatic statement. If international students see Irish students vaguely protesting once a year, they think that we have the same problems students face in every developed country. If they see Trinity occupied, they will know that the university’s ability to cater for its students is shutting down, and that the college will have to respond. The board care about the college’s reputation. That’s one of the few things we have the power to change.
But even if you believe that the college isn’t at fault and that the government is the problem, writing letters and organising the Rally for Education just aren’t enough. Whatever your opinion of the water charge protesters, they’ve been incredibly successful. Last year, there was talk of shutting off the water for people who wouldn’t pay the charges. Now, it’s become clear that that people won’t even face basic fines for non-payment until the middle of next year. The protesters have nudged the government into a public opinion crisis. We can do this to Trinity too and if occupy movements take hold in more of the Irish universities students might finally be taken seriously. The water charge protesters wouldn’t have achieved anything by only marching once a year and we won’t either.