Students Against Fees (SAF), a group founded to oppose student loans and fee increases, held its first public meeting of the academic year last night. Members discussed issues such as mobilising the student body and preparing for the planned march by the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) on October 19. The meeting was opened by Sean Egan, a second-year Sociology and Social Policy student, who said SAF’s objectives should be to provide an “assessment of where the student struggle is at the moment”, to branch out to other universities, and to “give the Provost a big migraine”.
Egan said that one of the group’s biggest challenges was “a very de-radicalised, de-mobilised student body.” He also said the problem of fees is exacerbated by “outrageous rents” and “cowboy landlords” adding more financial burdens on students and making Trinity an increasingly unviable option for study. Egan summarised SAF’s current campaign as “a fight for accessibility”, arguing Trinity is still seen as an institution reserved for the wealthy and elite.
One of the main topics of the meeting was promoting SAF’s message. Egan suggested a bannerdrop, similar to the group’s unfurling of the Plough and the Stars (the flag of the Irish Citizen Army) during Easter Week of this year. Jessie Dolliver, a second-year science student, called for greater online presence, particularly on social media. The holding of regular meetings was also discussed, so that students would have more access to the group and gain a better understanding of its objectives.
The drafting of a collaborative group manifesto was also raised. Speaking to Trinity News, Egan described this as “getting a number of interested Students Against Fees activists to map out the major struggles that students face at the moment.” Egan stressed that a collaborative approach was vital, as fee increases and loans would affect individual students in different ways.
Diarmuid Ó Seanacháin Dálaigh, a second-year Ancient Medieval History and Culture student, said that student detachment was one of the group’s largest obstacles, claiming this was a result of the state of politics in Ireland: “we’re content with – essentially – a two-party system between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, and don’t really care which way politics goes because we feel it goes nowhere. That carries on into our student politics where students don’t feel they have a voice that matters. People from my course . . . believe we shouldn’t have to pay fees, they just don’t think mobilising against it achieves anything.”
SU President Kieran McNulty attended the meeting and spoke of the Students’ Unions plans for the upcoming USI Rally for Education. This annual demonstration seeks, as laid down in this August’s meeting of the USI National Council, to display mass support for publicly-funded higher education, and to gain support from a wider social base than students alone. President McNulty spoke of the SU’s efforts to encourage students to attend, such as providing food for demonstrators, and collaborating with Players and the Afro-Caribbean Society to raise awareness of the march.
Egan praised the SU’s efforts, but stressed that while SAF would work in tangent with the Union, the group must maintain its own independence.
Students Against Fees was established in November 2015, when the SU Council rejected a motion by former TCDSU President Lynn Ruane that opposed the imposition of student loans and fee increases. SAF argued this action did not represent student opinion, as it did not take fee hikes into consideration. On 15 December, SAF presented a motion before the Council opposing loans and fee hikes, which was passed. On 3 February this year, SAF marched in solidarity with TUI (Teachers’ Union of Ireland), protesting cuts to second-level institutions, regarding teachers’ pay and student counselling.
On 11 July, the Cassells Report, prepared over two years by the Expert Group on Future Funding for Higher Education, was published. The aim of the report was to find a solution for the funding crisis to third-level institutions. The report proposed three solutions: raise State funding of all third-level institutions from 64% to roughly 80%, while abolishing student fees entirely; retain the current €3,000 fee with a lesser rise in State contribution (64% to 72%); impose an income-contingent loan scheme while reducing the State’s overall contribution to between 55% and 60%.