Trinity Graduate Students’ Union (GSU) held a town hall meeting tonight to discuss the recent decision to increase all postgraduate and non-EU undergraduate fees by 5%.
The event consisted of a panel discussion, followed by a question and answer session with the panel members before moving onto the town hall section of the meeting. The panel consisted of Senator David Norris, Dr. John Walsh of the Irish Federation of University Teachers (IFUT), Dr. Eoin O’Dell of the Law Department, and postgraduate students Danielle O’Sullivan and Natalie Glynn.
Senator for Trinity, David Norris, questioned the efficiency of the Union’s mandate to take industrial action but promised to take up the issue in the Senate. Norris also called funds from businesses as a “rich source” but said “they tend to look for product, and that tends to mitigate pure academic research”.
Danielle O’Sullivan, a PhD student researching lesbian, gay and bisexual prisoners in Ireland, said: “It’s meant to be equality of access.” After receiving funding in third year only, O’Sullivan outlined her worries over the prospect of self-funding the fourth year of her study. She also touched upon the exploitation of the labour of postgraduate students, saying that postgraduates work more than the standard teaching requirement of six hours a week.
Dr. John Walsh, the Trinity Branch Chair of IFUT, said: “Higher education is in the midst of a profound crisis. It might be helpful if the people running the universities could realise they were in the midst of a crisis.” He continued: “The response of the major colleges and universities to the financial crisis has been a cross between stand up comedy and farce. It has consisted of raising fees for students at every level.”
Dr. Walsh also outlined the “profoundly exploitative” working conditions for postgraduate students: “In other sectors of the economy the treatment of researchers would not be tolerated.”
Dr. Eoin O’Dell, Assistant Professor in the Law School, outlined the process by which the Finance Committee made the decision to increase fees by 5%, rather than Trinity’s Board which is the main decision-making body in College. “Board can do anything. But as little Kim will find out, you can only press the button once. Finance Committee has taken the decision and Board has accepted it but Board can do anything.”
Natalie Glynn, from the School of Social Work and Social Policy, outlined her situation as an international student as well as issues such as overcrowding in student spaces and inadequate facilities. Glynn also said: “You have international students saying ‘it’s not worth it to go there.’”
During the town hall section of the meeting, points from the audience were welcomed on four issues; the impact of fee increases on multi-year students, whether postgraduates are cash cows for the college, general broader issues facing postgraduates and further actions to be taken by the GSU.
During this section, Associate Professor in French Sarah Alyn Stacey, who is also a member of Board, gave her personal opinion on the issue saying: “Please don’t think that all members of Board are complicit because I am certainly not. Board needs to take more power in its financial decisions.” She continued: “We have a duty to you to nurture the next generation. The core duty of the university is education. A lot of you have mentioned reputation but you are the reputation.” Stacey also advocated for Fellows of the University to be involved in GSU’s efforts to oppose the fee increase.
An American international student noted: “If you want to see where this is going, go across to my home country where fees are $20,000 – $50,000 a year. The problem is there’s no pushback in the United States.” Issues such as diversity and inclusion, the housing crisis, and facilities within Trinity also arose during the general town hall session.
Xander Cosgrave, a class representative for the GSU, also argued that “postgraduates don’t have the same representation as undergraduates,” referring to the lack of a Postgraduate Officer in the national Union of Students in Ireland (USI).
During the last section of the town hall discussion on future actions, Ciaran O’Rourke said the “only way to be listened to is to be backed up by industrial action”. William Foley, a Masters of Sociology student said “we can have a concrete discussion on what we can do that’s concrete, destructive and effective – strike of TAs, strike of students, sit-ins”. Foley also pointed out that the last strike College has seen was 45 years ago, saying: “College think they can do this and they can.”
In response to the prospect of industrial action, Board member Alyn Stacey said: “I would be dismayed if there would not be some sort of solidarity with postgraduates. I’m heartbroken to see such anger and frustrations.”
The GSU voted to explore their options for industrial action at a Council meeting on October 25. This followed the decision by College to increase postgraduate and non-EU undergraduate fees by 5% in 2018/19 for both new and continuing students.
The motion proposed that “the GSU and its members explore industrial action if the university continues with the 5% increase in fees” and passed by the required two thirds of Council. A second motion also passed at that Council stating: “That the GSU work with other organisations ([including] IRC, Disability Service, TAP, SFI, SUSI, IFUT, TCDSU, HEA, Department of Education, politicians) to petition the aforementioned bodies to be aware of the consequences that these increases will have on education in Ireland i.e. student number, accessibility etc. and to ask if they are carrying out any action to mitigate these consequences.”
Speaking at that Council, GSU President Shane Collins said: “Where does the line stop? The incremental impact on students who started off in good faith, invested in this university…This is an absolute disgrace. Postgrad students are not going to be the cash cows for this issue any longer.”
The 5% increase in fees is higher than the 3% rise implemented in the previous two years. The decision was made at a meeting of College’s Finance Committee on September 22. The increase will take effect from the beginning of the 2018/19 academic year and affect both new and continuing students.
According to a recent postgraduate survey conducted by the GSU, 53% of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (AHSS) funded postgraduate students indicated that they were unsure about their ability to survive during their program. 44% of respondents said that any increase in their fees would threaten their ability to complete their programmes, while 24% said that as little as a 1% increase would have the same effect. For non-funded AHSS postgraduate students, as many as 66% said that they were unsure about their ability to survive during their programme. 50% of funded Engineering and Mechanical Science (EMS) postgraduate students and 67% of non-funded EMS students said that they were concerned about their ability to survive during their programme.