‘Free Fees’ Impractical, But We Do Have Options

Rachel Barry


Yesterday the delegates to USI Congress stated their preference (by a slim margin) for 100% exchequer funding as the means by which higher education should be funded. It is important that Trinity students recognise the validity of this conclusion as a representation of the views of students all over Ireland. (Although this is not helped by claims that some delegates were acting in the interests of particular campaign groups as opposed to their fellow students). It is not the way that the Trinity delegation voted, but we are in a national Union which contains different perspectives, and USI would be a poor organisation if there were no means by which they could recognise these diverse viewpoints. Some maintain that the poll was flawed. But I am happy that for the first time in the history of USI it was possible for students across Ireland – who had no previous input into USI policy – to directly state their views. It would have been farcical to have 5 sabbatical officers claim that their opinion represented the view of thousands and abhorrent for outgoing officers like myself to delay decision-making, leaving their successors to make huge decisions just days after entering the job.

I will stress from the outset that this is an opinion piece. You can find another viewpoint here. I think that article has merit – and in any other climate I would agree with many of the points. However, I believe we differ over policy. In my view it cannot be decided in a vacuum based on ideology alone – whether that ideology is of free fees, or even an ideology on what model a Union should take. As policy is not decided in a vacuum, so our arguments and our approach to this question cannot be decided in a vacuum. I will expand on this point further below.

Rachel speaking at yesterday’s USI Special Congress. (Image by Tyler James McNally)

So, now we have a mandate. Where do we go from here?

My use of the word ‘mandate’ above was deliberate. This is what we have – a clear mandate. Some say that the USI voted to retain their policy – this is incorrect. The vote was quite clearly an indication of preference – indeed, the only question asked of the delegates, and the students who voted online, was “Please rank in order of preference, what should USI’s position on the funding of higher education taught programmes be?” It was always intended that the ‘preferendum’ result would be a mandate of what high level approach the USI should adopt, with the detail of the actual policy to be discussed following the vote. After all, a policy that consists of only three words clearly isn’t fit for purpose. This is why, for example, options like ‘means tested fees’ weren’t on the ballot – because it was argued at National Council (a collection of representatives from the different membership organisations, similar to Class Rep Council in Trinity) that this could be incorporated into the policy of a particular option afterwards.

When arguing, according to my mandate, for the student contribution charge at yesterday’s congress, I made precisely this point. Now that the mandate that higher education should be funded by the state in its entirety has been delivered it is time to talk about the exact wording of the policy. As with most things – the devil is in the detail. In his closing address to the Special Congress yesterday incoming USI President John Logue stated  that “honest disagreement is a good sign of progress”. I agree with him, but progress will only be made if both sides of the argument realise that the other had valid points.

For me, the question boils down to negotiation tactics. It has been argued in numerous forums that the ‘free fees’ approach is a good negotiating tactic – you start from a strong position, and you meet somewhere in the middle. Historically, however, this wasn’t the case. USI were unable to negotiate anything other than a position of free third-level education for all students (regardless of means). The negotiating tactics of ‘free education or bust’ might have been applicable in an age where the government were in a position to make this dream a reality, but the sobering fact of the matter is that this is not the case today.

Ireland has lost her economic sovereignty.  The HEA, in a timely move, warned yesterday that there was “no way” that colleges could continue to rely on exchequer funding, given that student numbers were expected to increase by 30% over the next decade. Our colleges are slipping down the rankings, the quality of our education is suffering as the pot is squeezed more. There is a risk that there will be children in Ireland will not be in a position to gain access to second, let alone third-level, education in the next 10 years.

The Library is the perfect example for us in Trinity. Trinity College is facing non-pay cuts of at least €160,000 (probably rising much higher, although this has not yet been confirmed by the college’s executive officers) to the library budget. This means that journals and periodicals will be cut – currently there is an exercise being undertaken in college to determine which journals face the chop. This is in addition to our woeful library opening hours. I have worked (with some success) in recent weeks with library staff who, it must be said, are anxious that their readers be catered for but are limited by the core grant that they are presented with by college.

The fact is that free fees is ideologically sound but practically unworkable in the current economic climate.

So, the question is: are we stuck with a mandate that is unworkable? Perhaps not. If we recognise that the question yesterday was not, as has been claimed, a retention of policy but rather a question of ideology – ‘How do you think higher education should be funded’ – we may be able to find some way to progress from a position of honest disagreement to a policy that reflects the full membership of USI. Given that there was huge support yesterday that students should contribute something towards their education (on the first count, the two camps – free fees vs some form of contribution – were equal), perhaps this should be taken into consideration when forming the policy that would come under the headline mandate. One might argue that while USI should have ‘free fees’ as its ideal, its policy should be given the ability to negotiate  the best possible deal for students in the current economic climate. How this plays out is yet to be seen.

But where does Trinity go from here?

It’s important to clarify how the relationship between USI and local institutions works. TCDSU can have its own policy on fees. Indeed, this exact situation has happened in UCD, where, because the vote reached their quorum, the student contribution charge now forms policy for their SU. The online vote, at present, does not form TCDSU policy, although it may be ratified by SU Council/a referendum. The delegates at USI congress were mandated to follow it by the SU Executive.

Of course we face our own question about USI affiliation in October. My views on this could form another article but as this will be decided after my term is out I won’t comment on it just yet* (*Editor’s note: we’ll have Rachel back in the autumn to do that), but there is no doubt that where USI go from here will have a big impact on the result of this referendum.

The motto of USI congress this year was “Ní neart go cur le chéile” – “Together we’re stronger”. We must remember this not only when we accept the mandate that was delivered by the Special Congress yesterday but when we discuss the policy that will come from it.

Rachel Barry is the Education Officer of 2011/’12 Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU).