Is This Real Life? USI Is an Embarrassment and we Should Disaffiliate.

David Byrne


Following the fees ‘preferendum’ the Union of Students Ireland (USI) has maintained its stance on the funding of third-level education – that being that such funding should, in its entirety, be sourced from the Irish exchequer. In my opinion this debacle has been symptomatic of everything that is wrong with USI. It is the biggest indicator to date that it’s time for Trinity to disaffiliate and look to advocate for its students either independently or alongside universities with more closely-shared values. (Or, at the least, heads not buried in the sand.) Even if we accept the voting process which led to the decision, the votes of Trinity students – who turned out in large numbers with great credit to TCDSU – are such that I think our position and the position of the USI are irreconcilable and that the sensible answer remains disaffiliation. (1879 Trinity students voted in the USI’s fees preferendum – with the Student Contribution option beating Loan Schemes by around 200 votes in the final tally.)

It’s worth taking a brief look at the voting process which led to the decision on the part of USI to commit to 100% exchequer funding. A number of issues put the validity of the result in doubt. The attempts to encourage voting by various students’ unions were extremely inconsistent. Whilst universities in Cork and Dublin saw big campaigns and large turnouts (for this kind of thing), others saw little promotion. NUI Galway shunned the preferendum entirely while many others made little effort to get students involved (four ITs – crucial votes in favour of the 100% Exchequer-Funded option – saw turnouts under 100, as did NCI). A number of allegations of ‘hacking’ of the systems have been made, with UT quoting an allegation that 100,000 attempts to vote had come from one computer alone. At the congress itself NUI Galway delegates ‘walked out’ when not satisfied with proceedings. The value of a result plagued by so many issues is hard to assess.

From a glass-half-full perspective this might be considered unavoidable in wide-scale student politicking and a result which is as legitimate as you can get. On the other hand, you could say that this is symptomatic of exactly the kind of absurd clusterfuck of accusation and confusion that seems to come out of every important USI Congress, with a group of hard-core delegates bullying their unrealistic agenda to the fore by whatever means necessary. If the result does emerge as the genuine aggregate of student opinion in Ireland, and the online shouting matches that have ensued prove to have carried mostly empty allegations, then USI should by all means take the stance of 100% Exchequer-Funded third-level education. In that case, though – and given the implications which that stance presents – we should seriously consider the value of our contribution to the organisation and its ability to protect the needs of the students of this college in light of our preferendum results.

David Byrne during a debate with outgoing USI President Gary Redmond in February.
(Image by George Voronov)

The central reason for disaffiliation following this result is simple – the USI will not achieve the mandate they have deemed themselves given. The exchequer won’t fully fund fees. HEA Chief Executive Tom Boland responded to the USI Congress result today saying as much. Unequivocally.

The problem is that that is not news to anyone – especially not to anyone in USI. Yet a large number of delegates have attached themselves to this concept that defies economic or political reality. I’m sure no-one at USI HQ panicked in response to the news – not because they have an ace up their sleeves or a game-plan to deal with this unsurpassable barrier to their stance – but because of the righteous indignation with which they feel empowered to march around the country. USI representatives are quick to inform advocates of disaffiliation that only USI gets to sit in at HEA meetings and contribute at that level. Can someone explain to me exactly what they’re going to do when they get to those meetings? Or what they’ve been doing at those meetings for the last two years while their fees policy has catastrophically failed and the student contribution has risen significantly? It strikes me that having an individual at a HEA meeting committed to advocating a policy which has been emphatically and explicitly rejected by the HEA from the get-go can only negatively colour the perception of students in the eyes of the decision-makers, who hold most of the cards on the direction of the costs of our third level education.

Ultimately the hard-line agenda which USI has maintained is one which it has no leverage to progress. Once again we are left represented by an institution which not only is out-of-line with our views but completely incapable to give effect to its own.

It’s easy to point out problems  – and much harder to offer alternatives or solutions. Fortunately, in this case, it is possible point out a myriad of problems with USI. And we have a broad range of alternative solutions – a number of which students in TCD have shown a preference for. At least one of which the Students’ Union has been successful in initialising. At this point, and with these results in hand, we’ve got to ask whether we’re happy to be represented by (and to contribute to – Trinity is one of USI’s bigger funders) an institution with a policy out-of-touch with reality. In my view the student contribution is something which will inevitably be exclusionary to some degree. A student loan system or graduate tax seems more equitable. At least now, though, we know the legitimately-exercised, democratic will of Trinity students. From that basis the nature of the student contribution as a priority can more effectively be engaged with.

At least, if only from an external position, TCDSU can campaign based on the needs of the campus community for something which the HEA hasn’t already clearly communicated an unwillingness to negotiate. At least our delegates won’t be sat in a Congress held ransom by idealist Che Guevara-wannabes. The Trinity GSU and Limerick GSUs effectively held meetings with HEA representatives this year without the help of USI, which has essentially ignored them, while the USI held unmandated sit-ins abandoned at the threat of pepper-spray. If USI wants to be an organisation for ideological hypothesizing about the morality of fees: fine (I still prefer Google for that stuff, though). Let Trinity and whatever other universities are prepared to engage with realistic negotiations fight for a fair deal that actually protects accessibility to higher education.

Is giving up on 100% exchequer-funding abandoning the student cause or playing into an ugly Trinity stereotype? Not if you ask me. Recognising economic reality and respecting the fact that ordinary citizens in every occupation, particularly those most vulnerable in society, are facing heavy financial pressure means being prepared to contribute to the value of a third-level degree. We can balance that with accessibility via student loans or graduate taxes to make sure that birth-lottery doesn’t confine you to a Leaving Cert. These are avenues which require advocacy and negotiation that USI will now not provide. We should position ourselves now to advocate them independently.

Is it ironic that USI, a group of idealist would-be revolutionaries, are in desperate need of an internal revolution themselves? Possibly. Is it ironic that these individuals denounce the greed of bankers whilst demanding the state pay for their degrees in their entirety at a time when every other state citizen is suffering from austerity? Perhaps. These are the problems that plague a man who does not fully understand irony. In any case I think the problem was well summed up in a tweet by a Mr. Nick Sheridan: “U-S-I? U-S-STUPID.” Indeed, Nick. Indeed.

David Byrne debated outgoing USI President Gary Redmond on the issue of Trinity disaffiliation back in February. The video of that debate, posted by the University Philosophical Society, is available here.