This Is Not the USI I Knew

Peter Mannion


Let me start by saying I find it unbelievable that a current officer could promote a graduate tax in front of a USI Special Congress unchallenged by the students’ unions from across the island. On Wednesday I saw a USI that I did not recognise. As a former President I looked forward to coming back into the fold of debates which come naturally to the student movement. But it is clear since I finished as President just two years ago the leadership of the student movement has changed considerably. And not for the better.

The current USI Deputy President, Colm Murphy, stood in front of the Special Congress to ask them to consider a graduate tax. He sang the merits of this discredited form of fees for students unchallenged as the debate was effectively shut down after a swift procedural motion. I think this form of cheap and unchallenged narrative betrays the student movement. So, I will respond to a few of the fallacies here.

Contrary to what the Deputy President indicated the graduate tax model does not allow any increase in access to education. In fact it acts as a further barrier to it. Academic literature originating in countries that have instigated a graduate tax model clearly demonstrates that those who are debt adverse will not enter into a contract where they will be taxed extra when in the work force after a higher education qualification. The second unsubstantiated point made by the Education Officer is that the extra funding from the tax would ensure the quality of the degrees in Irish higher education institutions. Again, this is simply untrue. Those nations which have used deferred fees schemes have found that neither the quality of education or student experience has improved. These flippant, unsubstantiated and unchallenged points made by a member of the USI officerboard are indicative of the democratic deficit in the organisation.

In his address the outgoing USI President Gary Redmond stated that he was “ashamed” that certain colleges (presumably NUI Galway) did not engage in the ‘preferendum’, which he said was “historic” and “democratic”. Again these cheap parting shots of a frustrated President were unbefitting of the leader of the student movement. The NUIG Students’ Union identified the problem of the timing of this vote. How can you ask students in or just finished exams to engage with a crucial national vote for the student movement? How can you promote the vote to students who have finished their academic term and examination periods? Also, according to the NUIGSU constitution, the Union cannot hold referenda outside term time.

Peter Mannion being interviewed at a student protest during his tenure as USI President in 2009.

The outgoing President should channel his sense of shame about this into something more productive, like organising a campaign on the cutting of postgraduate grants for example, rather than isolating and alienating Unions which challenge the merits of his organisation’s decisions.

NUIG Students’ Union’s decision to leave the congress hall after it was determined that any discussion would be halted in favour of a quicker vote, a procedural motion placed by the TCDSU president, was one made in direct protest to that motion. I wonder, had the congress been held in Galway (or anywhere outside Dublin), would the president of TCDSU place such a procedural motion after travelling for three hours?

After all the drama and the costs involved in the running of this preferendum and hosting the congress we were left with the original mandate: USI fighting for Exchequer-funded education. This mandate was reaffirmed at every yearly congress since the introduction of the ‘free fees’ scheme in the mid-1990s. In terms of this congress I am unclear of what makes this either historic or any more or less democratic than previous congresses.

The constant promotion of this ‘preferendum’ (and the drive for the graduate tax in particular) by ideologues in leadership positions within the student movement was clearly at odds with the membership they purport to represent. In the coming years we may need to question the degree to which the leadership of a membership-focused national and local representational organisation is legitimate and democratic.

Peter Mannion was the President of the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) in 2009/’10 and NUI Galway Students’ Union in 2010/’11.