Time to Unite Behind our Decision and Fight for Free Education

Aengus Ó Maoláin


The decision made by USI’s National Council to ask its members’ opinion on the funding of higher education by means of a nationwide online ballot was criticised by many on all sides of the political spectrum. The result of that process, however, is unequivocal support for the established position of the union for at least fifteen years: a truly ‘free fees’ system. More remarkable was the fact that options involving graduate contribution barely registered their presence on the ballot – something that will strengthen USI’s lobbying and campaigning position for the foreseeable future.

Questions have been asked with more frequency about whether USI was living in the real world – given the current economic situation – in the last few years. Accusations were often leveled at the Union for not using its considerable resources and experience to lobby for a compromise position. “Government might be more amenable to students if we asked for a graduate tax, for example or a deferred loan scheme, rather than a completely Exchequer-funded model,” the argument went. It has long been my opinion that these other models are unacceptable even as end targets – let alone as the stated policy position or desired outcome of a representative union.

The debate that USI has just completed is not without international precedent. In the last number of years several NUSs have begun to change their arguments and lobby for alternative sources of funding in an attempt to lessen the immediate burden on students currently in higher education. Almost without exception these attempts have failed. NUS UK, the national union for the United Kingdom, abandoned Exchequer-funded in favour of a graduate tax as their primary model for HE funding. Today the UK government (and specifically its Minister of State for Universities and Science David Willetts) seem to believe that their loan system – whereby a graduate repays huge sums based on the annual fee of between £6,000 and £9,000 – is fair. NUS UK vehemently disagrees. Across the spectrum of the European student movement various degrees of support for full public funding exist, and the European Students’ Union consistently reinforces this position at its board meetings.

There are two significant factors that must be considered: quality of education and equity of access to higher education. Many see a publicly funded model reducing quality. This is simply not true. There are hundreds of national systems that are publicly funded and offer quality education. Quality is reduced when funding goes down, that is clear. But the idea that ruling out one source of funding automatically reduces quality is not. Ireland’s government simply does not spend enough on education. The higher education funding crisis is not the fault of students.

The time for quibbling over the theory of third-level funding, however, is finished. USI has decided in its most democratic mandate since its foundation to continue to fight for free education for every member of society, at every level and at every point in his or her life. USI has announced again, and loudly, that education is a right and absolutely no financial barriers should be entertained when a person is seeking entry to higher education. With this decision we remain at the core of the European student movement, and can count on solidarity and support from our colleagues across the continent and beyond.

This solidarity will be needed because our position is bleak. We are counted among Greece, Latvia and Iceland in terms of the severity of the cutbacks to higher education budgets in a European context. Government has indicated at every turn that it intends to continue whittling away at student support and institutional budgets every year until Ireland emerges from the economic crisis. The existing tuition fees for undergraduate students will reach €3,000 by the next general election* (*Editor’s note: or could go higher – although Minister Quinn has backed off from this) and effectively all state support for postgraduate study has been abolished. Surely no one can stop this systematic undermining of the principles of an equally and excellently educated population?

That is true. No one will be able to make a dent in the most stable government in the history of the state. The need for unity and clarity of message has never been greater for the Irish student movement. USI’s motto is ‘Ní neart go cur le chéile’ – ‘Together we’re stronger’. This has never been more apt than it is today, because the realpolitik of the situation is that divided, split, fractured or working at cross-purposes we are not only weaker – we are doomed. It is our mission as students and student representatives to embrace our newly clarified policy, unite behind the single banner of the USI and continue the fight. Of course, it is possible – even if we do this – that we will fail. But if we do not failure is absolutely assured.

Aengus Ó Maoláin is outgoing Education Officer of the Union of Students in Ireland, Ireland’s board member of the European Students’ Union, and a former president of Maynooth Students’ Union.