Vote No

Rónán Burtenshaw

Trinity News is advocating a No vote in the referendum on disaffiliation from the Union of Students in Ireland (USI), the polling for which takes place until Thursday in locations around College. This article will seek to outline the case for remaining affiliated to the national students’ union, as this paper sees them.

It is worth acknowledging that the USI has serious flaws. It has consistently been overly-bureaucratic – eschewing democratic organisation in favour of empowering a group of officers who have often been out of college for years. (Although, as our lead story shows, they are making some effort to remedy this.) It remains a stomping ground for would-be politicians ‘on the make’, whose designs on a career in professional politics colour their activities, making them unlikely to really challenge the political establishment they hope one day to join.

In the twenty years between 1995 and 2015 fees for higher-level will have increased 1,579%. From an adjusted figure of a shade under €190 in 1995 to €3,000 in three years time. Our fees, at the moment, are the second highest in the EU and they stand to rise substantially. During this period of exponential increase in the cost of education the USI has consistently failed to do what is required of it: draw a line in the sand. Instead of a firm decision to resist the hikes, like those taken by successful student movements in Quebec and Chile recently, the USI has met annual increases in fees and cuts to grants with grudging acceptance.
But the Yes side of this campaign does not provide an alternative to this. It does not offer a concrete proposal on the formation of an alternative national students’ union. It has no coherent answer to how the already-busy sabbatical officers of the Students’ Union in Trinity are to achieve national representation for the college.

If the USI levy is withdrawn, in the present climate, it is highly unlikely that College would sanction its value being redirected to hire a full-time lobbyist on behalf of TCDSU. And, even if it was, who would they meet? Probably only the TDs in the College’s local constituency. If TDs and Senators are given a choice between meeting a representative of a national students’ union with hundreds of thousands of members from all across the country and one from Trinity College they will chose the former every time.
In reality this campaign is an ideological proxy for battles being waged on a much larger scale in Irish society. The Yes side will find that their reasoning achieves greatest purchase amongst those enamoured with the free-market. If you support pay-for-service arguments and believe that Irish higher education would be better suited by students paying higher fees then voting yes makes sense. If you are opposed to unions in principle then the same standard applies.

But if you oppose rises in fees and cuts to the grant, as every poll conducted in the College in recent years has indicated Trinity students do, then it is clear that only the USI has the capacity to execute a strategy aimed at meeting those ends on a national level. There is a very real risk that, if we vote Yes, Trinity will be left without national representation.

This campaign, billed as an issue for Trinity students, has also become a proxy battle between two other organisations: the USI itself and Young Fine Gael. The USI’s ability to organise, co-ordinate campaign material and fill campus on polling week with members of officer-board gives it an unfair advantage. But the Yes side being so overwhelmingly made up by members of Young Fine Gael should be treated with suspicion by students, too. This is a party that, in government, has inflicted hardship on many students and forced many others out of education altogether. It stands to benefit from a weak and atomised student movement that offers little resistance. Here its youth wing is co-ordinating a campaign that, if successful, would see one of Ireland’s largest colleges vote to leave the national students’ union just before the budget. This confluence of interests should alarm those heading to the polls.

The student movement needs to grow in strength rapidly if it is to combat further fee increases and cuts to the grant. The current trajectory of Irish higher education – with the introduction of private finance schemes without government guarantees or assistance – is towards the American model of ballooning debts and narrowing access to education. The USI is an imperfect union, but it is the only means available to students to fight the battles they need to win in the coming years.

In February I wrote an article for the other college newspaper which asked those in favour of disaffiliation a simple question: then what? The Yes campaign has not provided a good answer, and certainly not one that satisfies widespread opposition to fee increases. As a result, this disaffiliation referendum is a no-brainer: vote No.