Interview with USI President John Logue

Ronan Burtenshaw


Photo: George Voronov

On Friday evening TN sat down with Union of Students in Ireland (USI) President John Logue to talk protesting, lobbying and Higher Education. Here we bring you the full interview, following on from the publication of a section in our recent print edition.

Q. We heard today [17th November] that Trinity College, Dublin Students’ Union will not be marching on Kevin Humphreys’ office on Tuesday, as initially planned. What is your reaction to this?

A. I was aware that representatives from DIT [Dublin Institute of Technology], NCI [National College of Ireland] and TCD were going to sit down and discuss the issue and how to respond. I was not aware that a final decision had been made. But the point of this campaign is that USI devolved responsibility back to local representatives and people on the ground and asked them: “What do you think is most effective to get the message across to TDs in your area?”

I trust Rory and his team. If he thinks a more effective use of his time is doing work with Kevin Humphreys – who really has been inundated with responses from TCD students – then we respect that. I think DIT might go ahead with their march anyway, but if TCD want to go a different way, that’s fine. 

Q. How do you think the Stand Up campaign has gone so far? You spoke to Trinity News at the outset about two specific goals: to democratise the USI and make it a more grassroots organisation, and also the strategy to build pressure on local TDs rather than aim exclusively at a national level. How have those two goals fared?

A. One thing we have learned along the way is that building up a movement is a slow process. You have to start small. I think quite a few people are jaded about the idea of protest after four or five years of the national march. But what we’ve seen is that the approach we’ve taken – where you attend a public meeting first, then talk to your class reps before engaging with a campaign – has worked. I think people who were reluctant have found themselves with a sense of ownership over the campaign.

I’ve spoken to a number of TDs and they say that we are getting our message across on the student assistance fund and the grant in a way we never did before. We’ve even had some say to us – and I do treat this with scepticism, but it’s important nonetheless – that they are willing to make it a red line issue for the budget. The situation with the student contribution doesn’t seem to be as hopeful, but we’re willing to push it to the last day to ensure that the TDs are getting our message.

John Logue speaking at the 2012 March for Marriage. (Photo credit: The Edition, DIT)

Q. There is a sizeable community of students, probably larger in Trinity than anywhere else, that would like the USI to end protesting altogether and transform itself into something more like a professional lobbying union. What is your reply to them?

A. I think it would be a seriously naive step. We only have to look at the Savita protest to see that when people come out en masse onto the streets it builds pressure on politicians and forces them to respond. If we aren’t seen to have a big group of students behind us, if we aren’t getting media coverage, then we’re nowhere. If we hadn’t have had the protests across the country we’ve had in recent weeks, then we wouldn’t be getting the sort of media attention we’re getting at the moment – on The Frontline, Prime Time and Vincent Browne.

In order to be able to lobby effectively, you have to be showing up on the streets. I don’t think people quite grasp that in order to be good at one you have to be good at the other. In some senses that’s why the [Irish Farmers’ Association] are good, it’s because people know they can back up their lobbying with 20,000 people on the streets. They have that bow in their arsenal. So I do not think they are mutually exclusive; it’s absolutely essential that we do both.

I extend this to those who think we should just protest, too. That would be delusional as well. There needs to be a political operation behind the scenes as well. But we probably need a better consistency of protesting. The idea that one march on a given day, or even around the country that one march per college is enough, I don’t think that’s going to cut it. We need a greater build up. And not necessarily just with students – we wanted to make this campaign about everybody, talking about how parents, communities and local businesses were affected by higher-education cuts as well. 

One thing that I’ve taken from this campaign is that this cannot end on 5th December. We’ve got to take this up as our mantle for the year. We’ve got to convince people that protecting higher education is to the benefit of everyone in the country, regardless of whether you attend it or not. I think more protesting, if it’s getting that message out there, is something I could only encourage.

Q. Earlier in the year Trinity News spoke to the USI about the lessons that could be learned from the student protests in Quebec. If you had a choice between the kind of route pursued in Quebec or Chile or a more professional lobbying orientation, what would you choose?

A. Answering that question would pigeonhole me into one or the other, and I don’t think you can separate them that easily. What isn’t widely talked about in the Quebec model is that while the students were out protesting in the streets, there was a hell of a lot of lobbying going on in the background with groups like the Parti Québécois, which was very important. When people talk about Quebec there is an impression that the leaders of the student movement there were just constantly on the streets. They weren’t. There was a lot of discussion behind the scenes. Here, we really need both.

John Logue at this month’s protest outside Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore’s office by USI, UCD and NCAD. (Photo credit: Rob Manning)

Q. Does the USI need solidarity in the long-term with academics and staff in universities to defeat cuts to services, or are they oppositional to students because of the scarcity of funding? If it is the former, how will the USI approach the Croke Park agreement, when USI officers’ criticisms of that in the past have been widely read as an attack on workers in colleges?

A. There are a number of ways to look at that. From my personal perspective, I would love to work with the university and institute of technology staff because, having spoken to many in recent months, I believe that they have the best interests of students at heart.

There’s a perception that staff in higher education are all on obscene salaries. This isn’t true. There are a lot of hard-working staff who get paid median-level salaries. The argument has become polarised, and this is a failing of USI as well, because much of the talk is about people like Dr Mike Murphy in UCC [University College Cork] who’s on €232,000 per year. It leads to the presumption in debates that everybody in higher education is overpaid, which is not true.

What we would like to see, though, is that staff who feel as we do that higher education should be accessible to all students look for ways to cut waste. A lot of people we’ve spoken to over the last three or four months acknowledge that there are gross inefficiencies within the sector that they would like to see eliminated. And many of them know as well that there are people in higher education who are paid well above the odds for the jobs they do.

I think, if we could tackle those issues, the best thing we could do would be to team up with staff in the higher education institutions. It would make a strong statement that we are not going to pit one group in the sector against the other in a race to the bottom.

Q. On Wednesday night, you used that logic – resistance to being pitted against other groups in a race to the bottom – in a debate with Labour TD Aodhán Ó Riordáin. What is the alternative to pitting groups against each other in competition? Is it pursuing your interests side by side with others, or creating some bigger-picture argument about the state and funding?

A. I think, on the bigger-picture issue, we need to make decisions as a country and it’s going to take leadership from positions higher than my own. We need to ask ourselves what the bottom is below which we’re not going to accept for any citizen of this country, in terms of health care, education, property rights, civic engagement. Then we have to work from those common goals and decide what to prioritise.

When I said that to Deputy Ó Riordáin, it really annoyed me what he said. He came to that meeting trying to play the fallen hero – trying to tell university and IT students that his priority was children in DEIS [the Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools scheme] schools, which probably nobody in the room would advocate taking money from. In fact, the USI has been at pains over the last few months to stress to the public that we are not looking to cut money from other vulnerable areas; we’re not looking for money to be cut from DEIS schools, or ordinary primary or secondary schools. In fact, quite the contrary: primary and secondary should be prioritised.

But the level of waste in the higher-education sector – given the lack of productivity in some areas – means there’s a lot of money to move. We don’t have to target families or students in the budget. TDs saying “we can’t help you, because we’re helping poor children in the budget” is not true and, to be honest, I think it’s one of the worst forms of politics. You’re guilting people for standing up for their rights.

John Logue listens to a student speak at one of the Stand Up campaign’s town halls in Castlebar. (Photo credit: The USI)

Q. If you were to identify one piece of waste and/or one way in which the increase to the student contribution this year could be offset, what would it be? Where could the money be found?

A. As one example, as we have shown, if you take 2% from the pay budget of higher education – while protecting its lower-paid workers – we would not have to increase the student contribution this year. The net income from this year’s student contribution increase will be around €18.5m. Taking that 2% out of the pay budget would be €17m.

But there are also other opportunities. I think we should get serious in this country about online learning. When I say this to people, they turn their noses up at the fact that I’m trying to change education into a non-campus entity. I’m not advocating that. But there are a lot of people – and I almost always think of my dad in these cases – who never got to go to college because they were young in Ireland way before the free-fees scheme. They never got that opportunity to access third-level education. They would probably dearly love the opportunity to now, with the economic downturn, to avail of the opportunity to upskill or reskill.

Online, distance and flexible learning – if we develop them in Ireland – will give people this flexibility. If you look at the model from the University of Phoenix in Arizona, they offer a basis for education for people who can’t come to campus, which saves money. It’s also the case that, if you introduce online and distance-learning technologies for students off campus, you’re increasing the quality of services available for students on campus.
Another example here would be the Khan Academy schooling programme in the United States. Pupils go home at night and watch the lectures, and then come into class the next day. Class is a facilitation exercise. Ireland could drastically improve the quality of teaching and learning with very little additional effort in areas like these.

Although I don’t believe a lot of what the university rankings tell us, I do think that would go some way to alleviating our slide in them without having to commit a lot of extra resources. Over the long run, as we’ve seen in places like Carnegie Mellon University, it actually ends up saving quite a lot of money, because you have more and more people coming into the system with these more cost-efficient structures.

Our argument this year has been almost realistic to a fault. We say, and we know, that they are not going to give us any more money this year. We just would like to see all other potential avenues of funding exhausted before we hit students and families. We’re just not seeing that. And it makes people like me who are student representatives more and more angry. Which leads to me, in both senses, turning my back on TDs.

Students in IT Tallaght hold up printed posters about education cuts during a visit by Ruairi Quinn, as part of the Stand Up! campaign. (Photo credit: The USI)

Q. It’s interesting that you brought up the University of Phoenix. There’s a lot of debate in the United States about that. While it has taken in a lot of students who may not have otherwise gone to university, there are significant questions about its effect, and the effect of these online universities, on the quality of education in the third-level sector. If USI was asked which was more important, the quality of education or access to education, which would it prioritise under your leadership?

A. That’s a loaded question, I think. There are a number of caveats. I’d need to be asked it more specifically than that to have a sense of what we’re talking about. [Q. OK, well, we can focus it here. Some people would say that fighting increases in the student contribution is negatively affecting college funding situations and the value of degrees.]

I think that people are over-reliant on that hypothesis. They have introduced the increase in tuition in the UK; all studies are pointing to no increases in quality. I think higher-education institutions are more flexible than they want to let on. Obviously they want as much funding as they can properly get. But I’ve often asked university presidents and registrars: “If you were to get increased funding from student fees, what exactly would you spend it on?” And I’m always met with: “Em…” They don’t know.

The big question for higher education is how much money do they actually need to maintain quality, year on year. Nobody’s been able to answer that question for me. So I think there’s an underlying assumption here that no one has questioned. Do universities actually need more funding? And, if they do, are there not alternative methods of finding that funding without increasing student fees?

Ideally, you would meet the issue halfway. We want quality and access in a sustainable framework. But I believe that this can be achieved, and I’m starting to doubt a lot of the rhetoric coming from those who don’t. There are a lot of institutions saying that they are on the edge of a cliff, but they have management on six-figure incomes, and I think that’s scaremongering. Is there an element of truth to the funding crisis? Undoubtedly. But I just don’t buy into the crisis.

Q. I am wondering, to the more philosophical point of my initial question, if you were given a choice about emphasis – a top-quality system where you look to ensure as broad a level of access as you can, or one where everyone has access and you make it as high standard as you can – what would you choose?

A. Under that remit, I think you have to look at access. That’s my honest answer. Access first.

Q. What do you feel USI’s standing is amongst students at the moment?

A. I think we’ve done a lot this year so far to dispel doubt. If nothing else, for the first five months of our term, we’ve given people a sense that something can be done. Not just in the landscape of higher education, but also the country in general. When we took office and went around the country, there was a serious amount of defeatism. It shocked me, because that’s not my nature. I never knew it was as bad as it was. I hope we’ve given people confidence that they can do something about the positions they find themselves in. And in a way where they acknowledge that it’s not just 10 people in an office in USI doing their bidding for them, which is important.

Some people who have often criticised USI for not being proactive in terms of our protesting have come around a bit to the idea, to the way we’re going about things this year. I think they acknowledge that what we’re doing this year is a lot more effective than it ever has been, at least in my memory of USI.

On the flip-side of this coin there’s always going to be people who are just hell-bent on opposing, whatever USI does.

Q. The Phoenix recently covered Young Fine Gael’s campaign against USI, which has involved leading the charge for disaffiliation in both Trinity and University College Dublin. Do you think there’s a cynical aspect to that, given that they are the youth wing of a party of government?

A. I have received a lot of stick for my past membership of Ógra Fianna Fáil, even though no-one mentions the fact that when I was deputy president of USI I protested outside more Fianna Fáil doors than most people in other parties ever did.

I do think there is a campaign by Young Fine Gael against an organisation that is causing them hassle. But I have to commend Labour Youth for not doing this. They have consistently stood on principle and been willing to oppose their parent party, and that’s commendable. The difference between YFG and Labour Youth on this front is stark. YFG are much more like what I remember Ógra Fianna Fáil being like when I was a member: it was all about defending the party, and I never agreed with that. It’s one of the reasons I ended up leaving. In lots of ways this has affected the kind of democracy and politics we’ve had in Ireland, but it doesn’t mean that the next generation have to fall into that as well.

YFG are one of the best-placed organisations in the country to make a difference to the lives of students and their families in this country, and I don’t see them doing it. They’re hiding behind a pie-in-the-sky graduate-tax model and throwing a lot of empty rhetoric at us.

John Logue speaks to students from IT Sligo SU during a meeting there last month.

Q. The graduate-tax model came up again this weekend on the front page of the Irish Independent, with a report by the ESRI. What was your reaction to that?

A. I’d take a bet, and I’d get money back on it, that this is Ruairi Quinn trying to deflect attention away from the increase of the student contribution. It’s trying to take our attention away from the problems with the current system, and onto a model we’re even more scared of.

Ruairi Quinn knows himself – and he has said it to me – that the graduate tax and student-loan systems won’t work in this country. He has no intention of ever bringing it in. This is political kite-flying, a manoeuvre designed to deflect us.

Any academic I’ve spoken to recently who advocated a graduate-tax model in the recent past now accepts that it is no longer a feasible system for this country. I think it’s about time we started facing up to a contribution that is way too high, and talking about getting a funding model that is fair and equitable. We need to move away from the empty rhetoric of graduate taxes and student loans that, it’s clear, aren’t going to work here.

Q. How are students going to shake out in the budget? If you had to make a prediction now, what’s going to happen?

A. I have great hope that the maintenance grant is going to be protected. We’re working towards an increase in the student assistance fund as well, although it’s difficult to know how that is going. We also hope there’s going to be some improvement coming down the line in the management of student grants with Susi, after all the problems with it this year.

As for the student contribution, I’m very unsure. But I do know that we have to fight like our life depends on it. To say now that I’m pessimistic on it would be to undermine our campaign, so I will say we’re cautiously optimistic on getting the minister to re-examine the €3,000 student contribution issue. We’re emphasising that, if this goes ahead, he’ll be responsible for teeing up the next minister for education after him – who could be from Fine Gael – which sends this country back 20 or 30 years in terms of educational attainment. We hope that the minister will take measures to prevent this before he ends his term in 2016. So, I’m cautiously optimistic. We’ve made some great inroads on the maintenance grant and student assistance fund, but it’s clear there’s more to do on the student contribution. We’re doing a hell of a lot of work behind the scenes – with the department and Labour backbench TDs – and that is a cause for optimism as well.