The Student Doth Protest Too Little

D. Joyce-Ahearne

InDepth Editor

What is the role of the student? How are we perceived? What do we expect of ourselves? We’re drunk and loud on Harcourt Street at three in the morning. We’re discussing Montaigne in Walter Mitty’s over coffee. We’re volunteering with VDP. We’re protesting over the latest unfair aspect of the National Shafting. We are portrayed a certain way and we act a certain way. Why?

The “student” experience is defined by two factors, factors that separate it from childhood, adulthood and the life of the young worker – these are time and money. For most, the state of being “in college” is a surreal world wherein we are independent and yet not wholly accountable, free and yet sheltered, ignorant and yet knowledgeable enough to know we can change that. Some resent the student’s experience because for many, even in times of hardship, we have more free time and money than most. Whether that free time and money is warranted or not is not the subject of this piece.  How we use that time and money, however, is.

Every student’s experience falls between, or more accurately swings between, two poles. The first sees time and money spent on dissipation, what F. Scott Fitzgerald called “the making of nothing out of something”. This is the experience that sees us drinking until 4am, then getting cheese and garlic chips and skipping college the next day to sleep off a hangover until six in the evening; by which time we feel suitably recovered to do it again. Time is spent sleeping, and money is spent drinking.

I do that a lot, probably more than I should. At the time of writing this I have six cans of Harp waiting in the fridge and I intend on getting spectacularly drunk tonight. The only reason I can think of for doing it is that “I haven’t been drunk in a while.” I’m going to spend more money tonight than I should and tomorrow is going to be half a write-off, though I know I need it to be a productive day because I’ve done fuck all college work this week.

If I had to give some justification I would say that we do it because we’re young and we know that, if nothing else, pleasure is good. It’s unchecked hedonism. So that’s one side of it.

The other side of student life is beautiful, idealistic and, most importantly, redeeming to all but the most jaded of cynics. The student, when sober, reckons he or she can change the world or at least knows that he or she can do a lot of good. We have time and money to spend on thinking. We have the means and enthusiasm to carry torches and banners, to promote causes and protests.

We have a duty, due to our peculiar situation, to be the ones who stand up for what we think is right. Now is the time for direct action, for protests, for occupations. And yet we, the demographic most able to fight back against injustice, have spent the last five years taking a gross and unjust financial pounding.

Fees are being hiked and grants are being cut. Graduate unemployment is 30% because the government, instead of investing in jobs for young workers, is trying to force us into a slavery of internship through the JobBridge scheme, the modern day famine road. Where are the students? Where is the sense of justice and action?

“This week, the idle rich of Leinster House will once again assault the people with a budget that sees us pay while they continue to feather their own nests at €92,800 a year. Until the next budget, there will not be another period of tangible and shared sense of injustice among the people.”

On 1st October, the Union of Students in Ireland organised a protest against further cutbacks in education in this year’s budget, specifically drawing attention to effects that further cuts to the maintenance grant would have. It would put a lot of people out of college. The USI protest consisted of about 350 people, from eight third-level institutes.

The USI represents every student in the country, and just under half of those students are in receipt of some sort of state support. The “protest” took the shape of a stage at the end of Molesworth Street, facing the opposite direction to the Dáil. Even, if only for the novelty of it, the Minister for Education, Ruairí Quinn, had decided to look out at the dregs of a student movement, which he himself had once been a radical part of, he wouldn’t have been able to see us.

The USI have copyrighted the student’s movement and reinvented it as a powerless lobby group.  They have turned away from action and towards suits, TDs’ offices and Buswell’s. They don’t want to rock the boat because they want to get into the boat. The USI, as it was for Gilmore, Rabbitte and Keaveney, is a careerist stepping stone.

Instead of channelling the discontent that exists among students into a movement that everyone can be a part of, the USI has dismantled the clout we had in 2010 when 30,000 marched in Dublin.

USI's October demonstration. Students bend down to show how they've been 'crushed by cuts'.

USI’s October demonstration. Students bend down to show how they’ve been ‘crushed by cuts’.

The parish pump, boy-band galling-ness of everyone who graced the USI stage that day was everything that is wrong with the student’s movement. They have blurred the lines between what it is to be a student and what it is to be a cynical-before-their-time careerist, by using the USI for personal advancement. Though personal attacks are not usually helpful in pointing out flaws in an organisation, by making that organisation a vehicle for personal ends, people open themselves to individual scrutiny.

The “protest” had a faux-carnival atmosphere brought to us by the DIT Samba Soc, who we must have thanked at least 15 times. It was astoundingly disorganised, both in the build up and on the day. It seemed to be designed to fail, and to cause as little fuss as possible so as not to piss off the grown-ups.

“Oggy oggy oggy” has no place at a protest where people are fighting to stay in college. The only bit of life the crowd saw was when Tom Lenihan said “fuck”. That was how toothless and tame students have become. “Fuck” shocks them. I can’t imagine Ruairí Quinn, or anyone else for that matter, who would take anyone seriously who is shocked by the word fuck. I personally will be looking for my fucking USI contribution back.

USI’s latest non-action has been to try to register all student voters online, so as to wield some sort of influence at election time. The student’s clout has never been our ballot. It is our idealism and our willingness to act. And in spending all our time and money in Coppers we’ve made ourselves harmless, and that’s why we find ourselves getting screwed. We’ve surrendered our sense of justice and decided to lie down and take whatever gets thrown at us, getting drunk now and then to make it easier.

This week, the idle rich of Leinster House will once again assault the people with a budget that sees us pay while they continue to feather their own nests at €92,800 a year. Until the next budget, there will not be another period of tangible and shared sense of injustice among the people. This is the week for students to take direct action.

USI fear direct action because they fear a public backlash, from the gombeens they crave to be. But they underestimate that we are not the only people who’ve had enough. Yes, both the defining factors of student-hood, the hedonism and idealism, wither with age but they do not disappear. The only reason that adults might be less enthusiastic about life, both the enjoyment of it and the improvement of its quality for oneself and for others, is responsibility. If you have a child at home you can’t necessarily be in Coppers every other night nor can you skip work to protest if you need to feed a family. So, for some, the direct action must take a back seat, but the ideals don’t.

“Until people can see the students informed and on the street, our situation won’t improve.”

It’s the student’s duty to protest. We are not expected to care more than other people, but we are expected to act more than others, simply because we can. And those who can’t act must support us and forget the pathetic non-excuses of “I don’t have time to care”, or worse “I can’t afford to care.” Negative solidarity, the idea that everyone should get screwed because I’m getting screwed, has to be thrown out. People need to acknowledge the common ground that exists between us all, except for the political class that puts itself first.

Students are angry and they need a medium to show it. We need to offer an ultimatum: listen to us or we will take to the streets. Enough is enough. We will fuck up the politicians’ easy ride and we will work to re-ignite the sense of injustice in every other sector.

The government didn’t see us at the USI demonstration cornered off on Molesworth Street. They do not hear us giving out over coffee and they do not hear us drunk on Harcourt Street. Until people can see the students informed and on the street, our situation won’t improve.

The reason students have become disillusioned is because there’s nothing tangible for them to participate in. People go to Coppers because it’s there. People will protest if there’s a protest there. The thing is, nobody is going to create a protest for you. It’s something we have to make ourselves. Next time you pass a protest join in.

D. Joyce-Ahearne

D is former Contributing Editor of Trinity News and Trinity Graduate.