Face of the student movement

Catherine Healy meets Laura Harmon, USI president, to talk strategy, resistance and what it means to be the first female head of the student movement in 20 years

indepth1Catherine Healy meets Laura Harmon, president of the Union of Students in Ireland (USI), to talk strategy, resistance and what it means to be the first female head of the student movement in 20 years.

Q. You’ve called the first national pre-budget rally in three years for October 8th. Did you feel there was a need to change tactics after last year?

A. Well, we were mandated by our members to have a national event this year. But it is going to have a different tone, a more positive message this year. We’re calling it a ‘rally for education’ rather than a protest. There’ll obviously be a strong political undertone in that we’ll be highlighting the need to protect student supports, which is our key budgetary ask. But we’re also going to have civil society groups joining us for the first time. Trade unions like IFUT and SIPTU have confirmed their full support of the campaign, and we’ll also be reaching out to youth groups. So it won’t just be about students – it’s a broader societal campaign.

Q. Would you say the regional protests of last year were ineffective?

A. I think we were quite effective last year. Our main goal was to protect the student maintenance grant, which we managed to do. That was largely as a result of strategic lobbying. But I do think that the national event will maximise student involvement.

Q. Some students would rather see the USI move away from protesting, and focus on lobbying and service provision. What would you say to them?

A. We’re hoping that this year’s rally will draw in people that might not traditionally be inclined to protest. But I do think that protesting and political activism are important, and complement each other in many ways. There are some people who won’t engage with the lobbying process otherwise. I do also think that the action itself needs to be proportionate. If the grant is cut next month, we might need to look at other actions.

Q. What kind of actions would you consider if that were to happen?

A. That would be something for our members and national council to decide.

Q. Your co-operation with IFUT is interesting in that the USI has often spoken out in the past against high salaries in the third-level sector. Is it important to you to campaign alongside academics and staff in universities?

A. I think it’s very important that staff and students try to work together. In some cases, there can be conflict between college authorities and students. But I think it’s very positive that we have groups like IFUT involved in the campaign. They share our vision of education as a public good, and I think their involvement will send out a strong message that we have a cohesive movement.

Q. The USI often talks about education as a public good. What kind of concrete steps can you take to improve equality of access to third-level education?

A. Protecting student supports is key to maintaining equality of access. The grant works out at about €84 per week. That’s far less than the price of rent in any part of the country.  I know the HEA is formulating a new national access plan and that’s something that we’re hoping to contribute to. The difficulties facing mature students can often be overlooked as well. That’s why we’re holding a convention for mature students in early October. We’re also planning to work with organisations like Pavee Point to improve access for members of the travelling community.

Q. How can you protect student supports while maintaining the quality of third-level education? Does the scarcity of resources mean that one challenge threatens the other?

A. No, I don’t think so. The sector as a whole is underfunded. We need far more state investment in education. I think [third-level funding] is going to be a key issue in the next general election in 2016. Our view is that education must be publicly funded. We’d strongly disagree with any notion that student numbers should be capped.

Q. Your recent pre-budget submission focuses on protecting the student maintenance grant. Do you think it’s no longer feasible to argue for free education?

A. Our campaign will be focused on protecting the grant and back-to-education allowance. Ruairi Quinn already said that the student contribution charge will be €3,000 by 2015. It’s a pre-scheduled increase by the government, so it wasn’t a surprise when Jan O’Sullivan said that she would go ahead with the next annual increase. But we disagree with it rising, of course. Ireland now has the second highest fees in Europe after the UK. We’ve moved from free education to the second highest fees in Europe in 20 years. I don’t think many people are aware of that. When Ruairi Quinn spoke at our conference last year, he admitted that the student contribution charge is essentially a tuition fee. He said we were now allowed to call it that. Our position is that the charge should be capped at €3,000. We believe there’ll be an opportunity then for a new government to start reducing it in line with economic recovery.

Q. Are you disappointed with Labour’s performance in government?

A. I’m disappointed with the government as a whole. I was disappointed with Minister Quinn rowed back on his promise not to increase student fees. The government broke that promise. I’m disappointed with the way in which the government is treating young people in general. But they’ve an opportunity now, as the economy recovers, to start prioritising education again. That’s what’s really going to see us through this crisis. It’s absolutely vital that we keep graduates in the country.

Q. How do you think students will be affected by the budget? Do you think the grant is likely to be cut?

A. I think it might be. It all depends on what the budgetary adjustment needs to be. We’ve heard different figures thrown around. Local lobbying will be very important in the next few weeks. I’m hoping the government will realise that student supports have been cut in successive budgets. The maintenance grant has really been pared to the bone. We can only do our best and put the pressure on.

Q. How effective do you think the USI has been in protecting students’ interests since the start of the recession?

A. I think it would be very interesting to see how different things would be now if the USI didn’t exist. I certainly think that things would be a lot worse for students. We need to take into consideration that we’ve faced one of the greatest economic recessions in this country for a significant number of years. Of course, every sector was going to be hit by cuts. Various USI presidents differed in their approaches, but I’m confident that the direction we’re taking now is significantly better. We’ve more credibility as a union. We’re not just going out and saying what we want. We’re trying to engage with public representatives in a more meaningful way.

Q. You seem to be saying that the USI was less credible in the recent past. One example that comes to mind is the reaction of some students to the breakaway protests of 2010. Are you referring to these kind of events when you talk about a lack of credibility?

A. No, I’m talking about our lobbying strategy. I think it was very impressive that they managed to mobilise so many students in 2010. There was a significant amount of student engagement back then. People were very angry at the time. Of course, the president of the USI condemned those breakaway groups, but we’ve since apologised to them. They were quite obviously peaceful protesters.

Q. UCD’s disaffiliation from the USI in 2013 must have been a huge blow. What can you do to convince UCD students to return to the national movement?

A. It was very disappointing. I was equality and citizenship officer [of the USI] that year. We’ve since met UCDSU and invited them to the march for marriage. We hope to invite them to the rally for education as well. The best thing we can do is to keep that relationship open. It’s up to UCD students if they want another referendum. I do think the USI is in a stronger place now than two years ago. I think – I hope – that we’re seen more positively.

Q. So you think the USI is seen in a positive light by students more broadly?

A. Broadly, yes. There is still some scepticism. There’s also a huge lack of awareness, I think. That’s something we acknowledge. We’ve made efforts this year to reach out to more students. We’ve bringing back ‘The Voice’, our quarterly student magazine, which will be distributed on campuses. We’re planning to distribute 30,000 freshers packs with information about our work. We’ll also be running a poster campaign. We’ve had significantly more media coverage of our work so far this year. We’re bringing back our activist academy, which we haven’t had in a number of years. The marriage equality campaign will engage a lot of students as well. It’s something the student population as a whole feels quite passionately about. I think we’ll be able to show that student voters can come out in large numbers for that referendum.

Q. You’re the first female president of the USI in 20 years. Is that important to you?

A. It’s something a lot of people highlight. You do have to question why there wasn’t a female president in 20 years. I hope my election can help female students. It sends out a positive message. There is an obvious disparity in gender representation in student unions. That’s why we’re working with Women in Election to promote greater female participation in student politics. Women sometimes need to be asked to run a number of times, while their male counterparts mightn’t need that much support. But I never felt treated any differently because of my gender. There are root issues in society as a whole that need to be tackled. A lot of it can come down to confidence.

Catherine Healy

Editor of Trinity News. Interested in politics, history and all forms of media.