A meeting was held yesterday evening regarding the issue of incoming student loans and fee increases, which was attended by members of the Students Against Fees group, and the Union of Students in Ireland (USI), as well as students from such as DCU, UCD, and NUI Maynooth, who are interested in setting up similar groups in their respective university.
Oisín Vince Coulter, a coordinator for Students Against Fees, opened the meeting by raising the issue of collaborating with other colleges to oppose the incoming measures on a nationwide basis. Coulter said, “as a result of the high numbers of people from other universities attending he hopes that they would set up similar branches within their own universities.”
There was discussion over sending members of Students Against Fees to other universities to talk about how they had initially set up in Trinity to help those intending on setting up their own branch.
Furthermore, it was agreed that the students should demonstrate in solidarity with an upcoming one-day strike by the Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI). The strike, which is planned for the 3rd of February, will centre around issues such as teachers’ pay and lack of counselling support for second-level students.
One of the issues of this evening’s meeting was the form the students’ demonstration should take. A rally in Front Square, a march, or a combination of the two were suggested as options. Eventually it was decided to do a later action as well as demonstrate on the 3rd February.
Co-ordination among student unions across Ireland was stressed. One speaker suggested that USI could be going down the lobbying and could become detached from grassroots movements. Student’s union president Lynn Ruane made similar comments, suggesting that USI were doing so to build up “political capital.”
President of USI, Kevin Donoghue, also acknowledged this. He said that there was often a risk that divisions may develop between groups that come together for a common cause, which may weaken their message. He stressed that “grassroots politics” were crucial.
He also urged people to contact their local T.D.s in the run up to the general election, to let them know how important the fees situation is, referencing pensions as an example of how successful this can be..
A key issue of the meeting was getting the issue of loans and fees into the public sphere, so that people would understand and care about it. One speaker lamented the apathy among students, suggesting that they would not take action because they did not understand what was at stake.
The period for promoting the message was debated at the meeting. It was argued that the SU election period would be a difficult time, as there would be so many other issues in the public sphere that students would not notice. However, it was also argued that this would be the ideal time, as it would be the time when students were most aware of issues such as loans and fees.
A similar meeting will take place in the coming weeks where the students’ plans for demonstrating will be discussed further.
The day before the meeting, Students’ Union of UCC pledged to “lobby for free education and to oppose an income-contingent loan scheme.”
The Students Against Fees Group was founded last November, after a motion by President Ruane that opposed student loans and fee hikes, was defeated by the SU Council. The group felt the defeat was not indicative of student opinion, as it focused only on loans and did not take fee increases into account. On Tuesday 15 December, the group brought their own motion opposing loans and increases before the Council, which was passed with a comfortable majority.
President Ruane’s motion was in response to speculation that a government-appointed group (the Working Group of Higher Education Funding), established to investigate funding issues for third-level education, would propose student loans and fare increases. In December 2015, information came to light that the group meant to raise student fees to €4,000, while including an income-contingent package.