Student fees and the curse of disillusionment

Has Ireland’s political climate impacted youthful idealism?

The possible increase of student fees and imposition of a loan scheme has become a more publicly contested debate in recent months. In Trinity, the Students Against Fees group was formed to challenge this. It’s a debate whose outcome will clearly have an effect on Ireland’s economically disadvantaged populace, yet mass support will be needed if opposition to the proposals is to be effective. The problem is encouraging the youth of Ireland as a whole to take action, which is no easy task when the country’s political climate has soured in the wake of the latest recession.

Last week, I interviewed former welfare officer candidate Tom McHugh about students’ thoughts on the issue of increased loans and fees. He said that privately educated students may lack an appreciation of the crisis. The problem extends much further than this, though; I wasn’t privately educated, yet I do come from a well-off background. I’m fortunate enough to have parents who can fund my education without a second thought, having saved money from decades of hard work while raising four children.

In this position, it’s easy to forget where it all comes from. I started to take notice of the fees and loans crisis when I covered a meeting last month, headed by the Students Against Fees group. Had it not been for this, I wonder if I would have been aware of the crisis as I am now.

I like to think of myself as fairly left-leaning in my politics, as I’m sure do many students. College is often stereotyped as a place where left-wing politics flourish. But this can sometimes mask deeper divisions that prevent much of Ireland’s youth from enjoying the opportunities college has to offer. A potential result is a generation of armchair liberals – people who claim they want a more equal society, but whose will to action is limited because they don’t appreciate how our society is unequal.


The other likely cause of inaction is disillusionment with politics in general. Even at the Students Against Fees meeting, there were worrying signs. One speaker voiced concern of the Union of Students in Ireland (USI), going down the “manifesto route”, while foregoing grassroots politics and losing touch with students on the ground. Trinity SU (Students Union) President Lynn Ruane, who was present at the meeting, suggested this was being done so the Union could build up “political capital” – in other words, ideals must be balanced against realpolitik.

USI President Kevin O’Donoghue, also present, replied saying that division within a movement is always a potential risk. He said this can occur when different groups collaborate over a shared concern but have slightly different agendas from each other. Crucially, what was not said at the meeting was what steps would be taken to ensure that such division would not occur this time. Instead, there were repetitive statements that unity must be preserved.

Of course, even if O’Donoghue or USI Deputy President Annie Hoey (also present) had given promises about unity, that in itself would not have been enough. This is the catch-22 that arises. A political group must promise things to its followers, yet promises are constantly made (and broken) in politics, meaning the public probably won’t believe what they’re promised even if it’s 100% genuine.

Uncertainty, apathy

There is also the difficulty in predicting the future. One could lay down a constitution dictating how the alliance of USI, Students Unions, and anti-fees groups would remain intact, but who’s to say this constitution would not be ignored or stretched in the future to allow for some group’s own gain?

Earlier in the year, I saw Professor Louise Richardson, principal and vice-chancellor of the University of St Andrews, give a talk on behalf of the DU Caledonian Society. An expert on international relations and terrorist groups, Professor Richardson was a Trinity student in the 1970s, when the Troubles were raging in Northern Ireland. When asked about the atmosphere in college during this time, Professor Richardson gave a surprising answer: there had been little discussion of the North at all.

Perhaps this was due to the cultural revisionism that dominated Irish historiography for much of the 20th century – the state trying to keep the threat of radicalism at arm’s length. Or perhaps – as I wondered on later reflection – could it have been that students saw little point in discussing the North, as tension and conflict had been prevalent for centuries? Had this issue been out there for so long that people no longer took any notice of it?

Perhaps one could draw a similar conclusion from the current economic crisis. Since 2008, we have been hearing of rising unemployment, homelessness, cuts to welfare and education, and emigration. I heard of these problems long before I understood the causes. At that point, I accepted them as “grown-up stuff”. My lack of understanding of economic terms played a role here, reducing this crisis, in my eyes, to a load of jargon that I couldn’t hope to understand.

Apathy in the face of constant bad news was also raised at the Students Against Fees meeting. There was general agreement for a student demonstration against imposing loans, but there was some debate over where it should be held. One participant argued against Leinster House, saying that there are protests outside it so often that nobody takes any notice anymore. Have we reached a stage where anger and protest has become mere background noise?

When it comes to College administration, the signs are not encouraging, as D. Joyce-Ahearne noted last October in a TN Comment piece. College’s Strategic Plan for 2014-2019 stated that its mission is providing “a liberal environment where independence of thought is highly valued and where all are encouraged to achieve their full potential”. The plan is littered with these wishy-washy statements, which are ultimately useless in any serious “strategic” discussion. Promoting independent thinking and a high academic calibre is what college is supposed to do anyway, right? Why keep bringing it up?

Despite the plan’s claim to make students a priority, there was no mention of the 5% cuts to capitated bodies such as the SU itself. The document’s tone comes across as evasive and keen to distract readers with vague platitudes of “strengths of community” and the “ability to attract talent.” Such an approach will either confuse the students the college claims to represent, or else widen the rift between the students and the administration with its patronising tone.

Outlook uncertain

There have been some encouraging signs in the past year, from the election of a TAP student as SU President, to the formation of Students Against Fees in response to an unpopular Students Council vote on funding last November. With another SU election drawing near, economic issues are firmly in the spotlight, particularly when it comes to accommodation.

I confess I didn’t take any interest in last year’s election until the second-last day of voting. A few hours looking over interviews and policies (with the begrudging attitude of “I have the ability to vote so I may as well use it”) made me notice the issues students face, if only for a brief while.

It’s likely that many more students will do the same this year. But going into the Arts Block this week, it’s hard not to miss the students who keep their heads down so they won’t be targeted by canvassers, or else take pamphlets just so they can be on their way faster.

The SU election is a forerunner of the general election that will occur the following week. Various political parties promise to address third-level education funding. Fine Gael promise to introduce loans, which the USI and Students Against Fees vehemently oppose. Others, such as Sinn Féin and People Before Profit, promise to abolish fees altogether.

If the former approach is applied, will students be spurred to protest, or will they accept it? If the latter, will it be out of agreement, disillusionment, or apathy? And if fees are abolished, what could this mean? Will this policy be dealt with effectively or will it turn out to be another empty electoral promise?

What this comes down to is, could the issue of loans and fees catalyse a shift in student attitudes towards politics?

Illustration by Daniel Tatlow Devally