We need a grassroots movement against fees

It’s time for us to take our place in the international student movement against austerity and the corporatisation of our universities.

The current sabbatical elections come at a pivotal time for the Irish student movement. The Cassells Report on funding Irish higher education is, according to all reports, set to recommend a student loans system accompanied by an increase in fees. There is a strong chance that the General Election will produce a government intent on the implementation of these measures. Fine Gael plan for a loans system as a funding measure to plug the hole in the finances of the Irish higher education system. This will mean a dramatic increase in third-level fees from the current registration charge of ‎€3000.

The Students Against Fees campaign has collected and published the personal testimonies of students from working class communities and low-income households. The facts are simple: student loans will push people out of higher education and close the door on working class students.

It is as fundamental a duty as one could imagine for the Students’ Union to fight any attempts to introduce a loans system. We should vote accordingly in the upcoming sabbatical elections to ensure we have an SU leadership committed to protecting students’ interests.

Fighting back

We don’t yet know the full extent of the government’s plans, but they are counting on student resistance being weak. They are not without justification in their belief that students are an easy target – since the beginning of the economic crisis, we have been. Public funding for education has been cut, fees have been raised despite the theatrical pledges of the Labour Party to stand up for students and not increase the student contribution. The fightback has been shaky, with numbers on the annual USI march dwindling year on year.

Ireland has, so far, shown little of the militancy displayed by other student movements across the world, such as in Quebec and Chile. If we do not show more fight, then student loans will come in as easily as every other anti-student measure since 2008.  

The campaign has been served well by the presence of a committed anti-fees SU president this year. Students Against Fees had to fight within the SU to win it to our position. The first motion proposing to mandate the SU to oppose loans was defeated, prompting the formation of our independent campaign.

After weeks of hard work and putting the anti-loans argument to students, a second, more complete motion that mandates the SU to oppose any increase in fees was passed nearly unanimously. This does not yet mean, however, that the full energies of the SU are at the disposal of the anti-fees campaign.

Lukewarm climate

This year’s SU sabbatical team has come under criticism for their lack of visible support of the anti-fees campaign. This is with the honourable exception of President Lynn Ruane, who has been instrumental in supporting the campaign since its inception.

Our march in solidarity with the Teachers’ Union of Ireland strike in early February was publicised with the assistance of SU resources. Yet other elected officers have been criticised during the current sabbatical election campaign for not attending the march.

The reply so far has been that the SU President has chief responsibility for campaigns and that different sabbatical officers work with different campaigns. Formally, this is true. But this line of defence gives a worrying impression weeks before the general election.

Fighting student loans is of paramount importance for the student movement. If they’re introduced, students will be saddled with a mountain of debt upon graduation. Opportunities for low-income students to attend university will shrink even further.

The SU is mandated to oppose loans. The issue deserves the full support of our elected sabbatical officers. This affects every student in the most fundamental way. It is not good enough that there was no visible support from the SU leadership at the first major action organised by the anti-fees and loans campaign.

If we are to succeed in defeating loans, the student movement will need a great deal more commitment than has been shown so far. The Students’ Union is the representative body for the entire student community. It has to send a message to all political parties currently canvassing for our votes that student loans is a red-line issue, and we are ready to fight on it.

Grassroots action

We in Students Against Fees are proud to be described as a “grassroots organisation” – that is how we want it to stay. We consider ourselves to be in the tradition of the NCAD Student Action group that successfully won the resignation of their college’s Director last summer. This was an organic, entirely student-driven campaign that highlighted the corrosive effects of austerity and neoliberal policies on our education system.

We do not want to leave all campaigning and organisational responsibility on the doorstep of the SU. Rather, we want to continue organising a campaign from below that will have the unequivocal support of our elected sabbatical officers, who are mandated to oppose fees.

We want as many students as possible to play a leading role in this campaign. The SU should help to facilitate that and demonstrate their determination to stop the introduction of loans. So far this has not been forthcoming.

Trinity is currently in the midst of our annual Sabbatical elections for the SU. If you care about loans, if you care about fees, then make this an election issue. Those asking to lead our SU need to be fully committed opponents of a loans system. If our sabbatical officers are not themselves committed, then they will not be able to provide the leadership and energy to build a campaign – as they are mandated to do. This doesn’t just apply to the position of president – we need a united team of sabbatical officers who will utilise the full power of the SU to campaign as vigorously as possible to stand up for students against the government.

The criticisms raised during the sabbatical election campaign so far highlight some deeper problems in our SU. The Students’ Union is a behemoth of bureaucracy, officialdom and careerist hack culture.

If this is a clichéd line of criticism, then it is only because it points to problems so deep-set and fundamental in student politics, not just in Trinity or even Ireland, but in general. Irish Students’ Unions, however, are so bureaucratic and officer-driven that many students feel very little genuine relation to it as a democratic and collective assembly of the student body. Who can honestly say that the SU effectively expresses and implements the will of students?

The problems in our SU are beyond the scope of one meagre opinion piece, but here it should suffice to say this: we need more of the radical student militancy displayed by NCAD Student Action, which we are trying to recreate in Students Against Fees. This is the perfect antidote to the equilibrium of everyday SU culture.

Real student resistance has to be built at the grassroots level. When our movement wins, it is because of strong organisation, principled commitment to our cause and the mass mobilisation of students themselves. We should not look to the machinations of SU bureaucrats meeting with politicians in Leinster House. We need a democratic campaign of students that will hold our SU to account and refuse to accept the direction in which our education system is travelling.

We can look to an international tradition of student fightback. Students in the University of Amsterdam last year occupied their college in protest against cuts. They established a campaign called the New University calling for the democratisation and decentralisation of education. Their occupation highlighted the aggressive corporatisation of education in the age of neoliberalism. Months later, the baton was picked up by NCAD students. We can also look at the renowned mass student movements in Quebec and Chile that brought hundreds of thousands out on to the streets.

It’s time for us to take our place in the international student movement against austerity and the corporatisation of our universities. With loans on the horizon, Ireland needs a student movement willing to fight. It isn’t going to be handed down to us by the Students’ Union or USI. It needs to be built from the ground up. It will be our responsibility to keep our elected leaders in check and pressure them to carry out their mandate.

Illustration by Sarah Larragy

Rory O'Neill

Rory O'Neill is a former Managing Editor of Trinity News, and a History graduate.