A revival of student activism

Stacey Wrenn discusses the revival of student activism following the proposal of income-contingent student loans


On the 3 November 2010, almost 40,000 students marched from Parnell Square to the Government Buildings on Merrion Street in what The Irish Times described as “the largest student protest for a generation”. It was organised  by the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) in reaction to a proposed increase in student contribution levies and the growing number of graduate emigrating further afield for opportunities unavailable to them at home. What began as a peaceful protest ended in violence; students were kicked and trampled by Gardaí on horseback, who were called in following the occupation of the Department of Finance by a number of students which culminated in a sit-down protest. The president of the USI at the time, Gary Redmond, blamed the protest’s escalation  on “left-wing groups”, were found by some to be divisive and therefore deleterious to the movement.

With the release of the Cassells Report in July, the government has indicated the various options it is considering to tackle the issue of third-level funding, including: cutting the funding of the Student Universal Support Ireland (SUSI) grant; an increase in student contribution; the introduction of a “loan” system making third-level education free at point of entry to be paid back when the student is working. The report fails to inspire hope in those who depend on the SUSI grant, or those whose families may earn more than the income threshold but who are struggling to cover the cost of education. This, along with a rocky election and post-election period , has created the perfect environment for the revival of grassroots, student activism.  

Students Against Fees

Students Against Fees (SAF) is a student-led group established in November 2015 after a motion to oppose student loans was defeated in the TCDSU Council. In December, the group brought their motion opposing loans and an increase in fees before the SU Council, and have been emphasising the need for on-the-ground action ever since. They supported the Teacher’s Union of Ireland strike last February by marching en masse to the various DIT locations before finally returning to Front Square.

Proving that there are other forms of protest than just marching in the street, the group carried out a banner drop from House 6 facing College Green as the official commemorations of the 1916 Rising and RTÉ cameramen passed by (pictured above).  The banner declared ”Education Shall be Free” with a starry plough hanging at its side, echoing the sentiments of the organisers of the Rising whose voices SAF members felt were ignored during the commemorations. The group stated in an announcement posted on Facebook  “The real spirit of 1916 lies with those committed to transforming society for the better,” further making their case for a need for stronger student activism on campus.

The group was aided last year by the support of the SU president, Lynn Ruane. Current president Kieran McNulty is expected to follow suit, being an active member of the group himself. The movement has one with a steering committee but largely a ‘one person, one vote’ attitude. It was agreed last year that while they would support any actions carried out by the SU in accordance with their aims, they would remain an independent body.

Failing System

Assuming that a student has qualified for the full SUSI grant this year, their student contribution is entirely covered and they receive €336.11 each month as a maintenance grant. A survey of available accommodation posted on the TCDSU Accommodation Support Facebook page this summer, however, reveals the average cost of an advertised room to be around €500. The maintenance amount has not increased to match the rise in rents since the recession and so has become as outdated as the SUSI website.

In a university with the country’s lowest percentage of new applicants on grants –  24% in 2015 in comparison to the national average of 34% – it is important that all students regardless of economic standing are aware of the hardships that an increase in fees would cause for their classmates. The government is considering proposals to raise student contribution to between €4000 and €5000, which would leave students with a debt of €20,000 plus interest upon their graduation. There is no guarantee that the SUSI grant would cover this increase, nor is there a guarantee of a fixed interest rate for the proposed loan system.

It was announced in the 2017 Budget that there would be an investment of €36.5m in third-level education, less than a third of what the USI proposed as a minimum amount in their pre-budget statement in September. Third level education is already underfunded; this is evident when one compares the rankings of Irish universities with those of other European countries. A boost in funding may improve Ireland’s standing in these universal rankings, but students should not be the ones who pay for this. They are not the ones responsible for the decline in standards. They are the victims of austerity measures implemented by the Fine Gael-Labour coalition, and a call must be made for these measures to be completely revoked.

Going Forward

Today’s national demonstration, organised by the USI, is calling for further investment from the state in third level education and for a decision to be finally made on the Cassells Report. The SU appears to have become more organised than in previous years; materials were provided for placards in the SU Kitchen the Monday prior to the demonstration and an impressive level of communication with college management was made on the issue.

In an email sent out to all students last week, McNulty told students that the Board of Trinity College have given permission for students to attend the rally. Further, the Board “will ask lecturers to reschedule” lectures taking place during the demonstration, with McNulty later confirming that notes will be provided. Students from across the country will be represented, with free buses running for those who are not based in Dublin – such as one arranged by Limerick School of Art & Design.   

Some might argue that the general tone of student activism may have changed in recent years, for better or for worse, from fighting riot police to fighting expulsion, but it still remains a crucial experience which determines our future level of political engagement. Students who witness obvious mistreatment but no critical opposition may fulfill the stereotype of the disenchanted youth and abstain from taking such action themselves, thus allowing the cruel cycle to continue.

The lesson to be learned from the 2010 protest is that the fight doesn’t end when the rally concludes and the Trinity Ents after-party begins, but rather that the struggle for an end to wealth discrimination is ongoing, and each student will have to raise their voice in order to be heard.

Stacy Wrenn

Stacy Wrenn is a staff writer and a Senior Sophister Jewish and Islamic Civilisations student.