The fees battleground: A stage for student radicalism

“An effectively militant student movement will approach the struggle against fees in the broader context of discrimination against young people”

Credit: Sarah Larragy


“Education is not a private commodity but a social good”

Since the introduction of the student contribution charge in 2009, annual student fees have increased by 333% to €3,000. This pales in comparison to the meteoric increase witnessed since 2001, when fees stood at €396. The increasing cost to students and their families to attend university is alienating, but one which provides the seeds for potential resistance.

Undermining the naiveté of the students union and the USI

“This is a crisis situation for students and the USI is unforgivably sitting on its hands”

TCDSU narrowly defeated the motion to oppose student loans in November 2015, primarily citing fears that appearing too militant would make the government reluctant to negotiate with students, and that we didn’t know what the Cassells report would suggest. The inability to identify student loans as a Trojan Horse for fee hikes betrays the history of student debt introduction worldwide. This is brought home by recent revelations that students in the UK will no longer have their fees capped at £ 9,000; after they were trebled in 2011. The trend follows that once student fees are financed by banks it will be easier to raise them. Similarly to how mortgage markets were inflated — state funding is cut and incentives to financial institutions are provided.

This calamity in student politics was countered by an upsurge in anti-fees organisation. Uniting under the banner of Students Against Fees (SAF), the grassroots-organisation quickly organised itself and tabled the motion for another vote. At the next council vote, the motion to oppose student fees was near-unanimously passed.  The Phoenix and other media outlets cited SAF as being extremely influential in shaping USI President Annie Hoey’s approach to the fees crisis this year.  USI now campaigns explicitly for publicly funded higher education, having taken more moderate, reformist lines in the past. Their calls for a €500 decrease in the Student Contribution Charge at last year’s budget is an example of uninspiring moderacy.  On a more local level, during this year’s sabbatical officer elections, current officers that had originally voted against the ‘No student loans’ motion at council, signed a commitment to support SAF and its principles.


 What does this teach us about the politics of students’ unions and the USI?

“Austerity has been a harsh and sadistic act of fiscal bloodletting; especially for young people, especially for students”

These institutions will react to placate an angered constituency. Sparse bromides are not a hopeful indicator of leadership, it highlights the need for a student-led grassroots movement to push forward and organise for progressive goals. This is not to say that Annie Hoey, USI president, isn’t convincing or sincere in her opposition to student fees. Indeed, her speech was emotive and strong on the march in October of this year as she addressed a 10,000 strong crowd, declaring education a fundamental right.

However, USI’s rhetoric requires follow-up action and a constant vigilance from the constituency they represent. It is easy to wax revolutionary rhetoric to a crowd of students, but challenging the government face-to-face and dealing with the ire of the establishment is a completely different beast.  This directed ire is best seen in the recent statement made by IUA, the body of Irish university presidents, supporting “a mixed funding system involving the exchequer, students and employers as the best way to deliver a high quality, sustainable higher education system”. As of this article going to print, there has been no USI response to IUA’s statement despite the fact student unions all have open lines of communication with their respective university presidents.

This is a crisis situation for students and the USI is unforgivably sitting on its hands, making us vulnerable when we need to be active, loud, and organised. In concrete terms, the USI, through its annual budgetary submissions has called only for a €500 reduction in the contribution charge along with demands for restoration of pre-austerity funding. These are inadequate demands and display a lack of political vision, echoing the classic union line of trying not to appear too militant.

These developments are wholly uninspiring and ultimately disempowering for students. Paid union officials are divorced from the material nightmare that fee increases represent to many working class students who depend heavily on their SUSI grant to put them through college.  An effectively militant student movement will approach the struggle against fees in the broader context of discrimination against young people. Students face a wide gamut of  discriminatory practices by the government not only confined to the university campus. The dole for under 25s is capped at €144 per week and unpaid internships prevent all but the most advantaged of graduates achieve work experience.

 Students need a movement that can congeal around broader ideas that are relevant to lived experiences of the most marginalised. Ours is the generation of ‘Repeal’ and the marriage equality referendum, a generation that will confront the deeply conservative and patriarchal mores that have been hegemonic on the island. Like the student revolts in the 60s across Europe and America, our demands for equality are racially, sexually, gender, and class-based. Such a movement can’t afford to tip-toe through bureaucratic channels long established by careerists in the USI to obfuscate and sanitise what is to the working- class clear attacks from the state.

 Only struggle is rewarded. Austerity has been a harsh and sadistic act of fiscal bloodletting; especially for young people, especially for students.

Chronology of the fight against fees, trinity and beyond

“An effectively militant student movement will approach the struggle against fees in the broader context of discrimination against young people”

We have seen a move from a progressive, tax based model where citizens and businesses paid for the education of young people to a regressive, neoliberal model where students are left heavily burdened by individual debts. This shift has been accompanied by a dramatic decline in young people’s standards of living. The loan models we are being told to support fail to be cost-effective (see Australia and the UK) but this evidence is ignored nonetheless. We are told that for cost reasons, it is not tenable for the state to foot the bill for us, we must take personal responsibility for our own education. This neoliberal ideology serves to alienate students and enforces the idea that we are individual customers in a market place.

Education is not a private commodity but a social good. One which yields teachers, doctors, engineers, philosophers, and social workers. After completing a degree a person contributes to a society in a combination of cultural, social, and economic ways. This social good should be a fundamental right, and therefore paid for progressively by those most able to do so. In placing the responsibility on the individual to pay for their education, a false consciousness is created whereby we believe our education is a personal good that exists in isolation from the web of life we inhabit. The material deprivation created by increased fees and mountains of debt erodes a civic sense of shared destiny and adversely affects mental health.

In tandem, these developments atomise an already demoralised demographic; continuing down this road will bring untold economic and social devastation. This devastation will manifest itself overwhelmingly in working-class and rural areas, areas with long memories, areas from where every social revolution in history has emerged. Emigration will see the most tragic of Irish traditions continue to sap youth from our country’s veins. Ireland is very rich when it comes to picking up the tabs of multinational corporations and reckless gamblers, but positively impoverished when it comes to investing in the spiritual, educational, and cultural enrichment of its people.

On the 28th of September 2008, the largest per capita bank bailout in the history of the world took place behind closed doors in the Shelbourne. The costs of covering these onerous gambling debts measured €60 billion. There was no accountability for what would lead to the economic devastation of the Irish nation. NAMA, a reservoir of toxic assets, the absolved sins of the Irish finance class, has been following the government’s lead in how it deals with its students’ futures and applying it to its own assets. Vast property portfolios are flogged off under private agreements to vulture funds, costing the exchequer untold millions in revenue. The state has no qualms with parting with valuable revenue, the question is simply for whom will they act. At the moment, with no history of a militant student movement, we will be told that publicly funded university is too expensive.The state is cumbersome and meddling when it’s providing healthcare, housing, and heating for people; but it is necessary and indeed innovative when it comes to managing the affairs of the capitalist class.

Austerity has seen the vertical transfer of wealth in Irish society, the class responsible for the economic catastrophe being the main benefactors. Students, workers, and young people have borne the brunt of this austerity and the facts tell us the morality play behind this austerity is unjust. In the 6 counties too, fees are treble that of the South due to characteristically cruel Tory belt-tightening. The ideology fuelling this relentless barrage is not economically sound, it is spiritually bankrupt. Publicly funded education isn’t just possible it’s a necessary demand for young people on this Island

Will loans improve access?

“We are accustomed to vacuous rhetoric from our paid representatives, as they polish their CVs and break bread in Leinster house”

The idea that loans will improve access to education is an oversimplified one. In the absence of proper funding, grants, and educational welfare benefits, loans can provide the material access to universities. However this has a multi-pronged effect insofar as it can affect the type of student that decides to take out a loan and what subject they will study. Despite promises of debt relief, the prospect of €20,000 waiting for you upon graduation is terrifying. These loans will not be provided by the state but by the government’s nearest and dearest constituents, the banking institutions.

Loans companies from US and UK have also recently registered at Dublin castle. This pre-emptive move is to get a jump on the emerging market, formerly known as university students. By failing to support students, the financial opportunity to exploit us emerges. This has been noted in US venture capitalist Mark Stevens’, whose fund Future Finance made a fortune in Google shares in the 90s, recent interest in the Irish student finance market.

A darker, more nihilistic, side of global capitalism was exposed to us in the wake of the 2008 crash. Not only do Stevens and his ilk make money when loans perform, but with the aid of indulging insurance firms they can hedge bets against a loan performing well in the form of credit default swaps. This saw mortgages with terrible real credit ratings, NINJAs (no income no job no assets) being rated AAA and bet against by investment banks. This is also known as fraud and if you or I partook in this scale of criminality we would still be in jail for our actions. Fortunes were made, the economy crashed, and there was no accountability and no meaningful reforms. The entry of these financial bandits into the ‘student market’ should be treated with suspicion as their number one priority is making profits, not providing citizens with education.

Large companies like this don’t make rash decisions, they are risk averse. This move has undoubtedly been calculated by risk analysts, and a cursory glance at the history of the Irish state would say they backed a favourite when it comes to being accommodated for financial debauchery.

In sum, the threat presented by student loans is very real. The failings of the current system are also evident in the dissatisfaction felt by students country wide. USI and unions should tap into and enthuse its student base but ultimately the change must come from below. Students should make ambitious demands for free-fees, affordable accommodation, and robust investment. We need something worth fighting for. Looking at the protest movements in Quebec, Chile, and South Africa it is clear that a groundswell of activity can yield massive victories for students. The lack of history in the Irish student movement shouldn’t deter us from forging paths towards an equitable and radical goal. Crumbs from the table will no longer do, we want the whole damn pie.

Co-written by Eoin Ó Murchú and Conor Reddy.