Why we need Students Against Fees

Sean Egan, chair of Students Against Fees, argues that students need to mobilise to offer a real challenge to the introduction of student loans


“Has posing nicely in the press shots of politicians, building CVs and passing well-meaning motions with little promise of meaningful struggle loosened the financial noose around Irish students’ necks?”

Students against Fees (SAF) was created in response to a failure emblematic of the state of Irish student politics. Last year a group of conservative students spoke in favour of student loans at a Student Union council meeting and managed to win a vote, defeating a proposal that would see the SU mandated to oppose the introduction of student fees on principle. SAF formed to correct this sorry state of affairs.

It took rapid mobilisation, but after a string of public meetings, and a number of impassioned contributions at the next council meeting, the vote was overturned: the SU adopted an anti-loans stance. However, the lapse of judgement raised deeper questions about the condition of student representation. Has a strategy of lobbying and hand-wringing in the face of fee hikes and slashed education budgets worked? Has posing nicely in the press shots of politicians, building CVs and passing well-meaning motions with little promise of meaningful struggle loosened the financial noose around Irish students’ necks?

Students against Fees exists to promote an activist response to successive governments’ war on higher education based on grassroots democracy, mass mobilisation. It must be recognised that free third level education is not only a budgetary possibility but also a social right to be won by popular struggle. Frederick Douglass said: “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” And we have several demands central to the fight for a truly accessible educational system. Fees as they stand —  hiked considerably during the Fine Gael-Labour coalition — are unsustainable. 3,000 is an incredible burden in a society where half of adults earn less than 28,500 a year.

The SUSI grant has been defunded to the point where it only serves a fraction of those who struggle to deal with the many costs of university education; it is not adequate to defend equal access to education. Free, publicly funded education is the first meaningful step towards addressing the affordability crisis higher education. This must be combined with the restoration of funding to SUSI so it can assist students who struggle to afford the secondary costs of university attendance. This assistance must also be returned to postgraduate students. The means-testing process of the SUSI grand is arduous, arbitrary and not in keeping with the economic realities of 2016; it needs thorough re-examination in consultation with affected students. To understand the struggle of SUSI grant recipients, try speaking to one. They make up just 7% of Trinity’s student body. Clench your fists in rage as you listen to people’s stories of crawling over shards of bureaucratic glass to access the meagre support offered. Working class students are already struggling to access and remain in university; without free fees and a reliable, humane grants system this problem will only worsen.

The problem with loans

“It is a transparent attempt to undermine education as a social right to be funded through progressive taxation.”

More concerning still is the potential introduction of student loans. Income-contingent loan schemes are presented as a magic bullet: they’ll sidestep the problems of the third level funding crisis, mitigate our reliance on a disorganised grants system and reduce the need for students to work difficult amounts of hours during term time in order to fund their studies. Unfortunately, none of this is true. The primary purpose of student loans is as political cover for rapid, uncompromising fee hikes. Fee hikes that endanger the educations of most Irish students. We only need look at the chilling example in Britain where fees tripled overnight.

The Irish Business and Employers Confederation (Ibec) and the Irish Universities Association have come out in favour of student loans. It is a transparent attempt to undermine education as a social right to be funded through progressive taxation. The model is feasible but the university authorities and the Fine Gael government lack the political will. In the context of savage cuts to essential social supports, widening inequality and deprivation in Irish society we must make a clear choice between a punitive, hyper-commodified educational system like England and the US — or a free fees model enjoyed by students in Scotland, Germany or many other European countries.

Student issues

“Free education can be ours, and students can play a leading role in the struggle for a more just and Ireland — but only if we’re willing to fight.”

Students are also embroiled in the waking nightmare that is the Irish housing crisis. Dublin rents are higher than they were at the height of the boom and unscrupulous landlords, unhampered by tenant protection laws, are terrorising and extorting large swathes of people. Students are living in squalid conditions for unaffordable prices with little security of tenure. The SU’s accommodation services, while admirably assisting people in individual cases, can not affect change for the majority of student renters. We need to fight for the rapid provision of affordable, quality student housing by the College authorities as well as engaging with the broader movement for rent control and social housing provision by the state. The government must provide meaningful solutions to the failures of the market driven approach to housing. Housing is a vital student issue and there needs to be mobilisation around the right to decent housing on every campus across Ireland.

Students against Fees want to highlight and campaign on campus level issues that undermine accessibility for a broad range of students. The lengthy delays at campus medical services, including the counselling centre, undermine the benefits subsidised health care brings to students. In the immediate term; students should be reimbursed for private medical expenses accrued because of extensive waiting times at campus facilities, and in general more funding is needed to provide robust care for all students. College can be incredibly emotionally demanding and without quality, accessible access to mental health professionals, students’ emotional well-being and academic performance are in jeopardy.

We also want to address the abject lack of defined student spaces. Dublin is an expensive city and without student spaces it becomes very difficult to inhabit without spending an unaffordable amount of money. This lack of student space is related to the corporate colonisation of our campus. We don’t need a Blackstone Launchpad or a Bank of Ireland Youth-Innovator of the Future’ space; we need a space to eat, talk and casually exist on campus.

We need to defend the schools in the Arts and Social Science faculties from chronic underfunding by an administration that explicitly focuses resources on more profitable sectors of the college. Part of seeing education as a social right is the mission to democratise the production and administration of information in a just way. Research should be shaped by public interest and academic freedom — not profitability. We need to ensure that our College pays each and every one of its employees a living wage. The growth of low-paid, precarious work in the academic sector threatens the graduate market and undermines the ability of low income students to pursue academic careers.

The use of the exploitative Jobsbridge scheme by the college is disgraceful. Any attempt by the college to use further unpaid internship schemes needs to be opposed by mass action by students and academics as it threatens our standards and conditions in the interest of maximising profit. These demands are ambitious, precisely as an antidote to the limited thinking and pathological passivity of the USI. We face many challenges in our mission to democratise Irish higher education. This government, abetted by university authorities, seems hell-bent on the commodification of education at any social price.

The student movement needs to learn from the unprecedented progressive mobilisation seen over the last few years. The water movement mobilised hundreds of thousands of people and brought together a broad political coalition that stopped the government in its tracks. The pro-choice movement’s confrontation with the most reactionary elements of Irish society isn’t delicate or conciliatory — it’s large, loud and militant and won’t be satisfied with empty promises or vague rhetoric. Join Students against Fees as we take student struggle to the streets and squares of every campus in every city, starting in Trinity. Free education can be ours, and students can play a leading role in the struggle for a more just and Ireland — but only if we’re willing to fight.