Students should support the GSU strike

This cynical move by Trinity requires a tough response

Photo by Joe McCallion

The Graduate Students’ Union (GSU) is planning a strike to protest an increase in fees by 5% for postgraduates this coming year. For most of you, that means that you’ll be able to miss a tutorial without the usual sense of guilt.

But the GSU hasn’t just jumped out onto the stage and decided that this should be the action; this decision came about after some lengthy debate amongst the reps, and a town hall meeting to discuss it with an expert panel. It’s not a decision taken lightly, but is the decision that’s left; if we submit a petition, or organise a normal protest, the impact that it will have is next to nil.

Student protests are a common occurrence, and without any sort of functional national framework to coordinate with other postgraduates, a protest would also be very small. A strike is the only way to have a truly notable impact that will actually affect the university and its image. Having all of your post graduate tutors go on strike looks terrible, not just on the national news, but to the broader academic community.

Students considering postgraduate degrees in Trinity are going to see that Trinity has decided to try and squeeze every cent out of students, and that that was responded to with a huge student pushback. A fee rise like this is always only the tip of things to come and there is already substantial financial pressure on students.

Postgraduate education isn’t cheap, but for many people today it’s necessary. 5% may not sound like a lot, but in real terms – 5% of a program that costs thousands of euro – you’re looking at a few hundred quid, which could be a month’s rent or a semester’s food money for a cash strapped postgraduate.

Fee increases aren’t just out of the blue, and the fees we pay aren’t universal; they’ve been increasing by a few percent every year. This year’s 5% hike just happens to be the biggest single step that the University has taken. Which is why this is definitely a good time to push back; it’s the point at which the university has stretched its arm out the most.

Senator Norris warned, “Don’t let the bean counters rule the roost” at the town hall meeting hosted by the GSU, and I have to agree. There ought to be some pushback against this purely financially-motivated decision. This isn’t a decision by academics looking around and saying that they need a 5% increase in fees to be able to do their job properly. This isn’t the government saying you must raise fees by a certain amount, because no one in government has said that. It’s the hierarchy of the university looking at postgraduate students and saying, ‘yes, let’s hit them up for more cash’.

Postgraduate students already pay incredibly high fees; some one year courses cost the same as an entire undergraduate degree and there are many that are more expensive. The universities in Ireland – not just Trinity – have failed to respond in any meaningful way to the financial crisis of 2008, and fees have skyrocketed because increasing them is the easiest option they have to shore up revenue.

When speaking at the town hall meeting, Dr. John Walsh pointed out that the university is applying some baffling logic, in wanting to increase the pay cap for researchers up to a quarter of a million euros while simultaneously pushing students out of the market.

Good researchers don’t just come for money; they need world class students to work with. Beyond that, the university throwing itself out there to attract these researchers is ridiculous; Trinity has world class researchers, and it has the means to make more of them.

What the university needs is to stop exploiting the post graduates that need to stay in academia before they can become these researchers, and actually give them a secure academic future, with a view to getting onto the ladder (incidentally, the work post doctorate students do is another example of the university being exploitative).

This isn’t just financial skullduggery, trying to get every last cent out of people; this is damaging the academic future of the university as a place of learning. It’s pricing out the people who are trying to become the educators and researchers of the future. It’s avaricious to the point of stupidity.

Postgraduate students aren’t going to come to Trinity if they can find something cheaper that’s just as good elsewhere, and this goes double for international students. For those who do come, it’s a lot harder to work well if you don’t know how much money your degree is going to cost next year, and whether you can afford it.

Aside from the effects this would have on the university, there is good reason for us to oppose rises like these in principle. Education is a common good. The idea that higher education is optional is ludicrous, it’s a fallacy put forward by people who are enjoy retweeting clips of Michael Gove, where he says that “Britain has had enough of experts.”

A huge amount of our service-led society is built around specific high level knowledge. However, even if it weren’t, money shouldn’t stop someone from being allowed go into the field that they want. If you’re financially precarious and want to become a researcher or a lecturer, you shouldn’t be stopped because of that.

Financial hurdles in front of people are more than just barriers for the people who are able to get in the door, they’re going to dissuade people from the onset of application. It will move higher education back towards the rarified halls of yore, with only the right kind of people on campus swooshing around in ridiculous cloaks.

Fee rises are always going to do more damage to the weakest in our society, and closing off access to postgraduate education from good students because they can’t afford it is appalling.

Trinity certainly needs a way to shore-up its leaky funding, but targeting students is not the way to do it. It has three senators, which compared to any other university in the world, is unparalleled access to the the halls of government, but the university isn’t using them to lobby to protect and improve the state grants it receives. The future of higher education is looking about as secure as a brief walk into Mordor, but it requires more effort to fix than billing the postgraduates for another 2.5 million in fees.

Don’t target the people that help balance out the workload of your academic staff and pay for the privilege. Don’t make it more expensive to come to study in a country that already has the second-highest fees in the EU. It’s worth noting here that this 5% increase affects non-EU undergraduates as well. They too fall under the category of easily milkable cash cow in the eyes of our university.

But the university isn’t going to come to these conclusions on its own, so the students have to act, not just to protect ourselves, but to protect the people who come after us as well. That’s why I support the decision for the GSU to take a proactive stance. It’s the only decision that they could have made.

Xander Cosgrave is a GSU class rep for Digital Humanities