Preferendum is the wrong approach to tackling fees

The preferendum points to deeper political and structural problems for TCDSU and College generally

Photo Credit: Sarah Meehan/ Trinity News

Students going to the polls to vote in this year’s sabbatical elections will be asked to vote in a non-binding preferendum with not one, two or three – but five options. Students are being asked what stance the Students’ Union (SU) should adopt about the introduction of modular billing and supplemental exam fees. The five options range from outright opposition to complete support.

Even well informed students will struggle to understand exactly what they are being asked, given that it’d take a paragraph just to list the possible options for the preferendum. Beyond this, some of the options seem frankly bizarre – such as option five, which would see the SU endorsing new fees and nothing else. What’s more, it’s rather damning that there is only one campaign (in favour of option two) out of the five options.

It was a smart strategic move of College to bundle the introduction of modular billing in with another attempt to introduce supplemental fees, something they’ve tried before in recent years but backed down from in the face of student opposition. Modular billing is clearly a positive step forward that will end the financially punishing ‘all or nothing’ approach we’ve had until now, whereas students already faced down the introduction of supplemental fees in 2014/2015.

Without the ability to increase undergraduate annual fees to raise income, College has long adopted a dual policy of creeping commercialisation and incremental fee increases. Since the deepening of the third level funding crisis, we’ve already seen increases in commencement fees and application fees for prospective postgraduate and non-EU students, along with the introduction of a €75 fee for diploma or certificate ceremonies.

Alongside these fee increases, the Commercial Revenue Unit (CRU) has spearheaded ever greater efforts to raise private funding from corporate interests. These piecemeal efforts have seen scattered, but ultimately limited, pushback from students. This sends a clear message to College management that, so long as they move slowly, they can introduce substantial fee increases over the course of a few years.

It remains unclear exactly why this preferendum is being held. Students have opposed increases in annual fees and the introduction of new fees repeatedly over the years – surely the Student’s Union could have just adopted the common sense stance of opposing supplemental fees and dealt with modular billing as the separate issue that it is. Whatever the result of the preferendum, it seems highly unlikely to have any effect. College are already committed to the introduction of both modular billing and supplemental fees – the idea that they’d reverse course due to a non-binding preferendum is naive. We need serious student action.

If they were to have been successfully opposed on either proposal, it would have required substantial resistance by TCDSU and students more broadly, starting months ago. By the time the preferendum result is in, there will be six weeks of term time proper left, in which students will already be busy with exam preparation or dissertations. Not exactly fertile territory to build a campaign.

The reality is that the current structures of the SU have proven to be vulnerable to the tactics used by the College administration. Sabbatical and part time officers plan and act in months, while College works in years. This is compounded by the extent to which the Students’ Union has been integrated into the governance structures of College.

It’s true that most important decisions are made at the various committees and at board, all of which have sabbatical officers sitting on them. But these bodies only meet a few times each year, so while college administrators will sit on dozens of meetings over many years, student representatives have barely settled in before being replaced.

Even when certain efforts are defeated, like supplemental fees were before, College can simply wait a few years until that crop of students and SU officers are gone and make another go at introducing them.

This isn’t to say that the sabbatical and part time officers are to blame – they often work very hard within the limits of the system they have inherited. But if we truly want to oppose steady, slow, but unending fee increases and commercialisation, it would require the kind of campaign TCDSU hasn’t engaged in for years, if not decades. We need a radical, multi-year and grassroots campaign that’d put pressure on College from outside the committee system as well as within it.

Such a campaign would need to aim not only at the limited goal of opposing individual efforts to increase fees, but a wholesale rethinking of what kind of college students want Trinity to be. An accessible college that all students can attend, without fear of constant extra fees on top of already substantial annual fees? Or one in which every student, including those from low income brackets and on SUSI grants, are slapped with hundreds of euros in fees over the course of their degree?

It’s become very clear in the last eight years that we are rapidly moving towards the latter. Fees and charges have been increased across the board in literally every area that College is capable of raising them, from postgraduate fees to one-off charges. If the Students’ Union is going to successfully fight for an equal-opportunities university that puts education above profit, it’ll need a radically different approach that engages students rather than leaving them baffled and apathetic – which unfortunately, is exactly what this Preferendum does.  

Oisin Vince Coulter

Oisin was Editor for the 63rd volume of Trinity News. He is a Philosophy and Classical Civilisations graduate.