We need to be smart in fighting supplemental fees

We need to argue well and hit the College where it hurts

Every time I hear someone say they don’t have to explain why supplemental fees are bad, I get a little annoyed.

I get annoyed because it suggests to me not just a dismissal of the glaring deficit College has, and not just an uncompromising attitude that is far easier to hold than a commitment to protracted negotiations. It also suggests that the only issues Trinity’s students should care about are the ones that stare them in the face.

To be clear, there is no justification for the fees which the College is introducing, and there are good many reasons for opposing them, which I will unashamedly say are not based on the principle that supplemental fees are wrong in general. To win this argument we need to articulate our case clearly and persuasively.

Here is my attempt to do so. These fees are being charged at a per exam, rather than per module basis, immediately impacting students who rely on non-continuous assessment more than those who do not, thereby adding increased financial barriers to struggling students in certain courses.

Additionally, college is committed to reducing the level of examination assessment faced by students, which implies that if they aim to use these fees as a means of funding modular billing, they may be placed in a position where they can no longer meet that cost and argue for other forms of charges.

Moreover, the idea that Trinity is the only university which has no supplemental fees and thus has to fall in line with other third level institutions is farcical and delusory. If this is truly what the Board believes, then they should (quite literally) put their money where their mouth is and scrap commencement fees. We are the only major third level institution in Ireland to have them, and so by the College’s logic they are unconscionable.

With the removal of limit of 40% on supplemental exam grades as part of Trinity Education Project (TEP), students who are willing and can afford to face the opportunity cost of a repeat exam to get a better grade can do so, an opportunity more disadvantaged students won’t have.

If you are thinking that seems like an unlevelling of the playing field, you would be right. That unlevelling is real in Trinity, and that isn’t the only change in TEP that students should find concerning. Hence my annoyance at the simplicity of rhetoric surrounding fees.

Another example of this unlevelling is the case of students who have failed their exams and have to repeat the year. Currently, a number of these students who cannot afford their fees are offered the option to go “off books”; This option is one which means effectively that instead of having to go through another year of lectures and paying the rate of fees, they instead can take the year out and resit the exam at the end of the year, tuition-free.

The College is seriously considering removing this option, the result of which is likely to be that students who qualify for not just the 100% grant rate, but the special rate, are expected to pay for the repeat – as well as rent, utilities and living expenses without any state aid whatsoever.

The logic of this move has been justified by a litany of officials from every corner of College as a means of retaining students who do not return to Trinity to sit that exam again. This, of course, makes complete sense for Trinity as they clearly face the ultimatum of forcing students who can afford to repeat to do so and forcing those who can’t to drop out. There is no option instead of presenting both options and advice to them at what would be a reduced rate thanks to modular billing and allowing them to make an informed choice on their own.

These issues are ones which I have raised with many individuals, changes which, like many I have noticed and raised in the past, have only landed on deaf ears. If the college chooses to go ahead with them, these changes will result in students being forced to drop out of their degree.

These changes are fundamentally classist, and add to the many pre-existing structural barriers to students who are struggling with their education. Worse still, the changes which are being introduced adversely harm the poorest students in the university the most, to the benefit of those whose financial position is much better.

If, as the rhetoric suggests, this fight is one Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) wants to win outright, total war is the only option available when faced with the pressure of the college and its deficit. It is one that also must be targeted.

Walking out of lecture theatres might make the lecturer blink, but at the end of the day for admin staff, that just means there is one less lecture where they need to worry about overcrowding. Disrupting the Book of Kells exhibition might stress out some exploited Noonan Security draft-ins or some of the last full time security staff the College has left, but, as I have no doubt Tom Molloy would tell any national press: “The College is running at a deficit and relies on attractions such as these to curb that deficit, a deficit which means we require these fees in the first place.”
Finding every buried outrage that threatens the college’s reputation; building every roadblock to the pet projects that the Board has, whether practical or legal – to threaten the reputation of college; and, if the board is as unreceptive to the concerns of its students as it appears they are, calling for them to either work with us on the issue of higher education or get out of the way, is the only route that will achieve that attention.

The challenge TCDSU poses to these fees has to be targeted, concise and most importantly of all, it needs to make the right people blink. The best way to do that is to not look at these fees in isolation, but treat these fees as the tipping point they are, and a line which if the College threatens to trudge over come what may, there will indeed be no turning back.