The last month has been a turning point in Trinity, and perhaps student politics nationally. Undergraduate, international, and postgraduate students united to undertake the most radical student action in over a decade, successfully winning on all our demands.
After years of debate and lobbying, Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) has adopted a position in favour of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) on Israel. Although close, a referendum on whether students should be able to opt out of TCDSU failed. These three matters cannot be divorced from one another, as they point to a deeper politicisation of the student body.
For the last two decades, if not more, it’s been a truism to describe students as politically apathetic. This characterisation stood in stark contrast to the earlier stereotype of the student radical, widespread from the 1960s to the 1980s but falling into decline after that.
Since then there has been endless student newspaper editorials and opinion pieces lamenting the lack of engagement among students, that in the face of increasing fees and privatisation, resistance was generally scattered and lacklustre.
But since the financial crisis a decade ago, there have been green shoots that hint at a new wave of student activism that could place our issues on the national political agenda.
Starting with Free Education for Everyone (FEE) in the late 2000s, and followed on by campaigns for marriage equality, Repeal, BDS and against direct provision, student activism has grown substantially in strength.
Take Back Trinity was built on the back of these developments, as students who had cut their teeth on a variety of campaigns came together with people who’d never been involved before as a large, grassroots movement.
It was this combination of activists, students’ union full and part-time officers and people new to political action that brought College to the negotiating table and won in the space of four weeks.
This movement doesn’t end here, something illustrated by a conversation I had with a member of the movement who noted with bemusement that a month ago they had never taken part in anything political before at all.
Now, they’ve actively organised and taken part in demonstrations and an occupation. An entire layer of students have experienced direct action and seen that it can deliver real results.
More concretely, the question is – what next? Of course, as a democratic and grassroots movement it will be up to the movement itself to set the direction going forward. But suggestions for the future have already started to be discussed.
Foremost amongst these is the question of structure. Large, open assemblies are ideal for giving everyone in a large movement like Take Back Trinity the ability to contribute and make decisions together, but over the longer term they can understandably start to diminish in size as people choose other time commitments.
Perhaps even more important a question than its structure is that of its purpose and goals. Take Back Trinity has successfully seen off supplemental exam fees, ensured fee certainty for postgraduate and non-EU students and seems to have killed a proposed accommodation increase.
But Trinity hasn’t been “taken back” – there is nothing stopping the College administration from coming back with further fee increases next year. This university, indeed almost all universities, functions in a profoundly anti-democratic fashion. Students and staff have very little say in an institution at the centre of their lives for years or decades.
I believe that we need root and branch reform of our governance structures to ensure that students, academic staff, and non-academic staff all have a say in how Trinity runs, to avoid situations like this happening again, and move our community forward in partnership. This should start with the removal of the agency of the Finance Committee, which would allow the Board to overrule their decisions.
Of course, the problems faced by our College community go further than purely fee increases. As was seen during the Dining Hall occupation, our non-academic staff have faced growing outsourcing to private companies in everything from security to cleaning.
College has avoided a pitched battle on this issue by allowing retirements to reduce numbers, and replacing those retired staff with outsourced ones.
This race to the bottom approach, to promote precarious employment, extends to academic staff and postgraduate workers. It now regularly takes years for academics to have any kind of job security, kept on temporary contracts and lacking tenure.
At the same time, cash-strapped departments rely on PhD students to maintain teaching. These postgraduate workers face extremely variable pay and conditions and lack collective bargaining power. In most western European countries, postgraduate workers are recognised as workers with fair pay and benefits.
Of course, most of these problems have their roots in the continued starvation of higher-level institutions of public funding, a situation that has existed for years.
This is despite the Cassells Report on third-level funding having been finished years ago, with two governments sitting on it and avoiding making a decision. The clear, best option for students and staff is funding option one of the Cassell’s Report: no loans, no fees, and guaranteed income from tax.
Forcing the government to finally make a decision and adopt this will require a national campaign, drawing in grassroots student movements, students’ unions, staff unions, and universities themselves. A tall order, but given our successes in the past month, an achievable goal.
As GSU President, I plan to pursue recognition by College of postgraduate workers as workers, and work towards the association of the Graduate Students’ Union with a national trade union. I also hope to help Take Back Trinity host a summer school to facilitate both discussions of ongoing goals and to bring in veteran activists to share their experiences.
We cannot underestimate how far we have come in such a short period of time. Going into next year, there is a healthier student movement in Trinity than at any point in the last decade.
We cannot afford to lose this opportunity. We must take the campaign national, broaden our appeal, and continue on fighting for a democratic education, open to all, regardless of their background.
Oisin Vince Coulter is President-elect of the Graduate Students’ Union.