USI held demonstration today outside Leinster House calling for the abolition of student fees

USI asked students around the country to get involved with the demonstration online or by phone in order to comply with public health restrictions

A restricted and socially distanced demonstration calling for the abolition of student fees was held by the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) outside the Kildare Street gates of Leinster House today at 11am.

Students were not asked to attend the demonstration in-person due to the current public health restrictions.

Instead, online campaigns encouraged students to tweet their TDs with the hashtag #EducationForAll, and the slogan “we need a publicly funded system, not a student funded system”.

The demonstration was part of USI’s Education For All campaign which aims to reform the funding of higher education on the island of Ireland, and end the €3,000 student contribution charge on Irish undergraduates.  This charge is currently the highest in Europe.

USI officers and Students’ Union representatives from several universities across the country attended, such as National University of Ireland Galway Students’ Union (NUIGSU). 

Speaking to Trinity News ahead of the demonstration, USI Vice President for Campaigns, Craig McHugh called for reform of the higher education funding model. He said higher education “should be adequately funded by the exchequer” and should not “rely on students’ ability to pay or an institution’s ability to make cutbacks”. 

USI’s Education For All campaign has also involved several online actions. Over 200 students attended a virtual protest in March of this year. During this protest, the Twitter hashtag #EducationForAll was trending at number one in Ireland.

Several speakers at the event in March, such as Ellen Fearon, the president of National Union of Students-Union of Students in Ireland (NUS USI), said that students are treated like “cash cows” by the government and called for Minister of Higher and Further Education, Innovation and Research Simon Harris, to reform the current funding model.

USI’s campaign calls for a series of domestic policy reforms that would result in publicly funded education and student accommodation, along with the reform of student supports and improved working conditions for academic staff.

USI has provided a ‘pledge’ for representatives of Government to sign as a mark of their support for the reforms. Thus far, 19 TDs have signed, including President of Sinn Féin Mary Lou McDonald, and Leader of the Green Party and Minister for Transport, Climate, Environment, and Communications, Eamon Ryan.

Speaking to Trinity News following the demonstration, USI VP Craig McHugh described today’s protest as “not a one-day campaign” but a “year-long campaign” with “an incredible response from students throughout the year”.

“We have been calling for the abolition of the student contribution charge for the past 9 months, and today was the first opportunity where we could organise a socially distanced demonstration with student leaders from across the country outside of the Dáil calling for the abolition of the student contribution charge in Ireland, which is the highest in the EU”.

McHugh said there were student representatives from across the country, including Galway, Sligo, Maynooth and Dublin.

USI expects a response from the Government in the “next few weeks”. Their message for the government following today’s demonstration is the need for a publicly funded model for higher education. 

“We’re waiting on Minister Harris to respond to our call and we hope that he does, and that he responds positively and actually takes action on it because it has been long-delayed, the Cassells Report was in 2016 which outlined what needed to be done but yet the government have calmed down the road”. 

Additionally, McHugh spoke of the importance of public investment in higher education.

“We can afford to invest and we should invest in our future and in our society, because for every one euro that goes into higher education, four euro comes out into the wider economy”. 

With regards to the impact of Covid-19 on USI’s Education For All campaign and their ability to protest in the last year, McHugh described it as an “interesting year to try and campaign on”.

“Typically we would try to bring students together at least once a year, in terms of calling on the government to take action around funding higher education, but we haven’t been able to do that in the last year because of Covid restrictions, of which we wanted to follow and have done throughout the year”. 

McHugh called the campaign “effective” and is “pretty satisfied” with how it has fared considering the circumstances. He added that it was “brilliant that students have engaged throughout the year and lobbied TDs”.

McHugh continued to say “You can bring hundreds of students to a protest and that shows how much support there is, but the real solution would be when we actually get what’s needed, i.e. the abolition of student contribution charge, changes to higher education funding, better student supports, and further development of student accommodation”.

McHugh remarked that if Covid-19 had not happened, “a really urgent conversation should have been had on the future of funding Irish higher education” because of the “dire need of public financing”.

“It has been a year and a half since the last general election where a number of political parties said that they would take action on higher education funding, yet a new department has been set up and no significant action has been taken”.

This article was updated at 18.19 on 31 May to include a comment from the USI Vice President for Campaigns, Craig McHugh.

Bella Salerno

Bella Salerno is a staff writer for Trinity News