“For the past two and a half weeks Maynooth students have begun to learn just how powerful and meaningful their input into society can be. For too long we have been a soft target, and now thousands of us will stand together and say ‘no more.’ The impact of a dramatically increased registration fee, a reduced grant and severe impacts on the student aid fund will be simply devastating, and Maynooth’s students have found the purpose and direction to use their voice.”–Aengus Ó Maoláin, MSU President
Amidst the wind, rain and discarded firework casings, it turned out to be an enjoyable Monday for me. Upon my return to Observer Towers I was pleased to learn that my letterbox had survived the pyromanical tendencies of explosion-loving youths. No bills or angry letters from An Post meant a good morning was in store. A few cups of tea, coffee and some assorted biscuits later I was ready to roll and preview both of Wednesdays student demonstrations: The USI-led “ National Student March” in Dublin, and some lad from Trinity’s “National Go To College Day” which is to be held in a University or I.T near you. While I have often been praised and loathed (often the latter, if I’m honest) for my sometimes crass and bombastic views, I will leave the sarcasm and bile at the metaphorical door and give both fair dues……..for as long as i can.
Before getting into the meat of the issue on a national scale, let us take a look at the last two months on the political goings-on in NUI Maynooth. We had barely gotten back to Maynooth ourselves when the first protest of the year arrived with a bang, or a lack thereof. The MSU’s highly promoted ‘snubbing’ of Mary Hanafin gained much debate and attention beforehand but on the day of the protest was an utter let down(Reports from the day can be seen on our Twitter). Instead of student solidarity against a Government minister, we had a clash between the left (S.U) and far left (FEE among others) of the University on the issue of a noisy protest and the planned silent one. In short it was a let down for both the S.U and those affiliated with the FEE network. It must also be said that Hanafin did well in her dealing with the issue. The petty in-fighting on the day did far more damage and exposed many of the differences between both groups. In the aftermath of the event, we contacted numerous parties involved but unfortunately received no statements. I suppose the less said about it the better…..
While most of us spent last week at home enjoying the break, last Friday saw a group numbering 20 or so protesters braving the holidays, rain and early morning to welcome Tánaiste and Education Minister Mary Coughlan. The protest, dropping the trappings of the ill-fated snubbing was received well and included FEE, members of the S.U, and others. Minister Coughlan visited the NUIM Library where she was to ironically announce funding for the development of the new University Library due to open in 2012. Built to deal with the rapidly expanding number of students now attending the University, the funding and development is well welcomed and long overdue. Nevertheless, whether or not there will be enough students able to enjoy the facilities in a few years time will remain to be seen.
These events act as an interesting prelude and build up to Maynooth’s involvement in this Wednesday’s march. While many politically active students found the Hanafin fiasco quite disheartening, the recent build up to the USI-led National Student March has given a new found vigour to both the S.U and groups such as FEE (who over the last few weeks have linked their various branches throughout the Universities to lead a Left Bloc at the march). Many members of the NUIM Exec have been seen promoting the march in recent weeks and those interested in going should find them in the Arts Block in bright yellow t-shirts. Bus to and from protest as well as USI shirt for €5.
So what is this march about? Is it just about fighting fees and protecting the grant or is it a part of a much wider problem, that we, not just as students, but as young Irish men and women are facing? The debate on fees has always been looming in the air. Those that defend it as a right not a privilege and those that say we should forget it as a dream of a spoiled generation and accept what the Government are trying to do to ‘fix’ this country. More cynical people tend to see the money given to students being wasted in pubs and clubs around the country every week. The only reason students are now getting angry is the threat to their ‘good time’. I always found this excuse of the waster student as a poor excuse to make cuts to which is a much bigger problem. As a social group, students make for a unique one. Second only to the unemployed as a demographic we have, to a certain extent, been insulated from the brunt of this crisis. We still manage to have a good time and try our best to make the best of what is being described as a rather draconian situation. But now, on the 3rd of November, students are planning to march in their thousands.
The march entitled “Education Not Emigration” clearly puts forward the theme that USI and the participating Students’ Unions (including non-member universities) are selling to its members. The proposed budget on December 7th is feared to be the worst yet. Among these cuts include drastic cuts in all tiers of education. The statistics and projections that USI are using are as follows. The registration fee, which students pay towards student services will be increased by 100% to €3,000. Up to 49% of this can be redirected to other areas of the University with only a slight majority actually going to these services which give weight to the existence of the practice of ‘backdoor fees’. This allows the Government to cut back further on its spending on Irish Universities. In light of this, the announcement of €20 million for NUIM’s new Library is clearly a case of giving with one hand and taking with the other by the current Government. The grant, which has been a life line to many students is to receive even more restrictions. A possible 10% cut to maintenance grant payments is predicted. Further still, the threshold of which students can receive the grant is being increased so those that barely qualify will no longer be eligible to any assistance. Postgraduate students will also be targeted with proposed increases to their fees which will surely affect graduating students’ ability to continue their education and increasing their skills and therefore chance of employment.
For USI, these cuts will result in one thing: mass youth unemployment and a new wave of emigration. With an unemployment rate at already 13.7%, this will surely increase as students unable to fund their education will be forced to join the ranks of the unemployed. Those already graduated and unable to afford postgraduate education will also be added to this increasing Government spending, as soon as it limits it in education. No matter how many ways one attempts to address it, the logical explanation seems to be that there is no logical explanation. Instead of trying to limit spending to the country’s potentially most valuable asset, Government policy must be geared towards equipping its citizens with the opportunities to help this economy recover. The ‘Smart Economy’ which this Government geared towards not so long ago is seemingly becoming a forgotten dream and with it bringing down a generation who stood to benefit and contribute to it the most. These are the points that marchers will be highlighting as they grace the streets of Dublin and hoping the Government will listen too.
In my research, I came across an event page called “National Go To College Day” which encourages students to forget the silliness of student activism as a lost cause and to just get on with it. While its creator and supporters claim to not support fees but a system fairer and reasonable for the current situation, it is apparent that what they are suggesting will not curb this increase in unemployment or benefit state finances or its citizens in any substantial way. For me, as neutral as I am trying to be, this is a step too far. By not marching the students of Ireland stand to be stood upon for the rest of their lives. If we say nothing now, it will be taken that we will say nothing when we are unemployed and social welfare cuts are increased further. As students we have a unique opportunity to voice concerns that not only concern us, but concern those in every facet of society. Education is a vital component to the growth of our economy and the betterment of our society. While changes do need to be made, my hope for this march is for the Government to see that slashing education is not the quick fix money-saver it seems to be. It is an investment which will give returns over time and to hinder it now will surely stagnate the economy for decades. Investment is needed in research and development and education which are necessary in times of recession. Subsequent job creation will have a knock on effect to those currently unemployed.
The importance of this march stretches further than education. We are the children of both public and private sector workers, both of which will be effected by the oncoming budget. While the Government has for the most part successfully pitted the two sectors against each other for its own gain, us Students provide the link between the two and could potentially be providing these sectors with a skilled and talented workforce in years to come. Wednesday may see students taking the lead in a wider movement empowering instead of breaking the people of this country. Now is the time to stand united as it is now when we have the most to lose. For those of you heading out on Wednesday, March loud, March proud and make a difference.
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