Protests and Promises: Where we stand in the fight for Free Education

Dave Ryan returns as students are against the ropes in the fight against fees

Now that the dust has well and truly settled on a turbulent year of student activism, we can reflect on what may or may not have changed. The protests of November 3rd, marking the single largest mobilization of students in a generation, succeeded in demonstrating that at least on that day, Irish students would not silently accept any move toward the re-introduction of fees. As the crowds flooded toward Leinster House, a feeling of community existed between swathes of people who had never met before. Whether protesting for their own education, or that of the generations that will follow them, this was a fight they were ready for. Which is exceptional, given that it’s hard for us to even psyche ourselves up for a 10 o’clock lecture.

The re-introduction of fees was stalled one year longer, during which time Fianna Fáil took an electoral beating so bad that it almost passed the point of Schadenfreude. Almost. In its place stands a Fine Gael-Labour coalition, whose first budget draws ever closer. With signs of a faint heartbeat in the Irish economy, how afraid should we be about the return of fees?

In theory, we should be very relaxed about it. After all, we supposedly have the Labour Party fighting in our corner now. In a statement released on March 20 2009 by the now-Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn (and available for your viewing pleasure on the Labour Party website), he said

‘It is becoming clearer by the day that Education Minister Batt O’Keeffe is hell-bent on reintroducing third level tuition fees and Labour will fight tooth and nail to oppose any such proposals.’

What begun as tooth and nail became a whimper and a sigh, as over the last few months we have seen a multitude of news stories noting a long period of indecision in government over the future of free education, followed by a swing very much in the wrong direction in August. As Aidan Rowe, Observer contributor, noted at the time in an article on FEE’s website,

‘In mid-August, Labour Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn announced both further increases to the “registration fee”, which currently stands at €2000, and the return of tuition fees, which will be payable at point-of-entry. Coupled with the massive cuts already sustained to the grants system, this will make it prohibitively expensive for many students to enter and complete third-level education, and impose a substantial financial burden on those that do and their families, who have already been hit with successive waves of austerity, job losses, wage cuts etc.’

I know what you’re thinking. ‘Stop the presses,’ I hear you cry sarcastically, ‘A politician broke a promise?’. Firstly, I commend you on your sarcasm. Secondly, the point of bringing this up is that it should have caught absolutely nobody by surprise. The USI held a publicity stunt for Ruairi Quinn making his pre-election pledge on behalf of his party to fight the good fight against fees. (Anyone that’s about to complain that it wasn’t a publicity stunt, I’d like to point out THE CONTRACT WAS THE SIZE OF A SMALL CHILD. IT WAS A PUBLICITY STUNT.) At the time, USI President Gary Redmond was quoted (on USI’s website) as saying ‘USI is delighted that the Labour Party has signed our pledge not to re-introduce third level fees if they form part of the next Government. For Many students and parents, this brings enormous relief as students will not be forced to leave college with huge debt, and their families will not have to foot large financial bills for their Higher Education’. Well phew, bullet dodged.

Of course the pledge was never going to be kept. Political parties sole objective isn’t to avoid hurting people’s feelings, it’s to win elections. One could argue that USI’s willingness to participate in this pledge made some students think everything was going to be okay if they voted for the Labour Party. Though I am not saying by any means that this was intentional on the part of USI or Redmond himself, the fact remains that the body of people that represents students as a whole had been used as an electioneering tool. We cannot for one second allow all this to be excused away by what Aidan Rowe referred to as ‘naive idealism crushed by economic reality’. Idealist politics in Ireland has been dead for quite some time and have no place in economic discourse, those who ignore realism in such matters are not fit to govern. Furthermore, holding an economics degree myself, I can tell you it does not take being elected to public office for the penny to drop on how bad the Irish economy really is. A half decent Leaving Cert economics student could give you a fairly good picture. And it is not as if the economy has contracted much further since the election. In fact, export-oriented growth figures are starting to suggest a faint pulse at last.

So here we are, on the edge once more. A Government nudging closer to the re-introduction of fees, with a budget coming in a couple of months. So what do we do now? The first important step is a dawning moment of realism for USI. As i pointed out in an early episode of Radio Free Maynooth, Gary Redmond’s re-election speech saw him celebrate a fight against fees that would go down in the history books. In fact, Gary’s first reign saw one of the biggest cuts to Ireland’s education budget in the history of the State, including a 33% increase to student fees. At a time where students need a strong leader to unite behind, students have a man who would not acknowledge the shortcomings of his own administration. His second reign needs to be unrelenting and realistic. Once the Government had weathered the storm of November 3rd, the USI demonstrations against cuts began to fade. The state needs to be conditioned that students won’t just accept cuts after they’ve had a bit of a whinge about it. Another day is coming where the yellow t-shirts will flood the streets of Dublin once more, but will we actually commit to following up on it this time? To their credit, FEE have been keeping the debate going, but they do not have the same level of public visibility as the USI do, so there’s only so much can be achieved. Interestingly, the same USI president who would not stand behind the students who stormed the Dept. Of Finance, made what can only be described as a comical attempt to scale the fence of the Customs House. In a thread on asking whether the USI is ‘completely beyond redemption’, one poster suggested that students are going to have to organise protests independent of the USI to achieve anything worthwhile.

In an article on FEE’s website, Nicky O’ Donnell pointed out the failings of the USI.

‘The USI (Union of Students in Ireland) are coming under increased pressure to come up with an effective campaign to defeat the fee increases. For 15 years they have struggled and failed to prevent continued attacks on their members and this will continue. The reality is that our Union is not particularly interested in fighting against fees. In fact in their recent lobby document presented to the Oireachtas they didn’t even mention the 33% fee increase imposed on their members. Don’t be fooled by the protest march which happens almost every year and the government expects. Don’t be fooled by speeches and photo stunts conducted by the USI leadership, or by wasteful letter writing to TDs. This is not going to work and it never has but it’s the best the USI can come up with.’

I want Gary Redmond to come to us. I want Gary to use up some of that membership fee we pay him to go to every single affiliated college and speak, and more importantly, hear from the students he represents. He needs to answer the criticisms people have aimed at him if we are to take him seriously, and he needs to do something, anything, to inject fresh ideas into a predictable cycle of letter-writing and publicity stunts.

In October, USI intends to take the Government to court over the grants adjacency issue. I do not expect this last-ditch attempt to forestall changes to the grants system to yield any miraculous result, and we should not by any means wait with our fingers crosses for the court case to conclude. What we need is awareness and mobilization. Share this article, share other articles, write your own article, share your ideas, tell a friend, even write a tweet for fuck sake. The problem isn’t going to fix itself: something needs to be done, and it’s up to all of us.

-Dave Ryan

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2 thoughts on “Protests and Promises: Where we stand in the fight for Free Education

  1. You’re dead right, everyone is being too complacent about this, lead the charge and I’ll follow, albeit on my zimmerframe – a mature student 🙂

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