In his first Observer article, FEE’s Nicky O’ Donnell explains the aims and views of the organisation.
FEE is a grassroots student activist group that has been campaigning against the neo-liberalisation of education for a number of years. From its beginnings in UCD, FEE has expanded to include other colleges including Trinity and Maynooth, but has also reached out as far as NUI Galway, IT Tralee and Queens University, Belfast. Membership of FEE is open to both staff and students in every level of the education system..
As the name suggests, we do not believe that students should be paying fees in any form for their education up to and including 3rd level. Instead, this should be funded through a fair and progressive central taxation system which Ireland does not currently have. Grant payments and student supports also need to be increased to reflect the cost of living and ensure mature students are able to remain in or return to 3rd level. We are opposed to the commercialisation of education in any form, particularly when it comes to the €80 million in subsidies the government gives to private schools each year, the exploitation of international students with exorbitant fees, and the privatisation of our campuses such as canteens and printing facilities.
Just to illustrate one of many reasons why a complete scrappage of 3rd level fees is the minimum students should be calling for; this week the government paid 700 million Euro to anonymous unsecured bondholders. This would cover 3rd level fees for every student in the country liable for the registration charge for more than three years.
From FEE’s perspective, the logical solution to the problem of public funding is to tax the rich and big business more. Instead, the government is forcing students and people on the lowest incomes to pay for a crisis created by bankers, speculative property developers and rich elites who continue to profit. Just 1% of the Irish population now own 34% of the country’s wealth. Last year the 300 richest Irish individuals earned €6.7 Billion Euro and we even saw an increase of 5% in the number of millionaires and billionaires living in Ireland. Clearly, the gap between rich and poor is widening.
We understand that achieving free education in this country is an incredibly difficult task and one thing is certain: the government will not be lobbied into submission. Lobbying has been the USI’s primary focus over the last five years where we’ve seen fees rise by 121% and the grant torn to shreds. Furthermore, the union effectively sold out by supporting a “freeze” of the current level of €2,000 fees in their latest lobby document. For this reason, their newest slogan “Stop Fees” is deliberately ambiguous, as it doesn’t necessarily mean calling for the existing student contribution to be abolished.
It has been suggested by the USI that FEE is nothing more than a direct action group. This is nonsense. Yes, we agree with direct action, occupations and blockades, but we have very different perspectives in relation to what students should be demanding from the government. If those perspectives were adopted by the Union, we would stand a far greater chance of preventing this death-by-a-thousand-cuts which the establishment is intent on forcing upon students. Instead, the USI leadership have presented “solutions” that would be worthy of any apologist from the parties implementing the cuts effecting their own members. While the USI continues to ignore FEE’s concerns all they
have been able to achieve are backward steps.
In a recent radio debate with Gary Redmond, I outlined an alternative to the USI lobbying policy: the mass movement of students for strike action and why it would be more effective. Redmond sat paralysed without an answer, and in almost forty minutes of radio failed to present a differing strategy to defeat fees. It should be very obvious at this point, that as long as we obediently continue to attend classes and protest outside of college hours, the government are free to ignore our demands. If a trade union fighting against attacks on working conditions asked their members to clock in from 9-5 and then protest outside of working hours, what pressure would their employers come under? The obvious answer is: none whatsoever, but this is what the USI are suggesting will be effective.
Last year the union claimed that lobbying of the Green Party was effective in preventing fees rising to €3,000, but fees still increased by 33% and the grant was dramatically reduced. We cannot continue to claim backwards steps as moral victories and a government that is locked into a program of cuts handed down to it from the EU/IMF/ECB troika cannot simply be negotiated with. In the next budget another increase in the financial burden placed on students is inevitable whether it be a fee increase, a reduction in the Back to Education Allowance or some other austerity measure that will impact on student welfare.
All FEE can do in the mean time is engage with students, patiently argue for our alternatives and hope to win over a majority of support. Until students understand the scale of the problem and more importantly, the scale of the response needed to defeat fees and grant cuts, then we are doomed to follow the UK in seeing the reintroduction of full 3rd level fees.
Nicky O’Donnell, Free Education for Everyone (FEE).
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