Tyler McNally gives us a report and some snaps from last weeks special congress on the funding of 3rd level education.
Last week, over 180 delegates from Students’ Unions all over Ireland attended the Union of Students in Ireland’s (USI) Special Congress, called during it’s last national conference to decide the USI’s position on how Third Level education should be funded, which was held in UCDSU.
In the run up to this Special Congress, a preferendum was held online at www.usivote.com on which, USI members could vote for whatever option out of the five available they believed to be the right one, then provided the turnout was quorate these results would give individual SUs a mandate on how delegations vote.
This is where things get interesting, to those who were following the debacle; what was called the USI’s “historic” first step in engaging with grassroots members will now be noted down as a complete farce with the vote being held in the middle of the exam period, when many campuses are closed (as was the case with NUIG) and more controversially, no provision for students from the North (who are studying in the North) to have their say. This was down to system used being an archive for Southern based students, this said… No provision was ever made for students in the North, apart from being allowed to vote at USI Special Congress.
With such a controversial backdrop to one of the most important gatherings of the USI in it’s history, this was always going to be a high tension affair and it didn’t disappoint. After Congress officially started (and I was eventually recognised as Student Media….and finally after that given permission to photograph the event) with an opening address from out going President Gary Redmond who slammed opposition to the preferendum as hypocrites saying “[Opposition] that has always complained that we in the USI never reach out to our Grassroots, well now we have, and after today we will listen”
Redmond’s speech was followed by a supporter of each of the six options delegates had to vote for; Full Exhequer funding, 100% Upfront Fees, Graduate Tax,Student Registration Fee, Student Loan Scheme and None of the above. Turns out no one at the Congress was insane enough to argue for 100% student fees so only four had an introduction speech from a supporting delegate. (No one spoke for Student Loans either)
First up was NUI Maynooth’s incoming President Seamus Reynolds, speaking for Full Exchequer Funding. He started off by slating the preferendum vote as ridiculous and undemocratic and pointed to an attempt by a select few to change the funding stance to “suit themselves and the political parties they are members of” which received a split response from the crowd. Continuing his charismatic speech with a mere 30 seconds to go, Seamus made the point that education as a right, ought to be free and paid for by the exchequer.
This was followed by UCDSU President Pat De Brun who rather surprising (something he later said himself) spoke in support of a Student Registration Fee. Surprising because De Brun is a well reowned supporter of the Graduate Tax. He went on to explain his decision to support the Student Registration Fee was down to a “commitment to the mandate given to [Pat] by the students of UCD” and that he and his fellow delegates were committed to representing the views of the wider UCDSU membership, even to the cost of their own.
Next up was NUIG’s Education Officer Conchuir MacDara O’hEalai who was speaking in support of ‘None of the above’ and reiterated some of what Seamus Reynolds had said earlier in regards to the preferendum being a shambles stating that only 9,000 students, which is 5% of USI membership voted which in his opinion, was not enough to form a mandate.
USI Deputy President Colm Murphy spoke in defence of the Graduate Tax stating that “The USI has two aims in education, quality and equity of access. The quality of Irish Degrees is slipping which means your Bachelors, your Honours, your Doctorate, you Post-Doctorate isn’t worth squat in the international Graduate Job Market.” He went on further to say that “Education is not free, it costs money” and that delegates shouldn’t allow themselves to be “caught up in Ideological arguments” this comment caused a round of laughter from a number of delegates with Steering re-iterating the need for decorum in congress.
After each speaker had spoken, there was a move made to shorten debate and bring everything forward by voting on a 9A motion which brings the vote forward thus shortening debate. The 9A motion passed by a narrow margin, upon which all 18 NUIG Delegates and 4 out of the ten strong QUB delegation staged a walkout in protest of the lack of debate being had over what was going to be a pivotal decision for the USI. NUIG wanted to put forward a 9B motion which would have called off the vote which if the USI decided it wanted to, could be held later at a time that let’s say, doesn’t clash with exams or eat into the summer break when very few students are still around, October sounded good.
With a slightly smaller Congress still in session, the options that were to be voted on later in a secret ballot were open to having a speaker for and a speaker against to inform Congress. All previous speakers wavered their chance to speak in favour for other delegates, most notably was Seamus Reynold’s to allow USI Welfare Officer Scott Ahern speak in favour of Full Exchequer funding, who went on to give a rather touching commemoration to his mother who was once a TD who voted for Free Education when it was first brought in during the 1990′s.
With speeches over, Congress was adjourned for voting. Only three delegates were allowed into the voting room at any one time so the vote was an arduous affair for the 180 strong delegation and if you thought the drama ended with the walkout, you guessed wrong. Tensions flared when UCC delegates, who had to take a photograph of their ballot to prove they stuck to their mandate were stopped from doing as such by Steering. UCD devised a scheme to ensure mandates were adhered to that was referred to by some as the ‘Buddy Scheme’; UCD delegates had to vote in pairs and show each other their first preference before voting.
Votes where counted surprisingly quickly and at 5:45pm the result was announced to around 40 people, the faithful who had not yet left home for their respective campuses. on the first count, Full Exchequer was in the lead with 90 votes with Registration Fee coming up second with a very close 80. Graduate Tax received 9 votes and some loon gave 100% upfront fees a vote. With transfers Fully Exchequer funded made it past the quota line to see itself remain the policy of the USI, this was met with a standing ovation from many of the few of us remaining in the hall.
Congress was closed by a speech from Gary Redmond, who said “This has been a landmark day for USI. Over the past week students from across the country have had an opportunity to have their say on this very important issue and have decided that USI should continue to campaign for ‘free fees’.” The last word was had by incoming USI President John Logue who welcomed the result saying “it’s time for the entire membership of USI to unite behind this mandate.
-Words and photographs supplied by Tyler McNally. More of his snaps can be found here.
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