In his debut for the Irish Student Left Online Garrett Mullan adds to the ongoing debate about USI citing his own experiences of Students’ Unions in both England and Ireland. This piece is reposted from Garret’s own blog over here.
In 1999, two years after tuition fees had been introduced in Britain. I stood with a slate of candidates on a platform that we would use the student union resources to campaign against tuition fees. I had already been campaigning against their introduction since before they were introduced by the Labour government.
My opposition was a group of students, who I can’t remember their campaign name but their t-shirts were pink. They did not mention fees in their material. They promised better gigs, a better students union building (the only way you could improve the building would be to knock it down – as it was constructed in the 1960s) and that was it. They beat me three to one.
I was the last year to benefit from free fees in the UK. To do that course now, and the course was Sociology, would cost £9,000 sterling a year.
There is a problem with democracy today. As for the Irish student union movement. Ever since the 1990s and probably before, the only debate has been about individual college unions disaffiliating from USI.
Before going to university in Newcastle, I did a 2 year course at Ballyfermot Senior College. I built a campaign for PLC (Post Leaving Certificate) grants for students. There was an anomaly in that while the FE (Further Education) sector attracted more students from working class backgrounds, they were denied third level grants because the Department of Education regarded the students as second level.
Colm Keaveney TD was a ‘leading light’ in USI at the time, but the campaign was firmly outside the bounds of USI. They allowed me to do a bit of printing of leaflets but no more than that.
I led a march to then Minister for Education Niamh Breathnach TD’s constituency office and was due to meet her but she was outraged that they were protesting outside. There were 300 students from Dun Laoghaire College of Further Education, Sallynoggin College and others outside chanting. She refused to engage in discussion but proceeded to lecture me that they only thing she could conclude was that she would introduce a civics course to teach young people how to engage in politics.
I received a letter from Micheal Martin TD offering his assistance to the campaign. As opposition spokesman he put down a motion to the Dail proposing the introduction of grants for third level students. While the motion was defeated by the Fine Gael/ Labour coalition, Micheal Martin TD did introduce grants for PLC Further Education students in 1997 when he was Minister for Education.
Grants to the PLC students arguably had a far greater impact at promoting equal access to third level education than the abolition of fees. Why Fianna Fail had not rectified the anomaly earlier is another question.
USI, to this day have limited interaction with the FE sector, this amounts to a tokenistic attempt at solidarity by claiming to represent their interests. They have an annual ‘letting off the steam’ protest in November but fail to consistently advocate in the interests of students.
The same could be said about the trade unions, at least a large section of them. It took Joe Higgins TD and activists in the Socialist Party to highlight the scandal of the GAMA slave labour scandal, while the sleeping bearded giants of SIPTU and ICTU rested.
Here remains the unanswered question to the person standing ambiguously on the sidelines of Irish politics. I want to change the world but how?