To find out why USI are doing what they’re doing, I took their advice and visited www.stopfees.ie. I’m about to criticise what that website says, but I’m really not trying to take USI at their worst. USI President, Gary Redmond, told me last week that the ads in the country’s two biggest newspapers had a combined cost of around 17,000 euro. The fact that these ads refer readers to the campaign website, and that the domains usi.ie, tellyourtd.com and stopfees.ie now redirect to the same website, means that they have chosen to spend a lot of your money publicising this website, this campaign material. I think it deserves scrutiny.
Because the “Why We Are Campaigning” section on the website is clearly meant to serve as the justification for the campaign, and the imminent march, it’s what I’ll be focusing my attention on.
Taken for Granted
“The maintenance grant is the main support to help students from disadvantaged backgrounds to get through college.” Later on, USI qualify this statement somewhat: “Admittedly the trickle down effect to the lowest social classes is moving slowly, only 27% of the manual and unskilled classes attend college, but that statistic is a massive improvement on the figure before 1990 and it is growing….”
It’s quite objectionable to refer to any members of Irish society as “the lowest social classes.” But aside from that, their assertion of a “trickle down effect” is completely untrue. Reports published in the last three years by the Higher Education Authority and UCD’s Geary Institute conclusively refute the claim that the introduction of “free fees” in 1995 made higher education more accessible. While places in college have increased by 50% since 1995 (Irish Times), students from working class backgrounds remain massively under-represented at third level, and what incremental increase there has been may be attributed to schemes which provide alternative routes of entry, such as the Trinity Access Programme.
“From research, USI has discovered that since 1995, the pension has increased by 148%, the dole by 146% but the Grant has only increased by 69%. Yet in last year’s Budget, the Pension was not cut, the dole was cut by 4% and the Grant was cut by 5%. It went up the least, and was cut the most.” The mere suggestion that the old age pension and social welfare are comparable to the grant suggests that USI are painfully out of touch with the nation’s priorities. In what world could a maintenance grant for third-level students ever be expected to be treated as important as two of the most essential parts of the social safety net? Further down, it reads “We are campaigning to make sure […] that there are no more cuts inflicted upon the most vulnerable students.” The most vulnerable students are only vulnerable in comparison to the majority of their peers – they are by no means among the most vulnerable people in society. Most students, even those in receipt of the highest maintenance grant are lucky, compared to refugees, the homeless, those in totally inadequate social housing conditions and countless others who do not have a wealthy union to campaign on their behalf. These comparisons aren’t glib – they represent real problems, the importance of which we necessarily demote when we focus the State’s time and resources on our problems.
As Conor Crean noted on the USI Facebook page, “money does have to be made somewhere. Should we cut it from social welfare? health? bearing in mind that these sectors are already being cut, what services are you willing to sacrifice to offer no more increases to the personal cost of education at 3rd level?”
Then begins a section on the USI text called ‘Why Protect Education?’: “The higher education system is one of the few jewels remaining in Ireland’s crown. Let’s not throw it all away.” This recourse to nationalistic imagery is another instance of the scare-mongering tactics used by USI to eek a response out of the student population, in the absence of coherent argumentation. We saw it before, when they re-reported a completely hypothetical change in the Student Contribution to 5,000 euro quoted, from a non-governmental source, in the Irish Independent. As one student, Dale McDermott, commented on the USI Facebook page: “USI, where did you get this pie in the sky figure of €5000.00? Sure we know they could raise any sort of taxation they wanted but it doesn’t mean its going to happen.”
“It is widely recognised that the simplest and most cost-effective way of investing in a healthcare system is to invest in education. A highly educated population is healthier, lives longer and is less of a burden on the highly stretched health system we have over the course of their entire lives.” First, if any form of education improves a nation’s health, it is firstly, primary-level education, secondly, second-level education and, least importantly, third-level education. Secondly, why should the (questionable) long-term health benefits of funding third-level education take precedence over those who are sick now – those who require a higher level of care than is currently available to them because we cannot provide enough nurses or hospital beds?
“Even the presence of graduates of higher education improves the economic prospects and communal wellbeing of an area, from which everyone benefits.” This is presumably (they don’t cite any sources) based on a correlation between the amount of graduates living in an area, and some measure of “communal wellbeing” in that area. However, since the vast majority of university graduates come from well-to-do backgrounds in the first place, there is a myriad of other factors which actually create “communal wellbeing” – one of them being wealth. USI fail to show that third-level education improves wider society, and thus cannot justify their appeal to the nation in their advertisements.
“A ‘graduate tax’ already exists. Over their lifetime, graduates of higher education pay an average of 70% more in income tax than non-graduates, simply because they have better, higher paying jobs than non-graduates. These increased revenues go towards funding everything from hospitals, police, roads, culture and of course education.” Here, USI list third-level education as a public good, comparable to roads and hospitals. Everyone pays for public goods, on the basis that everyone can use them. But in reality, there is nothing like perfect equality of access to education, especially third-level education. Thus, lower income earners are paying for your education every time they’re taxed, whether it’s through buying milk or petrol. Graduates pay more in tax because they earn more money. This is not a graduate tax, it’s just tax. A graduate tax would, however, make a lot of sense, because third-level education is not equally accessible to all, even with free fees (see above); what is accessible to the few should not be paid for by the many, especially those who are suffering the most from current cuts.
A Lack of Alternatives?
Another very important way in which to judge USI’s campaign material is by what it lacks. USI do not propose any realistic alternative to an extension of the Student Contribution and reduction in the grant. In response to student queries on Facebook, USI are saying that the current Governement have ruled out the prospect of a graduate tax or a loan scheme, as a reason that USI are not pursuing those avenues. So what? USI, having branded the same politicians as “LIARS”, should know that they are liable to changing their minds.
When I spoke with Gary Redmond, USI President, recently, he confirmed to my mind that the organisation has not been lobbying for any realistic alternative. He stated that USI were against the Croke Park agreement, and that in line with that opposition, they want to see pay cuts for high-up university academics. As Nicky O’Donnell put it on the USI Facebook page: “Why does the USI does not have clear perspectives or solutions to funding education, other than driving down public sector wages and making cuts elsewhere which also negatively effect student welfare? […] They don’t want the wealthy or big business to pay, nor to they want students and their families to pay, which doesn’t any make sense, because it will inevitably be one or the other.”
The title (and ethos) of USI’s campaign contains two conflicting aims: “Stop Fees, Save the Grant”. As long as an effective grant system is achieved, “free fees” are an unnecessary expense to the already stretched Irish exchequer, because subsidising education for those who can already afford it leaves less money for everyone else. An improved grant could see students who cannot afford third-level education to get the financial aid they need, the cost of which would be offset by wealthier families paying for their child’s college education. Even if you don’t agree with that sentiment, it’s clear that the grant is a higher priority than blanket “free fees” for those who can afford to pay. Students, as with all interest groups, have a limited amount of political capital, and it seems to me that USI is wasting ours by refusing to concede any ground, when they should be focusing on fighting for a massively overhauled grant system to help those who need it. In fact, by purchasing a domain called “stopfees.ie“, and by putting “Stop Fees” before “Save the Grant” in the campaign’s title, USI are giving greater prominence to the part of their campaign which seems to me the most unreasonable.
Creating access to education is not solely a financial issue, as USI paint it to be. There is no point in making university financially accessible when the determining factor – socio-economic background – remains unaddressed. Children from disadvantaged areas are less likely to go to a private school, less likely to have a good student-to-teacher ratio so that they get the attention they need, and less likely to finish or continue their education. In fact, “free fees” doesn’t only fail to solve the problem of social inequality, it arguably makes it worse, as it pulls resources from other social services, and leaves circumstances to dis-improve, while we all get to go to Trinity at a highly discounted rate.
When I spoke to USI President, Gary Redmond recently, he told me that “hundreds of thousands of euro of free publicity” had been generated by the two ads in the Irish Times and Independent. To what end? Was it worth 17,000 euro for Irish universities to tell the nation the disjointed and offensive arguments outlined on the website? Was it worth 2,700 euro (the maximum committed to the ads by TCDSU) which is equivalent to the annual subscriptions of 540 Trinity students? At times like these, we must question the legitimacy of union which appears out of touch with many students, and most of society.
Despite students’ misgivings about the campaign which populate USI’s own Facebook page (some of which are quoted above), USI President, Gary Redmond, claimed in a recent telephone conversation that “reports from across the country are very positive”, and that a greater number of protesters than at last year’s march could be expected this time around.
Trinity and TCDSU
The part our Students’ Union has played in this campaign is important. At the last SU Council, a motion was passed, supporting the “Stop Fees, Save the Grant” campaign and march. A “Town Hall” meeting to find out what Trinity students really think about fees was proposed by Ronan Costello, Communications Officer, and passed at the same meeting of Council, but won’t occur until after the march. This attempt to gauge students’ opinions will come after the most important event in USIs calendar, one which will draw national media attention, making whatever possible consensus is reached almost irrelevant for this academic year.