Nov 1, 2011

USI call government liars in national newspaper ad

Ronan Costello

The Union of Students in Ireland has launched their national campaign against a fee increase and grant cuts by taking out a full page ad in The Irish Times and The Irish Independent. The ad calls coalition government TDs liars for reneging on promises made during the general election. The ad also lists the contact details for all government TDs and urges students and their parents to voice their objection to any budget proposals that would limit access to third level education.

The ad notes that the current Minister for Education, Ruairí Quinn, signed a pledge on behalf of the Labour party during the general election campaign earlier this year, promising to oppose and campaign against any new form of fees and any increase to the student contribution (the registration fee). The Minister also pledged to protect the higher level maintenance grant from “any and all cuts”. The ad also states that Fine Gael made similar promises during the general election campaign.

USI have used this tactic before when, in August 2009, it bought a full page ad in a national newspaper which outed all government TDs who were pro-fees. The ad gained considerable national coverage as well as local coverage in each TD’s constituency. A media agency hired by USI estimated the free media attention received following the publication of the ad to be worth over €200,000. The ad published in today’s newspapers is strongly worded in a deliberate effort to generate similar publicity.


The publication of this attack on the government comes as USI look to kick-start a national campaign called “Stop Fees, Save the Grant”. Unlike last year’s “Education not Emigration” campaign, this year’s effort has come together rather hastily. With a national march planned for Wednesday November 16, students’ unions around the country are expected to drum up support from their members in a significantly shorter time period than was afforded to them last year, when a date had been set for the November 3 march before many colleges had their orientation weeks. This is of particular concern to TCDSU, as Trinity students have a reading week beginning Monday November 7. Thus, in effect, Trinity’s student union has only five lecture days in which to promote the march.

Another aspect of the national campaign which has come under scrutiny in this newspaper and in our UCD counterpart The College Tribune is how USI have latched onto the notion that the registration fee might be raised to €5,000. The figure came from an article in the Irish Independent by Kim Bielenberg who has since admitted that the figure was “hypothetical”, with the source quoted as a “senior university manager”, not a government official.

In an interview with The University Times, USI Deputy President Colm Murphy previously said that the figure was “being tossed around” but was “not to be used as a scare tactic”. However, UCDSU have since advertised a town hall meeting on fee increases by stating that a rise to €5,000 is being threatened by the coalition parties.

While USI may have employed the €5,000 figure rather hastily and without properly checking its source, it is significant that when government officials were asked if they could rule out an increase to €5,000 in the student contribution, they refused to do so. All they would say was that any increase being talked about was less than the £9,000 imposed on UK students last year.

Further strengthening the case of those who say that a steep fee increase is ahead, the Hunt report, published in January of this year, said that annual funding of the higher education sector must increase by €500m per year, from €1.3bn to €1.8bn, by 2020. The HEA are scheduled to deliver a review on this proposal to the Minister before the budget is finalised. The Minister has ruled out the introduction of a student loan scheme and a graduate tax scheme. Thus, in order to raise the money needed to meet the Hunt report’s recommendations, the government would have to increase upfront fees by a considerable amount.

Currently there are an estimated 225,000 third level students in Ireland. If the student registration fee were to be doubled by €2,000 to €4,000 then the government would see an increase of €450m in higher level funding. However, over 40% of third level students pay none or only part of the registration fee, depending on their situation. Since the Minister has ruled out all options bar an increase in upfront fees, the maths suggest that any further increases over the next few years will have to be significant if the recommendations of the Hunt and IMF reports are to be met.

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