On October 8th 2015, 6,000 people marched in Dublin to call attention the public good of education on a national scale. The event was widely covered by the media, and saw students, trade union leaders and academics march together in solidarity, calling on the government to support the strong message they were sending: do not make any cuts to education in the upcoming budget. Then-President of the Union of Students in Ireland (USI), Laura Harmon, told the crowd that “we gather and campaign and argue because education matters”.
Traditionally, USI’s National Day of action takes the form of this national protest. However, this year the decision has been made to replace such a march with a a national day of voter registration in a move that, frankly, seems bizarre. The national march represented a unique opportunity for students, students’ unions at both second and third level, trade unions and teachers’ unions to march together under one unified message – a position which USI leaders had been fighting to place the organisation in for years.
We have seen that, when executed correctly, the national march allows USI to spread a particular message in a very public way.
USI’s “Education Is” campaign, launched in 2014, aims to highlight how education serves a public good. The national march forms a key part of this message: it focuses student energy onto a set cause in advance of the budget, garnering national media attention and bringing students from all over the country, and across the border, together for the only time in the year. We have seen that, when executed correctly, the national march allows USI to spread a particular message in a very public way. It focuses student political capital in a very real way, and reminds students exactly what they should expect from their government with regards to their education. A voter registration campaign, in a year following huge efforts to get as many students registered as possible, simply does not have the same impact.
In their proposal to change the nature of the national day of action, USI notes that, prior to the voter registration drives undertaken in the run up to the marriage equality referendum, polls showed that only 30 per cent of students were not registered to vote. In the run-up to the referendum, over 27,000 students were registered to vote in USI-affiliated colleges. Students were already offered so many opportunities to register in advance of one of the biggest issues of our generation that it’s difficult to imagine there are many students who didn’t register then who would jump at the chance to vote in a general election.
This point is not changed by the fact that freshers would not yet be registered. TCDSU conducted a straw poll over five days last year during Freshers’ Week in order to gauge how many students were registered, and found that almost 65 per cent of those students had already registered. The timing of this poll was deliberate: the aim was to target freshers who would be the least likely to have registered, many of which would have just reached voting age. Yet the proportion of students already registered was higher than most estimates.
It’s not that further efforts would be completely redundant, nor that USI should disengage from the registration process entirely. Of course, many students will be unregistered and any and all efforts to register them are welcome.
USI has an obligation to direct that newfound political capital towards something concrete, rather than registering a handful more students.
But it remains wholly unclear as to why such efforts should necessitate a national day of action that takes the place of a central, nationalised protest. Their proposal is to register students to vote over the course of a month, followed by a final day of national voter registration. After more than a month of efforts to register students, USI has an obligation to direct that newfound political capital towards something concrete, rather than registering a handful more students. The annual protest was certainly not always a success, but entirely rejecting the idea of a centralised day of action that brings student together under one banner is a mistake.
USI is not taking charge in terms of directing their newly-acquired political influence, even that which they gained last year. The organisation’s stated intention is to have the branding of the national campaign deliberately consistent, with the aim of “having a consistent and identifiable brand and message”. Their message, however, is currently identifiable to the average student. Voting is a means to an end and, with a general election just months away, USI would do well to better define what that end is.