With the failure of last Tuesday’s motion at the council meeting of Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) – a motion which would have mandated the union to oppose the introduction of a government-supported student loan scheme – we, as students, are left in an unthinkable situation. With a government working group widely expected to recommend such a loan scheme alongside an increase in tuition fees, we are represented by a union which has no mandate to do anything about it. Not only does the union not have a mandate to oppose the introduction of a loan scheme but, since 2011, it is also lacking a mandate to oppose an increase in tuition fees of any kind.
A union’s core mission is to represent its members. And a student union’s core mission is, naturally, to represent students. That TCDSU is unable to represent its students on an issue that is going to decide how higher education is funded in this country for many years is, for lack of a better word, preposterous. The vast majority of the problems that have arisen in Irish universities – the ones that students complain about day-to-day – have arisen because of what is known as the higher education funding problem, which itself has arisen as a direct result of the government reducing the funding available to universities since the economic crisis. As such, the report of the higher education working group has the potential to solve very many problems. Unfortunately, the report also has the potential to cause very many problems, given the prevailing narrative in Ireland, in which people acknowledge that education should be free in an “ideal” world, but insist that it is unrealistic to expect it to be a thing here – even though every other EU country besides the UK can do it. Because, if education can’t be free, someone has to pay for it.
It is thus the most important student issue to crop up in quite some time. The next three weeks – before the working group is supposed to report next month – would have been a very crucial time for a strong campaign in opposition to loan schemes and increased tuition fees. And, it’s not every year that we have a president with a national profile – one who has at least some potential to influence policy like this. But now, the union not only misses out on an opportunity to have an impact in this debate, but on fulfilling a very basic aspect of its function.