Jul 12, 2017

Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil Opposition Defeat Seanad Motion Calling for Free Education

The defeat is a blow to student activists, who had strongly supported the Labour motion.

Dominic McGrath and Eleanor O'Mahony

The Seanad today voted down a motion calling for the government to reject loan schemes, with Fine Gael and Fianna Fail’s opposition enough to ensure its failure, in what would have been a symbolic victory for the campaign for publicly funded education.

Despite successfully attracting considerable media attention and vocal support from students’ unions across the country, a successful Fine Gael amendment was enough to split the Seanad to ensure the motion’s failure. The final vote saw a majority of the Seanad vote to support the government’s amendment to the motion, removing all mention of a rejection of loan schemes or free education, instead calling for a “consensus” approach to decision-making on a new funding model.

Over the last few days students and students’ unions had rallied behind the motion, which was proposed by Labour Party senators and called for the government to reject an income-contingent loan scheme and introduce publicly funded education.


Going into the vote, it was unclear whether Labour would decide to back Fianna Fáil’s amendment, which had been cautiously welcomed by some some student groups for its scepticism of student loan schemes. However, the party’s senators continued to call for support for their original motion, with only Sinn Féin and a handful of independent senators choosing to side with Labour’s motion.

However, despite Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil opposition to the motion, there seemed to be widespread scepticism of loan schemes. No representative of any party spoke in favour of loan schemes and one Fine Gael senator came out in opposition to loans and in support of free education, while another challenged the idea his party was pro-loans.

These interjections reveal little about Fine Gael policy more generally – the party’s own amendment emphasised the need for “consensus” around the issue – but the scepticism towards student loans will be a boost to student activists after the disappointment of the motion’s defeat.

Mary Mitchell O’Connor, Minister of State with special responsibility for higher education, spoke in the Seanad today. Mitchell O’Connor’s role and the nature of her appointment has been questioned by Fianna Fáil in recent weeks and there has been little indication from the government about what exactly her role will be in the decision on a higher education funding model.

Her comments in the Seanad today, however, seemed to suggest she will play a significant role in the decision on a new funding model and will work closely with the Oireachtas Education and Skills Committee.

Mitchell O’Connor was at pains in her brief speech to make clear that the government has not yet made a decision on a new funding model. Echoing the sentiments that Bruton has expressed over the last 12 months, she said the government wanted a “broad agreement on the most appropriate and sustainable funding model”.

“This is not division. It’s not to be divisive. It’s not to be left-right. It’s not ideological. I want the committee to come back to me”, she said. She too echoed criticism from several senators in Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, who had labelled the Labour motion presumptuous and “disrespectful” to the committee process.

Regardless of the scepticism of loan schemes, the result will be something of a disappointment for student activists – after a year of marching, campaigning and lobbying, only a minority of senators voted for a motion calling for publicly funded education and a rejection of loan schemes.

Even success for Fianna Fáil’s proposed amendment, which contained strong criticism of loan schemes, would also have been seen as something of a victory for student groups. Instead, after much build up, the failure of today’s motions left few tangible results for students to cheer for.

Speaking in the Seanad today, the Labour Party’s Senator Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, said the effects of loan schemes in other countries had been “absolutely devastating”. The UK Labour Party made similar arguments at the last general election, garnering considerable support from young people and reigniting a debate about the value of the UK’s income-contingent loan system.

Ó Ríordáin said he was “slightly disappointed” with the amendments put forward by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. The amendments, he said, were “clinging in whatever way they can to student loans as a means of financing individuals”. And while Labour has something of a chequered history with higher education commitments, as Ó Ríordáin admitted in his Seanad speech, he emphasised the lack of any real commitment to any discussion in Ireland on publicly funded education.

“For some reason the absolutely unquestionable sacred cow in Ireland isn’t equality in health or equality in education, it is the 12.5 per cent corporation tax”, he said.

Speaking to The University Times after the vote, Labour’s Senator Ivana Bacik said she was disappointed, but the debate had still proved useful. “If we didn’t win, we at least set down a marker”, she said.

Both Fianna Fail and Fine Gael senators accused Labour of “populism”, with representatives of both parties in the Seanad criticising a motion they described as premature and disrespectful to the ongoing discussions at the Oireachtas Education and Skills Committee. However, most of this criticism focused more on the timing of the motion, rather than the aspiration for free education.

Bacik said she was surprised at the “vehemence” of the attack on those in support of the original motion from Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.

Fianna Fáil’s amendments to the motion, which was submitted the day before the vote, highlighted the party’s scepticism of loan schemes. However, they failed to commit to any of the solutions that have been put forward by last year’s Cassells Report. Instead, in their amendments, they proposed an expansion of the postgraduate maintenance grant and a general commitment to increase funding to the third-level sector.

Fine Gael’s Senator Maria Byrne called the motion a “populist approach”, questioning where Labour’s “aspirational” motion would get the money to pay for publicly funded education. The party’s amendment, submitted yesterday evening, reiterated the need for “consensus” around the issue.

But while there were some sharp exchanges in the Seanad, there was something of a consensus among the majority of the speakers across all parties – ranging from outright opposition to cautious disquiet, numerous senators questioned the value of loan schemes as a future funding model.

Speaking to The University Times before the vote this evening, Senator Robbie Gallagher, who sits on the Oireachtas Education and Skills Committee, stressed his own concerns about income-contingent loan schemes. However, he refused to say his party opposed loan schemes, referring instead to the ongoing discussion taking place at the education and skills committee.

“We’d be failing in our duty as politicians if we didn’t listen to all opinions”, he said. “When the process is complete we’ll make up our minds on it.” Gallagher also questioned Labour’s decision to bring the motion while the Education and Skills Committee is still discussing the three options set own in the report government’s higher education funding working group, which was published last July.

However, he emphasised his concerns about the impact of a loan scheme and Gallagher said he hadn’t yet been “convinced they’re the panacea to all our problems”.

The Fianna Fáil position on higher education has long been an uncertain one, but in his speech in the Seanad today, Gallagher said his party was considering introducing a voluntary low-interest loan scheme for people from low-income backgrounds, even if they were sceptical about the value of loans more widely. While students’ unions and the USI welcomed their amendment, which was critical of loan schemes, Kerrigan admitted to The University Times yesterday that Fianna Fáil’s proposal fell someway short of what the union had hoped for.

Speaking to The University Times after the vote this evening, Kerrigan said he was encouraged by the wider debate, if disappointed by the vote. “If you were to ask a year ago if we were happy with the debate, we’d have taken it”, he said.

Writing in the The University Times yesterday, Bacik stressed that education “should be free from cradle to grave”. She wrote that she was “concerned” that income-contingent loan schemes would be approved by the government as “a ‘quick fix’ solution”.

Former President of Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) and Independent Senator Lynn Ruane, who supported the motion, told The University Times this morning that the vote was about sending a message to the Fine Gael leadership that opposition to loan schemes enjoys broad support from students.

Kathleen McNamee contributed reporting to this piece.

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