Comment & Analysis
Oct 7, 2017

In the Years Ahead, Student Activists Need to Stay Mobilised and Engaged

Philip McGuinness argues that Irish students must look beyond repeal or once-a-year marches and work for sustained change.

Philip McGuinnessSenior Editor
Ivan Rakhmanin for The University Times

Much has been made of the growth in student activism in Ireland over the last number of years as students have rallied behind a number of different causes, most notably the repeal campaign. The Union of Students in Ireland (USI) continue to function successfully as a representative body and regularly speak out on a number of different student-related issues. However, with the exception of the aforementioned repeal campaign and the marches for education, we haven’t seen a similar engagement with wider political issues such as accommodation and the higher education funding crisis.

Perhaps, it might yet be too early to pass definitive comment. Most of the work that goes on behind the scenes within the upper echelons of the Irish student movement goes unheralded and this must be recognised. However, a certain injection of sustained enthusiasm and fervour is definitely called for. Ardent and continued engagement with Irish political life and the willingness to continuously challenge government policy is what our national body must aim for in the future.

From the outside looking in, student activism in Ireland could appear ever so slightly one dimensional. Aside from the once-a-year conversation surrounding student accommodation and rent hikes, the repeal campaign and its far-reaching appeal appears to dwarf all else. For numerous reasons, most notably its intrinsic emotive nature, it is the single most important issue for vast swathes of the student population and commands their interest and energy. For the past number of years, it has proven to be the all-consuming issue within Irish student life at grassroots level. By their own admission, it is the only societal issue that many students engage with at any meaningful level. The March for Choice was an incredible display of student activism, drawing massive crowds to call for an end to the eighth amendment. An inevitable referendum will now follow in which many thousands of Irish students will cast their vote, just as they did in May 2015 for the marriage equality referendum. Outside of these two ballots, student turnout and engagement with the wider political landscape remains low.


From the outside looking in, student activism in Ireland could appear ever so slightly one dimensional

It appears that we ought to look to our continental neighbours yet again for guidance and encouragement on this issue. Countries such as Spain and France have a long history of sustained student activism. The student movement in both of these countries has long had ties with the left, with a strong presence in Spain on and off since the time of the Civil War. Granted, both countries have much larger populations and benefit from having a number of densely populated urban centres. However, many of these European countries, regardless of the nature of their student politics, demonstrate ongoing engagement with the wider political system. Countries such as Spain have suffered a similar fate to Ireland, with massive cuts in funding to education over the past decade, and have successfully mobilised their students in an effort to defend against this. The case of Spain in particular is a significant and worthwhile comparison.

Young voter turnout is on the rise across Europe as countries attempt to regalvanise themselves after enduring long-term recessions. In the UK, young people are now engaged. In France, many came out during the presidential elections and in the Netherlands, a country with a strong history of student politics, the overall turnout rose to 85 per cent, thanks in no small part to student engagement. In Spain, CREUP, the Spanish student representative body, launched the very successful “VotaXLaEducación” in 2015, which has resulted in a clear mobilisation of the student vote in both of the general elections held in 2016.

Despite lagging behind other European countries, the trend in young voter turnout is definitely an upward one. Disenchantment with the electoral system as a whole and the adjudged failings of the past 10 years cast a shadow also. Following on from the high point of the marriage equality referendum in 2015, it is important that the student body is encouraged and informed at every possible opportunity to engage with the political process. Students must feel as if they have a stake in the outcome of any vote. This can only be realised by ensuring that students are encouraged to be politically conscious and engaged by the representative body of students in Ireland.

Students must feel as if they have a stake in the outcome of any vote. This can only be realised by ensuring that students are encouraged to be politically conscious and engaged by the representative body of students in Ireland

The most emotive issue in Irish political life, particularly since 2012, has been that of abortion and the issue of the eighth amendment. Nobody can dispute its immense draw as it has taken hold in Irish universities and encouraged societal engagement where there may have been none before. When the debate ends, how is this unprecedented level of engagement maintained? The issues of housing, health and education are much less emotive but must merit a response from all strands of Irish student life, not just from those at the very top.

Students’ unions in Ireland carry out honourable work and do their best to address both national and university-specific issues as they arise. The national student push against fees has been gathering steam over the last couple of years and is set to return again this coming autumn. A turning point appears to have taken place in the last number of years and this is an intrinsically positive change, regardless of your politics.

Elections and demonstrations are the two most effective weapons we have at our disposal in a democratic system. Students need to be seen to engage in large numbers and with an array of societal issues before they can hope to feature in the government’s thinking. Sustained engagement on a national level with a wide range of important, if forgotten, issues is what needs to come next. This will undoubtedly come, and the student movement will be all the better for it.

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