It has been nearly 10 years since Trinity’s campus last saw direct action led by Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU). In November 2009, around 60 students occupied the library in protest against reduced library opening hours.
But it has been several decades since any protest as portentous as Friday’s one outside the Long Room took place in the College.
The protest was impressive in scale. National media attention might have been the aim, but the demonstration also seized on the latent frustrations of students, frustrations sharpened by years of cuts and cost savings. If anything, Trinity’s students proved protest is once again possible.
Blocking the entrance to the Book of Kells Exhibition, which sees more than 2,000 paying visitors each day, is – of course – a desperate measure. But we all know what they say about desperate times.
How we ended up in these desperate times, however, seems almost ineffable.
For one thing, fees for sitting supplemental exams are mooted by the College every couple of years. And each time, TCDSU puts up sufficient opposition – threatening direct action and rallying students at the first whiff of fees – such that they are, at least temporarily, jettisoned. Even if we agreed to avoid litigating the particulars, you would hope that those who currently lead TCDSU would find it embarrassing that it has now finally happened on their watch.
The issue of repeat exam fees seems almost microscopic compared to the sector’s higher education funding problem. But upstream from Trinity’s decision to charge students €450 to re-sit exams is a national mise en scene of political inaction. For the better part of a decade, the higher education sector has been waiting for a solution to a crisis that has ravaged its institutions. This Editorial Board has pointed this out time and time again.
It is this crisis that meant that Trinity could not introduce modular billing – a positive thing that will allow students to pay to repeat only the modules they’ve failed, rather than the entire year – without finding money to plug the gap elsewhere. But that, of course, does not leave Trinity off the hook. For, no matter how hard the Vice-Provost, Chris Morash, tries to convince us that these two unrelated initiatives are fated to be tied together, it is a simple fact that you can indeed introduce modular billing without also introducing a hugely punitive fee for repeating exams.
Both of the stakeholders in this scenario committed a string of political miscalculations that brought us to this current standoff. January’s spectacle at TCDSU council – which saw protracted and frivolous debate about the options of a preferendum on this issue – is even harder to fathom now.
TCDSU President Kevin Keane did not inform students that, a month prior, the College’s Finance Committee had already recommended the introduction of these fees. That he did not make enough noise in that Finance Committee meeting for dissent to be registered in the minutes is perhaps a signal of naivety or even a misplaced faith in the notion of “student partnership”. So too is TCDSU’s belief that the College would take last month’s preferendum result into account. Either the union did an extraordinarily bad job of communicating the extent to which it opposed these fees, or the union’s officers confused civility on behalf of the College with a relationship based on deference and mutual respect.
That Morash is seemingly horrified that students would be up in arms at the College’s complete disregard of the preferendum result speaks to how utterly out of touch the regents of this university are with its students. More significantly, it speaks to how feckless he thought TCDSU would be in its opposition.
But by far the biggest political miscalculation in this entire affair is the fee level that the College landed on. Its obsession with “cost neutrality” – its term for offsetting the losses from the introduction of modular billing with other revenue – now seems rather shortsighted. One could imagine, given how ineffective TCDSU’s response had been up until this week, that there would have been less radical reaction to the introduction of a €100 fee.
While of course students should not countenance a supplemental fee of any kind, it would at least have meant that the College would finally have fulfilled its long-held desire to introduce supplemental fees. And as we know, once you’ve introduced a certain type of fee, it’s not so hard to steadily increase the level of that fee. (The most egregious example is the “student contribution charge”, which was merely €500 when it was first introduced in the 1990s. It is now €3,000, the second-highest such fee in the EU.)
At this stage, this kind of analysis feels almost academic. While TCDSU’s response this week should not have been necessary if it had done its job well before now, it has done a more-than-admirable job in riling up student anger and getting people to stand against Trinity’s decision. While it shouldn’t also mean that the union evades accountability, those who say our anger should be directed at the College – and only the College – are right.
Now, the only way forward is continued and prolonged direct action. It should be focused and relentlessly co-ordinated until such a point that Trinity realises that students will not back down.