Comment & Analysis
Apr 4, 2018

To Transform Society, We Must Defend Our Education

Free third-level education isn't a drain on society. Compared to tax evasion, it's a drop in the ocean, writes Paul Murphy.

Paul MurphyOp-Ed Contributor

The success of the Take Back Trinity campaign is a victory for all those who stand against the increasing commodification of education and for free education for all. Participating in some of the protests over the last weeks has been inspirational, as a new generation take the lead in resisting attacks on education.

A crucial and powerful lesson is that when students, workers or communities come together to campaign, they can win. In this case, an arrogant college authority, which ignored students’ clearly expressed wish in a preferendum, was forced to completely backtrack on their plan for extortionate resit exam fees. The tactics deployed by Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) and campaigners proved extremely effective – from the Book of Kells protest, to the occupations and large protest rallies.

Having succeeded in forcing the withdrawal of the fees, it’s important that students continue to be active and get organised. If the authorities think that the threat of protest has receded, next year they will likely just repackage the same fees and try to re-introduce them. The best form of defence is attack – in other words using this victory as a starting point to redevelop an active student movement fighting for genuinely free education and living grants.


The total cost of fully free third-and fourth-level education and reversing all of the cuts to grants would be just under €400 million – a drop in the ocean compared to the almost €19 billion owed in tax by Apple, but which the government is refusing to collect. Their choice is to allow it to be added to Apple’s already massive cash pile of €250 billion, instead of using it to transform access to education, as well as breaking from a developmental model reliant on foreign direct investment.

The total cost of fully free third- and fourth-level education is a drop in the ocean compared to the almost €19 billion owed in tax by Apple

However, not only is the political establishment determined to avoid scrapping the extortionate registration fees, it is likely to move to try to re-introduce full fees in some form again. The way for this has been prepared by underfunding all levels of education, increasing pressure on staff and then pointing third-level institutions towards massive fees for foreign students and private funding as an alternative.

This undermining of education as a public good is a key component of the neoliberal offensive underway across the economy. Young people suffer some of the worst consequences of it – from precarious working conditions with low wages and unpredictable hours to precarious housing conditions with unaffordable rents rising at an unprecedented speed. A result is the deepening inequality seen in the fact that while wages remain stagnant, the richest 300 people doubled their wealth from 2010 to now.

Young people are at the forefront of the resistance to this offensive. In Ireland, they are the driving force behind the movement for repeal of the eighth amendment and abortion rights, refusing to accept the denial of bodily autonomy anymore.

In the US, school students have led marches of over a million people against gun violence, taking on one of the most powerful political lobbies, the NRA, in the process. In Spain, school and college student strikes successfully defeated a range of education cuts. In Britain, they have been the mobilising force behind the rise of Jeremy Corbyn and the repopularisation of socialist ideas.

As long as it is run in the interests of the big corporations, the rights of people to quality free education will continue to be under threat

In France right now, increasing numbers of colleges are seeing occupations of students, and a number of schools have been closed by school student blockades. They are coming together with significant strike action and protests, as people resist President Macron’s neoliberal attacks on education and workers’ rights. This has drawn comparisons with the revolutionary movement seen 50 years ago in May 1968 in France, when student protests kicked off a movement that saw 10 million workers on strike, occupying workplaces, and forced right-wing President De Gaulle to temporarily flee the country, telling the US ambassador that “the game’s up”.

That example should serve to inspire students to not only keep up the fight to defend their education, but to transform society. As long as it is run in the interests of the big corporations, the rights of people to quality free education will continue to be under threat from commercialisation, privatisation and fees. The alternative is to build a movement of workers, women and young people to fight for socialist change – taking the major sources of wealth out of the hands of the one per cent and into democratic public ownership. This would enable everybody to have access to not only quality free education, decent work and affordable accommodation, but to also build a world free from oppression, war, poverty and environmental destruction.

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