It must be infuriating being a students’ union president. Issues come and go, and the priorities and politics of the students change. However, every year there remains one stubborn, ever-present constant: higher education funding problems.
While the Cassells report still sits forlornly on a shelf in the basement of Leinster House, seemingly forgotten by all who once waited eagerly for its publication, two years of Ireland’s colleges steadily sliding to depressing new lows in the rankings, annual marches for education, and an immeasurable amount of caustic newspaper editorials have slipped by. Equally as constant as the issue itself is the government’s steadfast resolve with regard to its utter indifference when it comes to addressing the thorny question of third-level funding.
For students’ unions across the country, the practical reality that the question of higher education funding is now something of a toxic political football has become depressingly self-evident in recent years. The grim truth that the electoral success of the current Fine Gael-led government, which has become somewhat dependent on maintaining the status quo, seems to have taken precedence over any decisive action that could improve the performance of Ireland’s struggling third-level institutions.
The most basic determination for any political party as it faces into the prospect of a potentially impending general election campaign is identifying where its core support lies, and developing the policies that are most likely to get its core base to the polls. Despite the fact that the recent repeal referendum, which was largely driven by students, witnessed an extraordinary turn out from 18 to 25 year olds, it is a well-documented fact that students as a broad voting block tend not to be a reliable constituency in general elections. While numerous false prophets have in turn claimed to have harnessed the student vote, none more so than the much-heralded youthquake that supposedly helped Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party to check Theresa May’s grasp for power in the UK in last year’s general elections, the fact remains that the inability of students to vote en masse has dramatically limited our ability to influence policy and shift government focus towards solving the question of higher education funding.
With the prospect of an election now an ever-present threat in Irish politics, it is imperative that students’ unions focus on developing a cohesive, reliable voting block among students
Furthermore, Fine Gael, as described by Senator Neale Richmond in this newspaper, is a proudly “centre-right”, “Christian democratic party”. It consequently adheres to a set of political beliefs that have traditionally struggled to find any sort of traction on university campuses, where a more left-wing outlook has always inspired the more politically minded of students to make their voices heard and march to the polls. For the present government, therefore, there is little incentive to tailor policies to students, as a somewhat disorganised demographic that they have always struggled to reach.
As a result, Fine Gael has, in the most practical of determinations, focused on developing policy and fulfilling promises aimed at predominantly older, wealthier voting groups, who have traditionally proven to be more receptive to the party’s message.
Perhaps more importantly, while the Cassells report examined a wide variety of options designed to tackle the growing funding crisis, students’ unions and other lobby groups have overwhelmingly focused their energies on the prospect of increased core funding for universities and institutes of technology instead of the mooted income-contingent loan scheme.
For the present government, therefore, there is little incentive to tailor policies to students, as a somewhat disorganised demographic that they have always struggled to reach
For Fine Gael, pursuing this option places them in very difficult territory electorally. Increasingly, Fine Gael has dislodged Fianna Fáil to become the party of middle Ireland, drawing the bulk of their votes from a middle class that has once again, slowly but surely, begun to thrive. As Ireland finally begins to steadily find its feet, and shake off the after-effect of the chaos that came with the final days of the Celtic tiger, this demographic is once again increasingly important. If it were to pursue an increase in state funding, Fine Gael would be faced with the prospect of imposing significant tax hikes on a resurgent middle class. The party’s opposition to such increases are precisely the policies that have traditionally won them the loyalty of a middle class which recently returned them to power for the first time in the party’s history.
The knock-on effects of this, as previously stated, are becoming painfully tangible for universities. The status quo, while clearly failing the students and staff of Ireland’s third-level institutions, remains the preferred option of the Fine Gael government. In light of this, the inevitable results are further slides in rankings tables and increased unrest in student bodies as third-level institutions attempt to compensate for the shortfall in funding by searching for alternative means of financing.
Students’ union presidents, such as Shane De Rís and Barry Murphy, represent constituencies that dwarf those of many sitting TDs. If properly harnessed, this block has the ability to have a serious impact on Fine Gael’s electoral policies
If the present government remains steadfast in its reluctance to tackle the issue, what can be done? Simply put, with the prospect of an election now an ever-present threat in Irish politics, it is imperative that students’ unions focus on developing a cohesive, reliable voting block among students.
Students’ union presidents, such as Shane De Rís and Barry Murphy, represent constituencies that dwarf those of many sitting TDs. If properly harnessed, this block has the ability to have a serious impact on Fine Gael’s electoral policies. Importantly, students’ unions have recent experience organising the student vote, with Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) having run an enormously successful voter registration drive during this year’s repeal referendum. If unions can rely on similar tactics to elicit an analogous response in the run-up to a general election, Ireland’s political parties may be forced to sit up and finally value student issues, and the votes that come with them, as an important electoral issue.