As another November rolls in, the traditional frenzy over proposed and alleged budget cuts comes into full swing. For students, an inflated contribution fee is on the cards, with a €250 increase coming into effect from September 2013. This should bring the total registration fee to €2,500. There’s also a suggestion that €250 will be added to the fee in every subsequent budget until it will cost €3,000 each year in contribution fees to attend university, despite our third level education supposedly being exchequer funded.
It’s also traditional ‘march season’ for the Students’ Union (SU), however this year sees a slight change. The SU and the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) have instead launched a campaign against this increase in fees called ‘Gilmore’s 250’. It’s part of a national campaign in which, according to SU Education Officer Shane Comer: “All unions across the country have been given a strategically chosen TD… In this instance, UCD have chosen Eamon Gilmore. In previous years, a single demonstration was organised in which all Unions marched together against the government, rather than individual TDs.” Comer points out why a large march isn’t the best solution this time around, however: “[The marches] have gathered one day of media coverage and, in 2010, negative coverage with what happened in terms of the occupation of the Department of Finance.”
The campaign consists of a major online campaign and a planned march to Gilmore’s constituency office in Dun Laoghaire. It was presented at the second SU Council in late October and was unanimously accepted. The campaign encourages UCD students to visit www.gilmores250.com and send an email of discontent to the Tánaiste. Chairman of Labour Youth, Seán Glennon, reckons that ‘Gilmore’s 250’ is the wrong approach to fight the issue of increased registration fees.
He commented: “I feel going after high profile figures such as Eamon Gilmore will have little effect, especially when done in such an antagonising way. While Labour Youth has been involved in lobbying TDs and Ministers, a better approach for the USI to take would be to get its members across the country to get in touch with their local TD, emphasise the importance of fees and Labour’s promise [not to increase fees] was why they voted Labour in the last election and to raise the issue to the minister either in a Labour parliamentary party meeting or in the Dáil.”
Glennon and Labour Youth are also disappointed with Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn, for not keeping his most prolific pre-election promise. “Labour Youth are especially annoyed at Minister Quinn, as his backtracking on fees meant that Labour Youth members across the country were unwittingly lying to their friends, family and students and parents they canvassed when they emphasised how Labour in government would not increase third level fees.”
The increase in fees is, however, almost inevitable. This upcoming budget has to cut spending by €2.25 billion, as well as collecting an extra €1.25 billion in taxes. So is it justifiable to expect to be untouched in this budget, which is being carried out under extreme circumstances? Comer insists: “We’re not trying to avoid these cuts and let the rest of the country suffer. The whole country is up in arms over this budget to ensure that their sector is protected and that’s what we’re doing here, we’re protecting our sector, who we represent i.e. the students of UCD and, on a wider range, the students of Ireland.”
He continues: “I don’t think we’re getting away scot-free. I think we’re actually getting savaged. Minister Quinn himself has said that students can ‘assimilate’ to these cuts or, in layman’s terms: absorb this debt; he feels we’re an easy target.”
Glennon agrees that Minister Quinn’s choice of words was poor. “We feel Ruairi Quinn’s choice of words, while worrying, do not adequately reflect either his own or the Labour Party’s lack of enthusiasm in increasing the registration fees.”
The online phase of the campaign involves an intense social network element. Students are being encouraged to use #standup and #Gilmores250 at the end of tweets directed at political accounts. There’s also a Facebook page and a Twitter feed revolving around Gilmore’s 250. On paper, it looks like the online phase isn’t really taking off.
Comer disagrees, however: “I feel the online aspect of the campaign is going extremely well because the students are talking about it, they’re getting engaged with it and I think it’s been very effective thus far and its gotten a lot of attention from the politicians in question. We’ve got meetings with Counsellor Niamh Bhreatnach who was the Labour Party Minister for Education when the free fees scheme came in. We’ve been offered meetings with Minister Quinn, but again, we’re targeting Eamon Gilmore.”
A further question still remains. It’s obvious that the collective ideal of students, the SU and the USI is universal education. The USI constantly campaign for the elimination of all fees. But why not offer credible alternatives to fees? “The USI is mandated to fight for free fees,” Comer states. “There are many different alternatives which were offered during the Preferendum towards the start of the summer, but we have our mandates and we’re following our mandates. Credible alternatives don’t come into it.”
Labour Youth have a similar opinion of universal education. “Labour Youth believes in universal access to third level education, we don’t see any increase in the registration fee being justifiable especially after Minister Quinn emphasised the Labour Party’s commitment to not increasing the registration fee during the last election.”
While both parties seem to be coming to similar conclusions, despite perhaps coming from slightly different ends of the spectrum, it will all ultimately come down to whether or not they can get students behind them and the campaign. Their success on this, it would seem, is still a work in progress.