Budget 2016 has been described as a giveaway budget by practically everyone except students and university representatives. Yet again there has been no reduction in university fees, or a reintroduction of postgraduate grants. Students have rarely been seen as a secure voting base for the various political parties in Ireland, and it’s evident in this government’s continuous silence on student issues. According to a recent article in The Irish Times by John Boland, Dean and Vice President for research of TCD, “the funding per university student in Ireland has now dropped below that at second level. Higher education has not been a priority at Government level.” In a similar vein, SU President Marcus O’Halloran put it succinctly when he said “What’s not promising is the fact that there was €50 million put aside for the commemoration of the 1916 rising, and €25 million would finish off UCD Residence.”
Why do governments refuse to acknowledge young people as a potential source of valuable votes? Historically there has been an attitude that university students just aren’t that interested in politics. Time and time again consistently low voter turnout from 18-25 year olds in Ireland has been cited as an example of the lack of engagement from young people with our political process. The Marriage Equality referendum was the first time in recent history that the value of young people to our political process really came to light, with young people returning home in their floods to secure the historic Yes vote. This was an issue that was extremely important to young people and they spent money to travel, taking time off work and college to make it to their polling station. Roughly 30,000 students were registered to vote by their Students’ Unions in the run-up to the referendum.
However, the voting system in Ireland as a whole is not conducive to student voting. The fact that polling takes place during the week, when many students are in colleges or jobs far away from their polling stations, actively prevents students from taking part in the politics of their country. Postal votes are an option, but require registration as a postal voter and further forms and bureaucracy to attend to. Students just don’t have the money or frequently, the time, to travel to their home polling station to vote in elections or referendums where they may feel their vote has less of an impact. According to a Red C poll in 2014 by the National Youth Council of Ireland, 54% of young people aged between 18 and 25 who were registered to vote in the local and European elections, voted. 52% of the young people who were registered but didn’t vote “indicated that circumstances on the day prevented them from voting”. This 52% do not get another chance to vote. The NYCI’s report states that it was these young peoples’ circumstances (such as not being at home, work commitments etc) that prevented them from voting; really, it was a failure of our political system that prevented this by not taking simple circumstances into account.
Young people have proven that when an issue is important to them they will make a massive effort to make it to the polling stations. However, it may be forgotten that by simply casting a vote, any vote, it may cause political parties to sit up and take notice of the needs of young people and students. Sadly it may only be by proving that they are a huge body of voters that political parties will finally begin to listen to students, but nonetheless it’s something that’s worth considering by Students’ Unions around the country. The Marriage Equality Referendum prompted student unions to register voters, but this voting drive should be a continuous effort in the run up to the next general election in order to affect further political change, specifically for students and young people, in a country which currently doesn’t seem to listen to them.