As thousands of students around the country begin a new college year in the coming weeks, the prospect of the return of tuition fees looms once again, and the need for organised grassroots student resistance becomes ever more acute.
In mid-August, Labour Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn announced both further increases to the “registration fee”, which currently stands at €2000, and the return of tuition fees, which will be payable at point-of-entry. Coupled with the massive cuts already sustained to the grants system, this will make it prohibitively expensive for many students to enter and complete third-level education, and impose a substantial financial burden on those that do and their families, who have already been hit with successive waves of austerity, job losses, wage cuts etc. The implications of this will be further falls in the standard of living of ordinary families and increased indebtedness for young people as they begin their adult lives. For many prospective mature students, their hopes of getting back-to-education will be pushed out of their financial reach.
The contours of the public discourse surrounding 3rd-level education have solidified over the course of the crisis. The issue, we are told, is that the country is “broke”, and the cost of funding third level education is “spiralling”, therefore students must be prepared to pay more, either through the reintroduction of tuition fees in a formal sense, or through continued hikes in the registration fee (backdoor fees).
The issue of fees is framed as an apolitical technical one: what is the best mechanism of implementing this policy? The fact that the Labour Party promised the electorate that would not reintroduce fees and to reverse the most recent increase in the registration charge, and indeed stood alongside the USI leadership and signed a pledge promising not to reintroduce fees, has already been rationalised as naive idealism crushed by economic reality – yes we believe in free education, but we didn’t realise how bad things were – rather than the cynical and shamefaced lie it was. Social justice and the right to education are reduced to nice ideals – luxuries for boom times – which must now take a back seat to pragmatism.
Ignoring the broader political context of the issue serves an ideological function: to obfuscate the role of class and power. “Harsh economic realities”, which are cited whenever ordinary people object to attacks on their standard of living, their wages and conditions and their public services, seem to disappear whenever wealthy bankers and investors demand that their gambling debts be taken on by the taxpayer, or whenever senior bondholders demand that their bonds must be honoured whatever the human cost. Similarly, “harsh economic realities” are never employed in order to redistribute the enormous wealth of the capitalist class; 1% of the population of Ireland control approximately 34% of the wealth, and pay virtually no tax on it.
Crucially, we must also understand that far from being a reluctant necessity of the economic climate, the dismantling of the right to education is a decades-old process which has been taking place across the West, particularly since the genesis of the ‘Bologna process’ around the turn of the millenium. The erosion of the right to education and the imposition of a service-provider model of third-level education, in which students are consumers of a product who must enter increasing levels of debt for the privilege, and, more broadly, the eradication of the ‘public good’ from political discourse, has long been a goal of the neoliberal project to which all of the establishment parties of this country subscribe with varying degrees of zeal, and varying rhetorical accents. What we’re witnessing is an acceleration of an already-existing process now that the ideological weaponry of an impending economic apocalypse has made itself available to those in power.
We’ve been here before, several times, over the course of the economic crisis, and students need to learn from the mistakes of the past. For example, we’ve fallen victim to the ‘expectation game’ in the past. Last year, the government announced a €1000 hike in the registration fee, which was subsequently reduced to €500, allowing student politicians in USI and the Students’ Unions to claim they had forced the government to compromise, while the government got precisely what they wanted: a massive hike in the registration fee. Already, the meagre amelioration offered by a student-loan model of tuition fees is being framed as the acceptable compromise alternative to the upfront fees being demanded by Ruairi Quinn by sections of the press, rather than the massive defeat for the student movement and the idea of free education it would actually be.
Similarly, we mustn’t fall into the old lobbying pattern favoured by USI, where student mobilisations are of secondary importance and only serve to demonstrate the organisational credentials of the USI leadership in advance of “negotiations”, which serve little purpose other than to boost the egos and build the political portfolios of student politicians. Political lobbying is a terrain on which establishment politicians are comfortable – an empowered, energised and militant grassroots student movement is considerably more difficult to handle. We must also recognise the class-based nature of the struggle for free education. We must reject the sectoral politics of the USI, in which students are simply another “special interest” group demanding that the pain be imposed on someone else, which allows the government to divide and conquer, and instead embrace a class-based anti-austerity politics of solidarity with ordinary people resisting attacks on their lives and livelihoods.
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