Writes Ciaran Dineen – Editor-In-Chief
On Wednesday evening, members of the UCC Student’s Union met with the President of UCC, Prof. Patrick O’Shea, following protests earlier in the day over the decision to increase the student capitation fee by 120%.
News of the increase in fee, which must be paid by every UCC student and is not covered by educational grants, was announced on Monday 17thJune, with many condemning the decision. Up until last year, the capitation figure had stood at €165 and was due to increase this September to €170, following a referendum which was voted on by the UCC students themselves. However, it has now been revealed that incoming first years will be charged €250 this year, with an incremental increase every year of €40 up until 2023, finishing with a total figure of €370.
This increase of almost 120% will be imposed on all students, but will affect the worst-off the most given that the fee is not covered by SUSI. The backlash was instant and it soon emerged that the Students’ Union had been trying to prevent the increase in fees for some time now. Many students, along with the SU and those associated with student journalism reacted very angrily given that just a few months previous to this, a hard-fought referendum had taken place to supplement capitation by just €5. However, through the back door and without a student mandate, UCC plan to radically increase the fee, for what they claim will be used for “mental health services, such as counselling and support, student health services, the student assistance fund and sport and recreations facilities”.
The Students’ Union and UCC hierarchy do agree that third-level education funding needs a significant boost, and this is highlighted by their joint-support for the #SaveOurSpark campaign, which highlights the detrimental cut in funding post-recession that third-level education suffered. Last year the Director General of the Irish Universities Association, Jim Milley, spoke exclusively to the University Express in an interview.
A cash injection is badly needed to boost the area of teaching and learning, and speaking back in November the Director General said, “there is a significant issue in that area. Class sizes for certain faculties have increased substantially. The amount of tutoring that students get is now more limited. The extra attention in terms of one-to-one interactions is stretched. The student to lecturer ratio is about 21:1 whereas before it was more like 17 or 18:1 and the EU average is about 15:1 so it’s self-evident that where you have limited resources stretched across more students then learning is limited”.
However, while those involved agree that students are paying the price for the lack of state funding, the same can be said now following the decision taken to increase the capitation fee by UCC itself. Speaking at a protest organised by the Students’ Union was outgoing SU President, Alan Hayes. Mr Hayes said that such a move from UCC sets a “dangerous precedent” for the future, should further revisions ever be made. He went on to say, “today we are demanding that UCC stops the increase coming this September and also that in the future measures are put in place to ensure that they stop the inaccessibility to higher education.”
The protest took place in the East Wing of the Quad, where the President of UCC’s office is located. Here protestors made their feelings known. When encountered with President O’Shea and Prof John O’Halloran, who is Deputy President and Registrar at UCC, Mr O’Shea agreed to meet with members of the Students’ Union on Thursday, however this was not deemed satisfactory and a meeting was requested today, to which President O’Shea agreed. Inside the meeting, which took place at 5:15 PM, were SU President, Alan Hayes, Deputy President, Kelly Coyle, Education Officer, Aaron Frahill, along with President O’Shea and Deputy President O’Halloran.
The immediate feeling in the aftermath of the discussion was one of positivity, with reports suggesting that there were productive conversations held. President O’Shea and Deputy President O’Halloran requested that they be given more time to think about the proposals outlined by the Students’ Union, which includes allowing students to vote on the proposals via referendum. They agreed to hold another meeting soon.
Speaking to the University Express just minutes after the SU’s dialogue with the UCC hierarchy, Deputy SU President and Campaigns Officer Kelly Coyle said, “we unfortunately did not have a lot of time today to have a discussion, however we have agreed to have another one in the very very near future. We made it clear that this simply wasn’t the end of the fight, that today was just the beginning and that the student voice is not going to give up on this.”
While the SU are standing up for the rights of future students against the decision taken by UCC, Ms Coyle does not believe that the relationship between her Union and the UCC hierarchy has been irreparably damaged. “No absolutely not”, said the Deputy SU President. “I think there is respect there on both sides that everyone is trying to do their own jobs. They understand that our function is to represent the students and that is what we are elected to do. At the same time we understand that at the end of the day it’s the bursar’s role to make sure that the University is financially stable, so there is respect on both sides. We were commended on how we acted today. It was a completely peaceful protest and we were very polite to all the staff.”
For now it seems UCC has bought themselves some time, however this is no easy escape on such a divisive issue, which will continue to draw heavy criticism until a significant compromise is agreed upon.