UCC’s Students’ Union (UCCSU) have successfully reversed a €200 increase in the student capitation fee, reducing the cost to €170 for all incoming students. The increase was announced in June 2019, inciting protest from the Students’ Union, who staged a sit-in protest in the following days; following the increase being implemented, the UCCSU began negotiations with the university in an attempt to reverse the decision, eventually threatening legal action. In October, after 4 months of negotiation, the University decided to review and ultimately revoke the decision.
The capitation fee was increased for all new students in 2019/20, with further increases planned for the coming years. As the SUSI grant and tuition fee grant do not cover capitation fees or levies, all students would be required to pay the extra money, and would not be permitted to use facilities or sit exams if they could not. First-year students of 2019/20 will have the fee increase reimbursed to them in the form of credit on next year’s capitation fee.
While UCC defended the increase as being for student services, it was found that the majority of the money was to be dedicated to the UCC Sports Strategy, centering on building a new facility. Referendums to increase the capitation fee for this reason have been carried out twice, once in 2009 and again in 2017, and were rejected by the student body both times.
Sources close to the SU informed the Express of the university’s plans, which the UCCSU confirmed when approached.
“At its core, this fee represented a blatant attempt by UCC to force undergraduate students to fund a capital development project,” commented Welfare Officer Naoise Crowley, “UCC referred to the benefits this fee would have for ‘counselling and support, student health services and sports and recreational facilities’, implying an equal balancing of their priorities.”
“Student services are certainly under-funded, however, by not simply opting to run a referendum for a €10 increase to the Student Capitation Fee for counselling services (a referendum likely to pass based on recent trends ) it would appear to me that the University have effectively attempted to use the services as an excuse to get a capital development project across the line.”
When negotiations broke down, the UCCSU sought legal advice on the matter, and found that the fee increase had grounds to be unlawful. It goes against the principles of the Irish Free Fees Initiative and the HEA’s recommendations; all introductions and increases to capitation fees and levies should be carried out with the consent of students via referendum. A statement from the UCCSU describes the attempt as worrying, and could “set a profound precedent empowering Universities across Ireland to impose charges of any amount for any capital development without any oversight or regulation.”
Prior to the fee increase being reversed, the UCCSU planned to organise a High Court judicial review on the university’s decision.
Summing up the Union’s legal position, Communications Officer David Condon said, “Our legal question was always a simple one; what legal ability does a University have to unilaterally introduce, without any external Government oversight, a €200 fee that is not covered by the Irish Exchequer, SUSI Grants and not consented to by student referendum. Student Services would very much have benefited from the injection of an additional €2.4 million, however, going forward it would be our recommendation that funding for essential student services be secured within, rather than beyond, the confines of the law.”
When asked to comment, a representative of UCC told the Express, “The capitation fee at UCC is used solely for student services, such as counselling and support, mental health services, sports and recreation facilities and a fund for students who are experiencing financial difficulties…UCC wishes to continue its engagement with its students to ensure these essential services are provided for the entire student body.”
The representative also pointed out that UCC has one of the lowest capitation fees in the higher education system.
UCCSU President Ben Dunlea, speaking on the fee reversal, said, “UCC and UCC Students’ Union have a close relationship built upon a fundamental respect for one another and it is due to this respect that this Union’s Executive engaged pro-actively with the University over the past several months. While I am thrilled to see UCC reverse their decision, I am disheartened that this was a decision that only became possible after a threat of litigation was issued by the Union’s representatives. As an institution that is heavily funded by the public, it is important that we remain accountable to the public.”
“It is a condemnation of the system that the only barrier to the introduction of a potentially unlawful fee was several Student Union Officers and the students who campaigned alongside us.”