While the government is still deciding on the funding of third level education, the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) is approaching local county councils in an effort to gain support for increasing spending in the sector.
Since the middle of 2017, USI officers have been contacting county councils to lay out their argument for a publicly-funded higher education system. The campaign to target local councils is a tactical one, as Irish politics is often decided at a local level. By starting with councillors, the union can pass their message up the chain of command, so it reaches all levels. Of the fourteen county councils that have been approached, six have agreed to pass the motion in support of the union.
In an interview with The University Times, USI President Michael Kerrigan explained that most of the councillors they meet with “wouldn’t have a massive amount of knowledge” on the issue. It tends to be those with a first-hand experience of the matter, for example, parents or those with personal links to higher education institutes. Sinn Féin councillor Mike McKee stated that he knew about the problem after working harder to put his own two children through college. As it stands at the moment, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have refused to take a stance on the issue, waiting instead for the decision of the Oireachtas Committee on Education and Skills. However, Fianna Fáil’s education spokesperson, Thomas Byrne, has questioned the process, stating that it is highly unlikely a consensus will be cast on a new funding scheme.
The USI therefore plans to approach 31 county councils and ask them to pass the motion. It is, however, a slow process, as the guidelines for speaking to councillors differs from region to region. Kerrigan explained that “it isn’t easy to get on the agenda….. so [they’re] just trying to get as many as [they] can.”
Being described as a ‘deterrent’ for families, the current system needs changing. Unsatisfactory grants and rising accommodation costs are just some of the reasons many young people cannot afford to attend university. Clare County Councillor, Clare Colleran Molloy, is concerned about the current trend towards the US model of funding. She spent time studying in the US, and stated that she encountered many students who were struggling with large debts and the huge payments parents are expected to make. When approached by the USI, she said that she would do “everything in [her] power to prevent a model like this.”
Unfortunately, many councils are acutely aware of the fact that the government may not take student protests seriously, even though students are prime candidates for demanding change. Councillor Mike McKee further explained that it “is a shame that it is recognised that many young people don’t vote…..When senior citizens decide to campaign, the government listen. Young people can make a change. If they’re told they can change the national landscape, they would get out and vote.”
Therefore, it is increasingly important for students to ensure they’re registered to vote, as the USI will need all the support they can get in order to protect our current fee situation.