The Budget, Third Level Education & the student occupations

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The changes to fees and the maintenance grants system for new postgraduate students in Budget 2012 comes as no big shock. The €250 increase in the student contribution charge means students will pay €2,250 from next September, with other increases likely to come in 2013 and 2014. In relation to the future of the postgraduates, no maintenance grants will be paid for new entrants from the 2012/13 academic year.

These changes come into effect, after months of campaigning by the grassroots student campaign group Free Education for Everyone (FEE) and the Union of Students Ireland (USI).

The €250 increase in the annual college registration fee will have a serious impact on families across the country, the USI has warned: the burden of the fee increase would fall largely not on students themselves, but on families across Ireland who are already suffering from other Budget measures. These measures include: an increase in Motor Tax from 1 January, and a Household charge of €100 – with a waiver for those on mortgage interest supplement, certain housing estates, and social housing, also from January 1.

USI president Gary Redmond said “The people paying for this increase are the same people who will be paying for other measures. It’s not all about the students, it’s about their families.” He continued: “The Labour Party and Fine Gael committed to no increase in student fees before the general election. This is simply not good enough. The Government need to hang their heads in shame, and come out and apologise to the people they lied to.”

The FEE campaign was founded in University College Dublin in 2008, but has branches throughout Irish universities and colleges, including Trinity College Dublin, the Liberties College, NUI Maynooth, NUI Galway, IT Tralee and Queens University Belfast. It has in the past carried out a number of high profile occupations against government T.Ds and department buildings.

FEE is a broad campaign group which believes and works towards completely free access to education at all levels for all people. They argue and campaign for the abolition of all registration fees/student contributions as well as opposing all recent cuts to the education system including special needs assistants, postgraduate grants and the destructive under-funding of the education system in general. FEE believes in funding of the education system by a central progressive taxation system, whereby a form of wealth tax is imposed on those earning over a certain amount so as to create an equal society. They believe education is a right not a privilege. They argue that access to this right should never be limited by economic, social or cultural factors.

The campaigns began on November 29th, when representatives of the USI along with Students Union Presidents occupied two government department buildings. The group, including USI President Gary Redmond occupied the Department of Enterprise and Jobs and then the Department of Social Protection. The students had brought enough food with them to last for several weeks – as well as a portable toilet – to the government ministry on Kildare Street in Dublin. The first occupation ended quite quickly with the threatened use of pepper-spray by the Gardaí on the occupiers, however the 2nd occupation last for approximately 4 hours, with the 4 occupants arressted and brought to Store Street Garda Staion. FEE released a statement of support for these actions, which can be found here.

Actions continued the next day, when members of FEE Galway occupied the constituency office of Fine Gael TD Brian Walsh in what was to be the first of several occupations by student groups.

According to Joseph Loughnane, one of the occupiers, there were “about fifteen” students involved in the occupation.

The group hoped that this occupation would result in students coming out en mass and striking against increasing fees and the commercialization of education. They also stand in solidarity with the International Students’ Movement, the unemployed, SNAs and their students and all those affected by the current austerity measures.

FEE Galway includes students from National University of Ireland, Galway (NUIG), Galway- Mayo Institute of Technology (GMIT) and Galway Technical Institute (GTI). Four officers from the NUIG Students’ Union are members of FEE. Two of these took part in the occupation.

It is understood that the 15 FEE members entered the constituency office in Bohermore at around midday to stage a “peaceful sit-down protest”. As the protest got under way, NUIG equality officer and FEE representative William O’Brien said: “They have their books out and are studying. It’s non-violent direct action. If we can’t afford to go to college then we will study in their offices instead.”

When asked why FEE is using this more hands-on tactic, Mr. O’Brien explained: “Protests, marches, lobbying are not working so we’re upping the ante, to obstruct TDs and ministers as they are intent on obstructing us in the pursuit of education. Students are very angry, particularly at the Labour party”.

Labour party Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn signed a pledge promising to oppose any increase in fees or cut to the grant in the run up to February’s general election, but they did not keep their promise as we saw in last week’s budget.

FEE and the USI have both said they targeted Fine Gael, because they were “the majority party in government” that were inflicting “yet more misery for 1000s of people across Ireland in their IMF-dictated Budget.”

In regards to Galway, Brian Walsh TD is a former Students’ Union President in Galway-Mayo I.T., while current Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore, Labour TD Pat Rabbitte and recently-elected President Michael D. Higgins were all previously Presidents of UCG (NUIG) SU.

The Maynooth Students Union then occupied Fine Gael T.D Anthony Lawlor’s Naas office. The group of eight students said it had come equipped with a chemical toilet and enough food for a week. FEE Maynooth members also visited the occupation, which lasted for 4 days, before they were ejected by Gardaí at 2a.m. on the morning of the fifth day.

Come Budget Day, students in Dublin occupied the Ranelagh offices of Eoghan Murphy (FG), urging him to vote against any education cuts and raises in student fees in the budget. The students came from FEE UCD and other branches.

FEE spokesperson Lorcan Myles noted the group’s support for the Maynooth Student Union’s occupation of Anthony Lawlor’s Naas office, and for the USI’s attempted occupation in the city centre. “There is a need for a mass campaign that can win, and occupying is one of the best tactics at the disposal of the student movement” he noted.

The group's expressed is solidarity with all protesting the impact of the budget and current austerity measures. 

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