Student activism in 2002/3 - the CFE


The CFE was the Campaign for Free Education. It existed the summer of 2002 and the summer of 2003 and was predominantly based in UCD. Mary (MOF) spoke to two activists from the CFE campaign to find out what student activists today can learn from their experiences.MOF: Why and by whom was CFE formed?

DF: CFE was formed left wing student activists in UCD in the summer of 2002 in response to the imminent threat of the introduction of fees for third level education. The reason it was formed in UCD in particular was due to two factors firstly there was a critical mass of left wing activists at the time to get something started. Secondly there was a very right wing leadership of the students union in UCD at the time which was controlled by Fianna Fail. Not only did the union fail to organise protests against the threat of fees but it actively supported their reintroduction.

JR: Much of the inspiration behind CFE came from reading about the development of autonomous student movements on the continent in early years of this decade. There was a sizable wave of protest across the continent in March 2001, as student networks like the European Education is Not For Sale Network communicated across borders, through the internet to mobilize against the EU summit in Seville and the creeping corporate takeover of education. Also, much of this occurred alongside the anti-globalisation cycle of protests, and there was a clear desire to map the concerns of that cycle of protests to campus issues. To take more seriously the slogan of "think global, act local." There was also a rank and file movement within the British NUS called the Campaign for Free Education that provided something of a model we could use.

MOF: What actions were taken by the campaign?

DF: We had a simple stating point which was to say that every time government minister came to UCD they should be blockaded by students. We summed it up by saying 'If they block our access, we'll bock theirs'. If they created financial barriers we would create physical ones. The first successful protest along those lines targeted Brian Linehane when he came to UCD for the opening of a building. Soon afterwards the education minister Noel Dempsey visited the campus and their was a well attended protest of around 300 students which surrounded the vet building which he was opening and attempted to stop him from leaving.

JR: The vet building protest is probably one of the most inspirational protests I've taken part in in Ireland. For 2 hours the minister was prevented leaving. When Brian Lenihan came to the campus he received a sit down blockade of the building by about 60 students, the cops were forced to drag us out of the way and the ensuing national and campus media coverage only raised the profile of the campaign within the college if not nationally. The next day USI with several members of the CFE occupied the department of education. When the police did 'smash the student siege' CFE activists organised blockades of the department gates, forcing the cops to release the occupiers through a side exit, rather than arrest them. The months after that saw larger on campus demonstrations, including 2 days of protest where a motorway outside UCD was blockaded after more than 250 students had marched through all the faculty buildings. There were also stalls and mass leafleting, lecture boycotts, marches on administration and an occupation of the department of fiancé and numerous impromptu blockades.

MOF: How did these actions contribute to the success of the campaign?

DF: The action brought us into sharp conflict with the right wing student leadership which condemned our actions and made false allegations of violence against the students involved in the protests. The student's union council which was dominated by fianna fail members passes a motion of condemnation. It soon turned out they had miscalculated the mood when we ran candidates in the elections for class representatives and all but two of the seats we contested with a CFE slate calling for militate action to defeat fees. We benefitted from support of the student media which supported our protests and condemned the students union. Soon afterwards a referendum was held in UCD at the initiative of the students union to disaffiliate from USI we campaigned against this arguing that it would be a signal of weakness to the Fianna Fail government at the time when fees were on the agenda. The referendum was defeated by a large majority thanks to CFE's work.

JR: An opinion poll carried out by the college tribune saw 76% of students support the CFE, while 90% opposed fees, all at a time where our union even refused to take a position on fees.

MOF: How did CFE differ from the ones been held by USI at the time?

DF: Unlike the students union in UCD, USI did oppose the reintroduction of fees and organised demonization's, however there was a big difference between their demos and the ones organized by CFE, the USI protests had no direct action, for example we intervened at a national demonization called by USI outside the Dail, if it has been left to USI the protest would have been cooped up behind a van to hear speeches, we led a breakaway group of roughly 100 students who staged a sit down protest on Kildare street and blocked traffic for almost two hours. You could tell by people's body language that a protest with direct action gave them energy which contrasted with the reaction at the standard USI protest.

JR: When the minister's announcement came in July, the only response it received from our representatives in USI was a press statement of condemnation; it was this failure to respond and inadequacy which prompted the formation of the Campaign For Free Education. It was implausible that we could rely upon USI and out own union to represent us, when USI did not respond, it repeated the photo opportunities of three years before, dumping a pile of ducks in the Liffey. One other effort to raise the issue in the media was the hand cuffing of student union leaders to the Dails gates, before helpfully unlocking themselves after a symbolic period of time. These rare tokenistic acts were wholly insufficient.

MOF: What do you feel were the shortcomings of the CFE?

DF: Our main weakness was that we were confined to UCD, we often talked about making links with students on other campuses but were never really able to do so. This meant that the CFE was mostly a UCD phenomenon outside UCD the main initiative of organising protests was taken by USI. They got good numbers along to their protests but the protests were much less militant than the CFE ones.

JR: At the end of most of the large campus based mobilizations large meetings took place in lecture theatres we took over in the arts block, one regret from the time is not coming up with an organizational method to utilise these meetings more and build upon them as a solid basis for building the campaign. In retrospect it is easy and frustrating to identify mistakes, but we were learning as we went along in the course of events. The biggest factor mitigating against the rising tide of militancy was its isolation in UCD. CFE also operated with a very minimum demand set and ignored a responsibility to develop alternative visions of education, instead it had a fetishism for direct action and neglected popular education and out reach.

MOF: How and why did CFE end?

DF: A number of students who were involved with CFE ran for position in the students union that year and three CFE candidates were election including the president, they carried over a lot of the spirit of CFE into the students union which was easily the most left wing union at any major university for the next couple of years. The CFE itself ceased to function in the summer of 2003 when the treat of fees was taken off the agenda. We made a contribution to the defeat of fees by showing the government that behind the fairly timid USI protests some students were ready to take more militant action against fees. That must have made them think twice.

JR: This was not just about occupying seats in a council, but a political stunt within itself. It represented an attempt to reclaim the union. The hacks that dominated the union did so through isolating the student body from the democratic process, by clouding it and simply not postering from things like council elections. By actually seeking a mandate and by actually postering and leafleting for our candidates, explaining ourselves in front of lectures, we tried to return council to the general student body, by acknowledging their existence and actually recreating the democratic process, forcing other candidates to do likewise.

MOF: Why do you think fees are back on the agenda now?

DF: In a sense they have never really left the agenda. 4 years ago an OECD report commissioned by the government called for the abolition of free fees. It has been a trend in most of the developed world in countries like Britain and Australia to undermine free access to third level education. It was only going to be a matter of time for Irish politicians launched another attack on third level education. As we see with the medical card for pensioners the Irish political establishment doesn't like the idea of free access to any public service. The arguments being used now are the same ones which have been heard and refuted before. They talk about the children of millionaires getting free access to college when they have no problem with tax breaks for the wealthy. Its just cynical rhetoric from the likes of Batt O' Keffee to divert attention form the fact that his proposal would increase the class bias of the Irish education system and make it harder for working class students to attend college.

JR: Students as a social body are prepared and conditioned to postpone their frustrations with declining living standards until they make the transition to full employment, they see the major problems and issues of student life as transitory problems and postpone any attempt to engage the issues head on, instead seeing it as easier solved by diverting their energies into seeking an individual solution to the barriers in front of them such as taking a part time job. But now there is a need to recognize the threat posed by the direction Irish education is being pushed in. The reintroduction of fees, under whatever guise it is presented will not only erode the living standards of students but presents a threat to the very right of access to higher education.

MOF: Do you have any advice to students who now face similar challenges to that of CFE?

DF: From what I can see the latest anti fee campaign has already managed to organise protests and meeting on several different campuses so in that sense they have already gone beyond what the CFE was able to do. That's a very promising start and should be continued. Beyond that student activist should try and build links with other groups facing cutbacks to prevent the government from playing a game of divide and rule. In the long run we can't fight cutbacks in a piecemeal fashion. We have to challenge the argument that cutbacks in pubic services are unavoidable and show how the burden can be passed on to those who benefitted most from Irelands economic boom.

JR: As Dan says, FEE seems to be in a much healthier position than we ever were despite what student careerist detractors might claim. If the current crisis abates, I'd advise them to keep FEE going as a solid organisation that can over come the cyclical ups and downs in organised student activism. A huge weakness here is the absence of a space where memories and repertoires of struggle are passed on, and there's little point repeatedly inventing the wheel every two years. How people engage with politics shifts and slides, to that affect experimentation might be worth while and a decent left student paper or web portal could form the hub of a new movement. Either way, it'll be important to move beyond just the issue of maintaining free fees to developing a more holistic critique of the role of education under capitalism. So with that in mind, it's worth keeping a close eye on continental developments where struggles in education are being linked to issues faced by young workers.