The Union of Students in Ireland recently held its annual congress in Ballinasloe, Co. Galway from the 2nd to the 5th of April. Congress, where delegates elect the next year’s national officer board and debate on motions and policy for the upcoming three years, is the main decision-making event of the USI’s calendar year. One of the most contentious debates of the Congress was on the proposed preferendum to change the USI’s stance on third level education.
The motion was put to Congress the evening of the first day, offering six options on the future direction of the campaign. These options were: a graduate tax, 100% exchequer funding, 100% upfront fees, a student contribution/registration fee, a student loan scheme, or none of the above. Delegates would then be asked to rank their preferences 1 to 6 on a ballot paper the next day as part of the overall USI Officer Board elections.
UCC’s delegation went to conference with a mandate “to oppose third level fees in every form”, as decided by a 90% majority in a plebiscite put to students in the 2011 Students’ Union elections.
Other colleges were divided on the issue with graduate tax and a student loan scheme the most fiercely debated. Ryan Bartlet, Trinity College SU President spoke in favour of a student loan scheme, as did Chris Lee from UCD. Similar schemes are in place in countries such as England and Australia and allow students to take out loans to cover their tuition and living expenses for the course of their third level career. The loan is not paid back until the graduate begins earning above a certain threshold.
USI President Gary Redmond proposed a graduate tax scheme which would mean that there would be no upfront cost to attending third level education or associated debt and graduates would pay a higher level of tax upon completing their degree.
Cons to both of these options are that fact that in the current economic climate the exchequer cannot afford to cover the expense required to set up either system and that the time lag before repayments/taxes begin to come in would be substantial.
Dun Laoghaire College of Further Education had already polled their students in advance of the congress and a student contribution scheme was their preferred method of payment.
There was no speaker in favour of 100% outright fees.
Joe O’Connor, GMIT President, was in favour of the “none of the above” option, arguing that more research and consultation is needed with students before a decision is made and that “we need to get this right, not get it over with”.
UCC Students’ Union Commercial and Communications officer and President Elect Eoghan Healy proposed that the vote be postponed to a later date in order to allow members to go back to their universities and IT’s and hold a proper education campaign on the six options. Calling for the USI to run a “top down information campaign”, he asked that a special congress be convened at a later date when a more informed and representative vote could be cast.
This call to postpone the referendum passed with 94 in favour and 82 against.