The Union of Students in Ireland is in the process of re-examining their established campaign for ‘free fees’, and are putting the question to students across the nation to decide the approach it should take on the issue of third level education fees.
The USI has set up a special website, www.usivote.com, in order for students to vote on which course of action to take on the matter, ranking their preferences from six funding models. The six available options are a graduate tax, total exchequer funding (the union’s current stance), upfront fees, a student contribution (the current model in place), a student loan scheme, or none of the above.
Up to this point, the policy of the USI on this topic has been that the tuition fees for Irish/ EU students should be funded by the taxpayer through a system of progressive taxation. This stance has been repeatedly reaffirmed by the USI congress, most recently in 2009.
The question of this current model’s future has been raised by the USI after comments from Minister for Education and Skills Ruairi Quinn detailed his intention to raise the Student Contribution from €2,250 to €3,000 by 2015. Now the USI wants students to decide if its current program of ensuring equity of access for students is feasible, or if it must adopt a different strategy.
Students will be able to vote from the USI’s special website from 1am Tuesday, May 15th. In order to vote, students will be asked to supply their college usernames and passwords which will be cross-checked electronically to ensure that only registered students are accessing the voting page.
The results of the vote, calculated on a college-by-college basis, will be used by delegates of Ireland’s various colleges to cast their vote at the USI’s special congress in UCD, on Wednesday, May 23rd.
Upon announcing the ‘Preferendum’, USI President Gary Redmond claimed that students are being given ‘a historic opportunity’ to have ‘real input into how their national union will campaign for equity of access to Higher Education’ and encouraging all students to take part in the vote, as their decision will dictate ‘how their national union will fight for them’.
NUI Galway, however, have decided not to engage with the voting proposal. Students’ Union President, Emmet Connolly said the NUIG’s Students’ Union feels that it is “utterly ridiculous” that the “single most important issue in higher education” is put to a vote at a time when most students are finished college and no longer engaging with the Students’ Union.
He also said that the voting model “does not allow students to be sufficiently informed of the issues surrounding the funding of higher education through debates, campus media, shout-outs and information sessions on campus. On an issue of such central importance to USI, I cannot understand the need to rush this through.”
He added: “It is worth pointing out that I do not know of any groundswell of popular opinion, such as a positive vote in a class reps council or a referendum, from the student body in any significant number of colleges, which calls for a change in the current USI policy. However, I do recall some 40,000 students being led through Dublin in November under the banner of ‘Stop Fees, Save the Grant’.
“I similarly don’t recall any current or incoming sabbatical officers in any Students’ Union having been elected to their positions on platforms of supporting a graduate tax or student loans. Therefore I find it hard to see why we are having this rushed vote in the first place. It seems to me that the student leaders want this policy changed more than the students themselves.”
Emmet went on to say that is is “painfully ironic that we condemn successive governments for refusing to hold referenda and elections on days which are convenient for students to vote, and then we ourselves go and hold a vote – electronically – when student are at least likely to be engaged with their Students’ Union and college life in general. Having an inherently unsuitable vote during the summer is not how our national union should be engaging with our members.”