Designing a blueprint for battle
MY EDUCATION WEEK:John Logue, president of USI, on a week spent persuading Trinity students to stay in the union, and planning for Budget 2013
SUNDAYThis week could define our year. First, the students of Trinity College will decide if they want their students’ union to remain affiliated with the Union of Students in Ireland. There’s no getting around the fact that losing Trinity would be a serious blow to the organisation and its political credibility. Second, by the end of this week we have to decide on our pre-budget campaign plan. The blueprint for battle. If it isn’t up to scratch, our members will hold us to account.
Normally, I look forward to Sunday evening. USI officers almost invariably work six-day weeks, so Sunday evening is a brief period of rest before the hectic schedule resumes. But not this Sunday. There’s so much to do and even more to think about. I doubt there’ll be much rest between now and December 6th. The highs of Donegal lifting Sam two weeks ago are a distant memory.
MONDAYUSI officers hit the cobblestones of Trinity College. Last year some Trinity students objected to the way USI pursued its policy goals. They felt their views weren’t being reflected in the national union and questioned their affiliation with it. Our mission is simple: show them that they’re better off with USI.
I finish canvassing early and begin preparations for an affiliation debate organised by the Philosophical Society and the University Times, one of the college’s student newspapers. The theatre is packed and the atmosphere is tense. The advocates for disaffiliation speak well, but we counter effectively. This debate won’t decide the referendum result. Tomorrow we will hit the cobblestones again.
TUESDAYWaking up this morning, the only things on the schedule were an engagement at Áras an Uachtaráin with President Higgins, pre-budget planning and canvassing in TCD. USI is supporting the President’s “Being Young and Irish” initiative, and he invited us to the Áras to thank us for our support. However, like most days in USI, the schedule was quickly torn up by events.
News broke that Clare Co Council was sending letters to students who had applied for a maintenance grant, asking them to provide proof of payment of the household charge. If students didn’t provide this documentation, the council would delay the processing of the application and possibly withhold the grant altogether. The council was essentially victimising students for the decisions of their parents. For students whose college term had already begun, this could result in significant stress in paying fees and rent.
Within half an hour we had organised a protest outside Clare County Council offices, with busloads of students travelling from NUIG, GMIT and UL to lend their support. I did back-to-back radio interviews, on national and local stations. President Higgins’s communications director was even kind enough to let me use her office to take a call from Matt Cooper on Today FM.
The word was out: students would not accept this. By day’s end the county councils had backed down.
WEDNESDAYWith the council debacle behind us, it was time to prepare for my first official meeting with Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn. Scheduled weeks in advance, our meeting with the Minister would set the tone for negotiations with the department in the run-up to the budget.
In the months leading up to my election, I began doing my homework on Ruairí Quinn and quickly concluded that any campaign that targeted him alone would be ineffective. Having spent decades in public service, Quinn has signalled that he may not run for re-election, thus neutralising a representative group’s most potent weapon: removal of voter support. He was also a minister for finance, so our arguments would have to be logical and financially viable and could not rely on evoking sympathy from him and his team.
Despite this, our meeting was productive. He agreed to meet with USI four times a year and said that most issues were still up for negotiation. He admitted the postgraduate loan scheme he had introduced with Bank of Ireland was a poor substitute for the postgraduate maintenance grant, which he scrapped in the last budget. We are in the process of developing an alternative scheme, and the Minister signalled that his department would support it.
On the issue of undergraduate registration fees, however, he remains stubborn: €3,000 by 2015. When I started college, in 2008, the registration fee was €900. That’s an increase of 233 per cent.
This one will take some convincing. No one said this would be easy.
THURSDAYBack in Trinity. It’s the final day of voting in the referendum, and USI officers and our cohort of Trinity students are blitzing the campus.
The students who have engaged with this referendum reflect the critical mindset of the college. They demand an analysis of what it is we do as officers of a national union. It’s not enough to merely appeal to their desire to be part of a larger organisation; these students demand that we account for their affiliation fee, and rightly so.
Listing the services USI offers them and their students’ union officers is easy. Much harder, but more compelling by far, is the line of argument that reduces the debate to one basic principle: we are stronger together.
In the end it’s the argument that wins the day for us. Trinity votes no to disaffiliation and TCDSU stays on board. Having hosted the inaugural meeting of USI, on June 19th, 1959, Trinity reaffirms its commitment to the idea of a national union and solidarity among students. Still on the same team. Still working together.
FRIDAYA return to the war room. Budget 2013 is my one and only concern now.
At this point students’ union officers around the country are agreed that the annual student march is not a runner. We want to stage a different kind of campaign. While the big national protest provides us with a day in the media spotlight, and is a public sign of strength and unity, its political effectiveness is minimal. Quinn didn’t flinch last year. Why would he this year?
We quickly conclude that if we want to see our policies reflected in budget decisions then we have to build a groundswell of support at local level. It’s time to bring the fight for education into the towns and homes of students. It’s time for local politicians to hear our voice. Regional protests, town-hall meetings and a sustained period of pressure. Not just one day in the sun. A whole month of student activism carrying one simple message: we will no longer be punished for the mistakes of our elders. Give us a fair chance. Give us the chance that was promised to the generations that came before us.
We’ll see if he can ignore us then.
No one said it would be easy for him, either.
This week I was...
ReadingKennedy: An Unfinished Life by Robert Dalek
Listening toSoundtracks composed by Hans Zimmer
Visiting TED.comfor inspiration