Trinity students threaten strike over postgraduate fee increases

University says move needed to help return it to financially sustainable position

 

Postgraduate students at Trinity College Dublin have threatened industrial strike action in response to plans to increase their fees.

Trinity is set to raise its postgraduate fees by five per cent – several hundred euros for most students – for the 2018/2019 academic year.

This follows a four per cent increase in 2014 and annual increases of three per cent every year since.

At a meeting at Trinity on Monday night, postgraduate students warned that many are in danger of dropping out of their programmes due to new fee increases.

Some PhD students, who also act as teaching assistants and spend several hours a week teaching undergraduate students and grading assignments, are exploring the option of a strike or work-to-rule in protests over the fee increases.

Fees for masters are significantly higher than that of the €3,000 contribution fee for undergraduate students.

Postgraduate fees in Trinity mostly range from €4,000 to €15,000 for EU students, depending on the course.

The five per cent increase means PhD candidates in arts, humanities and social science face a €300 hike in fees, while costs for masters in computer science will rise from €7,162 to €7,520.

According to a survey conducted by the Trinity Graduate Students’ Union, 53 per cent of arts, humanities and social science PhD candidates said that they were concerned about their ability to financially survive the duration of their programme, with 50 per cent of engineering, maths and science PhD candidates indicating the same concern.

When asked in the same survey what level of increase in fees would make it impossible for them to continue their programme, 44 per cent of arts, humanities and social studies PhD candidates said that any increase would have this impact, while 32 per cent of engineering, maths and social science PhD candidates voiced the same sentiments.

Along with fee increases, it has become increasingly difficult for students to find affordable accommodation in Dublin.

Trinity’s on-campus accommodation saw price increases of up to 12.1 per cent in 2016, with a further 12.7 per cent increase in 2017.

President of Trinity’s Graduate Student Union, Shane Collins said: “As most of the growth in international student numbers is at postgraduate level, it is difficult to see this approach, if continued, being received well internationally.

“For students in multi-year programmes, this volatility in pricing of programmes has a major impact on their welfare and also their view of Ireland. Particularly when a large number of these students are in receipt of loans to pursue education here.”

A statement from Trinity’s financial services division said the increase of five per cent was proposed following a review of the fees of peer universities and market analysis.

“Comparisons with the fee levels of other universities here and in the UK supported the increase in fees, as Trinity’s pricing is generally below that of its competitors, particularly for postgraduate programmes. Trinity’s pricing is now more closely aligned with that of its peers,” the statement said.

“The additional income generated will support the delivery of academic programmes along with operational and service enhancements, while also contributing to the university’s return to a financially sustainable position in light of the continuing reductions in government funding in the past number of years.”

Town hall meeting

At Monday night’s town hall meeting to discuss the rise in postgraduate fees, began with a panel featuring Senator David Norris, Dr Eoin O’Dell of Trinity’s Law School, Dr John Walsh of the Irish Federation of University Teachers, and Natalie Glynn and Danielle O’Sullivan, two postgraduate students.

Students were later invited to give their opinions and thoughts on what the rise in fees will mean for them.

Students highlighted the “tax” upon them just by living in Dublin, where living costs are significantly higher than elsewhere in the country, and that the level of fees does not justify the “glorified library membership” some students feel they have, doing courses with few contact hours where the majority of their time is spent in the library doing research or writing essays.

Referring to news that Irish universities can now pay top lecturers up to €250,000, Dr Walsh said: “The way to attract world-class researchers, is to attract world-class PhD students.”

He feels the treatment of post-doc students in Ireland is so poor, that he would “openly tell people not to do a post-doc”.

He added: “The reason politicians don’t show up to meetings like this, is because they don’t take students seriously.”

When asked why the Government has not introduced fee capping, Mr Norris said that the “Government may be hesitant to intervene in terms of the finances of the university”, but that he would certainly ask the question of his colleagues.

The college does not currently have a price-capping policy in place, meaning that fees could increase again in 2019, particularly affecting students in multi-year programmes.

‘I’m wondering why I bothered moving from my home country for this’

Joana Blanquer

Third-year medieval poetry PhD candidate in Trinity’s school of English

Blanquer, from Perpignan in France, does not have funding for her research for next year and worries that she may have to drop out as a result.

A five per cent increase in fees would mean her fees would rise by over €300, from €6,173 to €6,481.

“Even as is, I’m not sure if I’m able to cover the fees, so any increase would be awful,” she says.

“I’ve worked so hard just to get to here and now that I’m so close to the finish line the idea that I may not get this, not because of my academic ability, which I think I’ve more than proven, but just because something as stupid as a university cares more about their bottom line than about education, is just a joke.”

The fees for non-EU students are higher, at approximately €10,000 per year, and will increase by approximately €500 if the proposed fees are introduced.

Three years into a four-year programme, Blanquer sometimes wishes she hadn’t pursued studying at Trinity.

“I’m wondering why I bothered moving from my home country for this, which already in itself is traumatic.”

‘We’re heading in the same direction as other countries with astronomical fees’

Amy Walsh

MSc in dementia at Trinity’s school of nursing and midwifery

“Technically, these fee increase don’t affect me. I’m here for one year and I’m gone after that, but I know coming from a country where fees are astronomical, that this is headed in the same direction.

“I implore other people in the same boat to take issue with this because it might affect all of us in the future if we go on to do PhDs, if we go on to do another taught masters, it’s really something that we should look at affecting the common good.”

Walsh’s fees are €18,000 for the year-long course as a non-EU resident student, and it is approximately €10,000 for EU resident students.

Walsh also holds the position of health science officer in the Graduate Students’ Union.

“I deal directly with all of the health science faculty, class reps and school reps. PhDs, multi-year, part-time, they’re all part of my ‘constituency’.”

“Most people in health science are part-time, working full-time, with families, and they don’t have time to come to town hall meetings, they don’t want to pay increased fees because they chose to do a two-year part-time course. I know that’s the feeling across the university, who wants to pay more?”

Walsh feels strongly that while most one-year taught masters are just one year in duration, there are other factors to be taken into consideration. “Yeah, it’s one year of your life but it’s one year that you might be struggling with accommodation, and a multitude of other factors that they can be dealing with.

“Especially international students, they’re not with their home networks and supports, and facing cultural difference and culture shocks.”