Whatever happened to Labour’s pledge on fees?

A betrayal. That’s how the Union of Students in Ireland described it. the Labour Party, after being out of government for well over a decade, came into the Dáil on the back of their best result ever. One of their many promises was no new third-level fees.

At the time, students had been facing rising fees for years. Fees were actually abolished by a coalition that included Labour before being brought back under the next Fianna Fáil government, led by Bertie Ahern.

The new “registration fee” was relatively minor at first, starting out at £250 in 1998. Over the next decade, however, students were paying an average contribution of €850, which almost doubled to €1,500 in 2009.

After the €64 billion bank bailout in November 2009, the next budget in 2010 was described as “the most draconian in the history of the state” by The Irish Independent. Included in the cuts was the possibility of a €500 increase in the student registration charge, bringing it up to €2,000.

On November 3rd 2010, just a few months before the election in February 2011 which saw Labour form part of government, Eamon Gilmore questioned then Taoiseach Brain Cowen on the issue of increased fees in the upcoming budget.

This was relatively familiar territory for the Labour Party Leader, who frequently stated his opposition to any increase in third-level fees. It was also not long after the bank bailout, with Cowen almost at the height of his unpopularity, having narrowly survived a second vote of no confidence.

Cowen was mere months away from resigning after a disastrous cabinet reshuffle, and Gilmore was now one of the most popular leaders in the country. When he pressed Cowen about the fees, he got no response.

Gilmore asked whether “at a time when there is very high unemployment, it makes sense to put new fee obstacles in the way of people going into education”. He also stressed that Labour were opposed to any increase in fees “by the back door”, namely by increasing the student registration fee.

Gilmore talked about the possibility that the student registration fee might increase to a possible €3,000 (it currently stands at €2,500), something which the Labour Party strongly opposed while in opposition, with Gilmore in particular being a stern opponent to any type of increase.

He stated in a 2008 speech that “keeping third-level free is about more than making it accessible to lower-income students, though it has had some success at that. It is a signal that there will be no arbitrary cap on learning, no artificial limit to a person’s potential.”

Just days before the 2011 election, Labour’s spokesperson on education, Ruairi Quinn, now Minister for Education, went to Trinity College to sign a USI pledge amid a flurry of media attention, promising no increase in third-level fees if Labour got into government.

At the time, Quinn assured students and their parents there was absolutely no chance of a U-turn, stating the pledge was “a commitment to the renewal of the Irish economy”.

In the run up to the election the party even promised to reverse the €500 increase in fees proposed by Fianna Fáil, and stated in their election manifesto that “Labour abolished third-level fees in 1995, and we are opposed to their re-introduction. We refuse to go back to the days when only the relatively wealthy could count on going to third level, or when a family could only afford to send one of their children to college.”

By 2015 fees will have increased by €250 for every year that Labour and Fine Gael have been in government.

Labour brought in exactly the same increase in fees that Fianna Fáil had proposed, meaning that the by the time of the next election the current government will have increased fees more than any other government in history.

Students have not taken kindly to the increases in fees and cuts to grants, with protests and marches becoming almost an annual event in several cities. The USI has led several significant protests against fee increases, accusing Labour of betrayal.

Perhaps the most prominent of these occurred in November 2011 when three student union presidents, led by then USI President Gary Redmond, occupied a room in the Department of Social Protection.

The students, who had several weeks food supply and even a chemical toilet, claimed that they would not leave until the government outlined their position on fees. The four were barely in the department before Gardaí arrived at the scene, broke down the door and arrested them.

However this did nothing to stop similar protests; the next day nine students occupied the office of Fine Gael TD Brian Walsh and climbed on top of the building putting up a banner which read “FREE EDUCATION, NOTHING LESS”. All nine were also arrested although they, like the previous four, were released without charge.

The USI is now attempting to organise a voting block of 50,000 students by next year’s local elections. However, at the time of writing only 5,000 had signed up to the database to register as a voter. USI President Joe O’Connor said he hoped the figure would double for voting on the Seanad referendum, with the USI going against the government by pushing for a “No” vote.

O’Connor has expressed his hope that, if the target of 50,000 students registered is reached, students may be able to have “an influence and can radically effect the results of any referendum or election”.

Even now the protests against fee increases continue, as last week 800 students in Dublin and 2,000 in Sligo marched to show their opposition. This, however, is a far cry from the 25,000 who marched in the centre of Dublin in 2010, in what was described by The Irish Times as “the largest student protest for a generation”.

After the massive turnout in 2010, many in Ireland and abroad, such as Paris news portal Presseurop, wondered “Has Ireland awoken?”. The online site said the huge protest showed that Ireland had not “taken austerity measures with passive resignation”.

With turnouts shrinking as fees rise, perhaps Ireland still has to wake up.

Paul O Donoghue

Image credit: Michael Foley via flickr.com

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