Posted tagged ‘USI’

Taking the pledge

February 22, 2011

In the run-up to the 2010 general election in the United Kingdom, the National Union of Students (NUS) persuaded a number of parliamentary candidates to sign their ‘vote for students’ pledge, which contained the following commitment:

‘I pledge to vote against any increase in fees in the next parliament and to pressure the government to introduce a fairer alternative.’

Amongst those who signed were, famously, all Liberal Democrat MPs, including their leader Nick Clegg. As we know, Clegg subsequently led his party into a coalition government with the Conservatives, and this government adopted the modified proposals put forward by the Browne review and approved a significant increase in tuition fees, up to a maximum of £9,000. Clegg has since distanced himself from the pledge he had signed, and has indicated repeatedly that he now regretted signing it. In the meantime students have in their anti-fees protests targeted Clegg in particular, and it is expected that by the timne of the next election concerted attempts will be made to ensure he does not get re-elected. More generally his popularity has plummeted, and mostly this is put down to the impact of the pledge and his breaking of it.

And now it seems that the same story may be about to be played out on the other side of the Irish Sea.  Here the Union of Students in Ireland has also produced a pledge. Exactly what its wording is has, curiously, not been publicly disclosed by USI, though it is paraphrased or summarised on its website as a promise ‘not to re-introduce third level fees, to protect students supports and to tackle the graduate emigration crisis.’

Yesterday Ruairi Quinn, Labour Party education spokesperson, publicly signed this pledge. Was that a wise decision? Ruairi Quinn is an intelligent and innovative thinker, and is genuinely committed to education. He is also known to be very proud of the Labour Party’s role in abolishing tuition fees in the 1990s. However, like Nick Clegg he may find circumstances will not be ideal for this commitment, as university funding collapses further and financial pressures mount. Even before signing the pledge, he had already hinted publicly that it may not be possible to avoid student contributions.

Following the general election and the formation of a government, there will certainly be detailed discussions about higher education funding. The universities will certainly make it clear that they are facing a financial catastrophe; and government officials will make it clear that there is no more public money. There is a very strong and honorable case for free higher education, but we are at a point where that no longer looks affordable unless we accept a cut price version as acceptable. And so the political risks to those who have signed pledges will be immense, and like Nick Clegg they may find that it will come back to haunt them.

I cannot help feeling that Ruairi Quinn is taking a big, big gamble. And I am not sure why.

Students vs staff in the Great Crisis?

December 13, 2010

According to some reports, the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) have called for a renegotiation of the Croke Park agreement – the agreement between the Irish government and the public sector trade unions under which further pay cuts for public servants were ruled out – in order to protect student ‘frontline services’. Although I have not seen any elaboration of this demand, it means, presumably, that the USI want salaries to be cut and the savings re-allocated to the teaching and student services budgets in the universities and colleges.

It is unlikely, I would think, that the government will want to re-open the Croke Park agreement just for the universities, and in any case that would generate a fairly strong union response. But it will be interesting to see whether this demand gets traction, and what the nature of the debate will be, should there be one. I am not aware, so far, of any trade union response, nor indeed any response by the universities and institutes.

Is there a national student movement?

November 14, 2010

DCU’s students – or those who voted in a referendum on the issue – have decided not to re-affiliate to the Union of Students in Ireland (USI). The vote was decisive, with around 70 per cent rejecting the proposal.

Back in the 1970s when I was a student in Dublin, all students of all the universities were members of USI. Now, apart from DCU, two other major institutions are not affiliated. What are the implications, particularly as USI tries to construct an anti-fees campaign? Does it speak for the national student body? Is such a a voice needed today, or has the time for such things passed?

An academic assessment of protest?

November 13, 2010

Following the recent violent actions on the margins of major student protest marches in both Dublin and London, the official student bodies in both cases denounced these actions by the small number of protesters who had taken part. But these denunciations have in turn been sharply criticised by representatives of local lecturers’ unions. In the relation the Dublin events, a letter was sent by members of the Maynooth branch committee of the Irish Federation of University Teachers (IFUT) to the President of the university’s Student Union. The key passage in the letter is the following:

‘Rather than criticise the actions of those who attacked the student demonstrators, the President of USI chose instead to condemn those of his own members who had attempted to occupy the Department of Finance. In our view, his comments on Wednesday last represent a shameful betrayal of those whom he was elected to serve and represent.’

In relation to the protest and violent occupation of the Conservative Party offices in London, the President and Secretary of the University and College Union branch at Goldsmiths College London issued a statement that contains the following:

‘We also wish to condemn and distance ourselves from the divisive and, in our view, counterproductive statements issued by the UCU and NUS leadership concerning the occupation of the Conservative Party HQ. The real violence in this situation relates not to a smashed window but to the destructive impact of the cuts and privatisation that will follow if tuition fees are increased and if massive reductions in HE funding are implemented.’

I have no idea of course whether these statements reflect wider views amongst academics in the universities concerned, but in any case they will hugely alienate those whose support will be needed by students and staff who are concerned about government policies and want to express their concerns. The actions by a minority of student protestors have subverted the agenda of the demonstrations, so that what is now being discussed is not the issues but the violence, and for some academics to attempt to reinforce that perspective is plainly stupid. If they want to express solidarity, it should be with the majority of the student protestors, not the violent minority.


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