With September looming, the annual news cycle has invariably turned to the perennial problem of student accommodation, or, more correctly, the lack of it.
What is increasingly clear is that, with their eye-watering rents, the newly built purpose built student accommodation blocks found on most college campuses have done little to alleviate the issue. In fact, far from providing a solution to the accommodation problem, they are starting to look more like corporate investment vehicles.
Sky high accommodation costs are by no means the only financial obstacle facing prospective third level students though. The thorny issue of fees and funding of third level in general remains despite the best efforts of various politicians to kick this can down the road for as long as humanly possible.
College fees have quite a history in the Irish electoral cycle. Abolished by Labour’s Niamh Bhreathnach in 1996, they were effectively reintroduced by the back door and renamed the ‘Student Registration Charge’ or ‘Student Contribution Fee’. Today, in what reads like something from the Father Ted handbook of broken political promises, students qualify for ‘free fees’ at undergraduate level by paying a €3,000 registration charge.
Despite a widely acknowledged funding crisis at third level, it seems that there is no end to the ambitions of politicians to use the fees issue for their own electoral advantage. The latest instalment in the free fees saga has seen Fine Gael announce that there will be no increase in the €3,000 Student Registration Charge for five years if they are returned to power.
Students – and their parents – have become accustomed to being duped and hoodwinked by politicians over-promising. Perhaps this might explain why the Irish public appear to have become so lax in scrutinizing the welter of backdoor levies, taxes and charges imposed on them to make up for various funding shortfalls.
The student capitation fee is a good example of one such charge. This is payable to the college by all students, including those entitled to a SUSI grant, and goes towards paying for student facilities and services. The capitation fee in UCD is €254 while in UCC it is €250 annually.
No one will argue about the need for student services and especially student welfare services but questions remain around the transparency of elements of this same charge. For example, most will be unaware that this capitation fee includes compulsory membership of both the Students’ Union and the Union of Students of Ireland (USI).
Presumably, the thinking is that in order to have student services you have to fund overtly political entities such as a Students’ Union and the USI. But just how reasonable is this? If you were to follow this same logic in the health service, those accessing hospital services would be required to take out membership of SIPTU or some other such union.
Insisting that you have to become a paid up member of a Students’ Union and the highly politicised USI in order to support student services in your college is straining credibility. After all, it is the students and their parents – not the Students’ Union or the USI – who actually fund these services. Surely, it should be possible to devise a system whereby people are given a choice about joining – and funding – what are essentially political organisations.
You can understand the dilemma of students in all of this. Most are so grateful to get a place on a course that if they were told that joining the Flat Earth Society was a condition of registration, they would probably comply.
It’s hardly surprising that the beneficiaries of this membership levy are not complaining. Take the Union of Students of Ireland – it boasts an impressive membership of 374,000 the vast majority of whom, it would appear, were arm twisted into joining the organisation in much the same way as people in the old Soviet Union were forced to join the Komsomol, the Communist Party youth wing.
Grandiose claims about being ‘the voice of Irish students’ are all well and good but how well do these claims actually stand up? Student Union elections provide an illuminating insight into this same claim. In 2018, voter turnout in the TCD student elections was about 22% of the student body – and that was viewed as a particularly big turnout. The same figure for DCU that year was 18% while over at UCD it was as low as 12% – hardly indicative of a popular grassroots movement representing the views of students?
Student politics on Irish college campuses tend to be characterised by the usual predictable checklist of leftist slogans and dog-whistles. The fact that a silent majority are forced to fund the political activities of a small vocal minority seems to count for nothing.
Far from being an open inclusive platform for debate, much of what passes for student politics is a type of shrill rhetoric designed to close down debate. The hounding from office of UCD SU President Katie Ascough in 2017 because of her pro-life views was a salutary reminder of this.
The great irony, of course, is that while ‘choice’ was the clarion call of many student activists during the Referendum on the Eighth Amendment in 2018, these same people have no problem denying others the choice of deciding whether or not to join the Union of Students of Ireland. The colleges, despite much virtue signalling and flag waving on the topic of rights, seem quite happy to go along with this denial of choice.
Students face enough financial costs without the imposition of compulsory membership of political organisations whose outlook they may not share. This is not just a financial concern – it goes to the heart of individual rights such as the freedom to associate.
Fifty years ago, the great libertarian cause on Irish campuses was asserting the right to join a union. Today, that same libertarian cause may well be asserting the right not to be compelled to join that same union.