Sneaking fees in through the back door.
The World Trade Organisation's General Agreement On Trades and Services, where government is forced to create an 'equal playing field' through the removal of 'barriers to trade' in the services industries has long been the subject of the anti-capitalist lefts' rhetoric and polemic. Barriers cited by the WTO include "the existence of government monopolies and high subsidisation of local institutions”. It is in this context of attacks on public services that the Irish Government has raised the student registration fees by 70% from 396 euros to 670 euros.
As part of his first significant moves as the new Education Minister, Noel Dempsey has also increased the standard maintenance grant by a pathetic 5%, representing an increase to 2,510 euro a year. A rise which will barely cover the projected rate of inflation for 2002, and go no where near tackling the tackling the huge discrepancy between the real cost of attending college, judged by the Irish Times today to be in excess of '6000 Euro for Arts, law and business courses, 8000 euro for science courses and 9000 for engineering courses' (1) and the amount received by students on the grant. It is perhaps the most cynical aspect of Dempsey’s move that he has attempted to disguise it in a facade of social inclusion. Increasing and extending the 'top up grant' for more disadvantaged students, on the same day that he has almost doubled the student registration fee. The reintroduction of tuition fees in Britain upon the election of New Labour was also dressed up in the rhetoric of wealth distribution and social inclusion.
In a press release responding to the Ministers Announcement, President of the spineless bureaucracy and talking shop that is the Union Of Students of Ireland, Colm Jordon described how 'It is little surprise that the Department chose to bury this news on a low key Friday morning in July when students are on a seasonal break rather than at a time when they can vent their fury at this disingenuous move.' (2) In a way it is perhaps fortunate for many of those holding office in Student Unions across the country, that the government has decided to make its move at such an opportune moment, when students bodies are broken up. President of UCD Students Union Aonghas Hourihane, best known for using the national media to air his support for the Garda violence and state repression which plagued the May 6th Reclaim the Streets Party on Dame Street, expressed disappointment at the rise in registration fees, but welcomed the rise in the grant. It was the UCD SU, which put forward the motion at USI National Congress two years ago which saw the cancellation of the effective campaign of demonstrations, occupations and days of action, which saw the government concede an additional top up grant and a five percent, increase in 2001. UCD SU is effectively in boycott of USI, after a co-ordinated attempt to sabotage the national union by abolishing many of the key full time positions within it, by Fianna fail controlled unions was set back by a number of months. USI have said they will make a 'comprehensive response to these announcements’, which will probably result in nothing more than another press release.
In the framework of GATS, free fees for undergraduates and the grant are defined as discriminatory payments and are being slowly phased out as governments across the world implement GATS. Jordon is correct to point out in his press release that Dempsey’s move represents an attempt to 'introduce fees by the back door'. Students in Spain have already fallen victim to the extensive intrusion of the private sector into education, with the right wing government’s introduction of the LOU and they have responded with a series of waves of protest. European student groups, networking over the Internet and outside the official structures of their unions if needs be, have been engaged in a 'Hot Summer Of Protest' (5) against attacks on education. In one example of the anger among continental students, on June 18 following a wave of occupations and decentralised protests 8,000 students stormed the regional parliament of the German state of North-Rhein-Westphalia. Check out http://education.portal.dk3.com/ and http://www.education-is-not-for-sale.org for more comprehensive details of what has been happening across Europe. Student blocs have been organised at the past two EU Summits, as opposition rises to the EU Commissions implementation of the Bologna Declaration of 1998, which seeks to pave the way to a uniform system of higher education, all in the vein of privatisation.
Education in Ireland too is facing into a period of major restructuring and change. Despite claims made by successive governments about improving access to third level education, not a lot as changed since the abolition of college fees in 1995. The refusal to significantly extend the ridiculously low income threshold which determines if a student receives the grant means that only 37 per cent of university students and 47 per cent of students (to use Minister Dempsey’s figures) in ITs receive financial support from the government. The composition of those attending third level education hasn't seen any significant change despite the creation of free education' at third level. In fact the past decade has only seen a 0.02% rise in the number of disadvantaged students reaching third level. It is a harsh reality, that those with most to gain from campaigning and fighting for a decent accessible education system are not those already in third level education but the hundreds of thousands of secondary students and young workers who will never reach third level because of the financial impediments maintained by successive governments. The attitude that dominates many of those holding office in student unions is that concern should not stretch beyond those already in college. Any attempt to broaden the horizon of student unions is met with declarations that they are strictly apolitical bodies, with a leadership more concerned with maintaining services on campus, than tackling the educational disadvantage that ensures those same campuses remain the sole reserve of the lucky few. Those in the positions of most influence in Unions are only to willing to admit their complete ignorance of issues like GATS and privatisation and when forced to act will dismiss and whitewash concern as the paranoia of the Looney left.
The Skilbeck report issued by the Higher Educational Authority a number of months ago gives ominous signals for the direction of Irish Education, recommending among many things the abolition of the grant, re-introduction of tuition fees, increased links with industry and increased use of money from the private sector to fund education. A similar move by the government in 72-73 when the attendance fees were raised from £87 to £105 led to a weeklong occupation of Earlsfort Terrace. A rise in capitation fees in the early 90s also led to a 100 strong-attempted occupation of the UCD Administration building. The Skilbeck report didn't cause many in leading student union positions to bat an eyelid. The main organised criticism in UCD came from the SIPTU Education Branch there and not from the student union. A poll on http://www.usi.ie perhaps confirms many things, despite the development of the anti-capitalist movement here; student activism is not as strong as it once was. The majority of students today are engaged in a very different kind of struggle, and that is the struggle for economic survival.
See http://www.education-is-not-for-sale.org for organsised student resistance across borderrs against attacks on education
See http://int-protest-action.tripod.com/id11.htm for an archive of articles relating to education and privatisation