Interview with President of the Union of Students in Ireland

It’s been a long five years since the iconic moment when Ruairi Quinn, later to become Minister for Education in the Fine Gael/Labour coalition, signed the USI pledge committing himself and Labour to opposing any further increase in student fees. A pledge he memorably broke soon after. Half a decade ago was a time of economic turmoil and broad public discontent, which ultimately bubbled over in the form of dramatic student protests in Dublin, attended by thousands of students from both the Republic and the North at the same time as similar protests in London.

I raised the idea with Kevin Donoghue, USI President, that while the journey of student politics since that turbulent time has involved successful campaigns for higher minimum wages for student nurses and midwives, and a prominent position in the campaign for marriage equality, the role of students and the USI has largely been overshadowed by crises in health, housing and water, and by the rise of left-wing forces such as AAA-PBP and Sinn Fein.

His response was that this isn’t really the case. He argues that “issues we’re looking at are being brought even more into the mainstream” in the sense that a comparison between the USI manifesto and the manifestos of groups like Sinn Fein reveals distinct similarities. Donoghue points to there being a commitment to free education, reform of the grant system and provision of affordable housing, as well as to abortion legislation, from parties and politicians across the spectrum. There has been a commitment from political parties, from Sinn Fein to Fine Gael, to student issues “right the way from upper-level issues like free education down to more nuanced issues around the grant”. The point was also made that many of the issues prioritised by the USI and student activists are issues that significantly and directly affect students, such as housing and abortion, but aren’t unique to students.

In relation to housing and the Fine Gael proposals to reduce planning restrictions to allow for more student accommodation to be constructed Kevin made it clear that “the idea of alleviating restrictions on its own won’t fix either the student accommodation or general accommodation issues…it’s not a case of one measure will address the problem because there’s a number of different reasons for the problem”. Kevin makes the point that on an issue like housing there is no “silver bullet” and it can’t be looked at solely as a problem of student housing. He feels that more needs to be done than simply alleviating restrictions so people aren’t put in a position where they’re settling for below standard accommodation because there isn’t enough.

“There is a serious (but understandable) temptation to get ourselves into that space where we’re just like ‘oh it’s not the best situation, but sure we’ll let it go’ because we need the accommodation, we need quality accommodation for all areas of society”.

Various solutions are needed to solve this issue in the short, medium and long term, which is why USI are promoting digs because they provide a short-term solution to the shortage in housing, but at the same time there is a need to rezone land specifically for purpose built accommodation, a provision of more jobs outside of Dublin so people can afford to rent, and then “institutions and student unions need to be able to invest in purpose built student accommodation…it’s important to follow the example of some of our European partners like the Netherlands where in Amsterdam, for example, 25% of all student beds are owned by student unions,” which ensures the right quality and affordability. There is also the possibility that the government takes on a more direct role in provision of accommodation, or at the very least facilitates the provision, so that there can be an end to what Kevin calls “stupid barriers” to education such as the inability to afford somewhere to live, which he sees as a ridiculous barrier seeing as we rely so heavily on having a highly educated population.

While fewer people are emigrating and more people are finding work, new figures released on the morning of this interview (March 7th) by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation showed that millenials, also known as Generation Y, across the developed world are facing greater inequality and lower income and prospects than their parents’ generation, with Generation Y now poorer than retirees in many countries in the West, and earning 20% below many national averages, a trend that was developing well before the financial crisis of 2008.

Kevin Donoghue points out that the government has in the last five years allowed, and in many cases supported, the development of terrible work practices.

“In addition to causing damage itself, it (JobBridge) essentially validates the likes of unpaid internships, and if you look at it from the perspective of an employer you do not pay anything as a result of having a JobBridge intern who works a full week”.

This is a practice that makes young people in particular suffer, despite the fact that they have 18 years or more of education, and when these people do get paid work it’s completely acceptable for the salary to be lower than it’s supposed to be. The cost of higher education makes this even worse when you consider how much has been paid for the qualifications people entering the workforce have, particularly for those who have amounted significant sums of debt in doing so.

“Not only do you have to do a JobBridge or unpaid internship, you’re actually supposed to be grateful for the experience of being exploited”

There are plenty of businesses and employers who offer “good conditions, good work and good pay because that’s the way you’re supposed to treat employees”, but the validation of exploitation undermines this. There are even JobBridge positions that require a PhD qualification, which would be enough for that person to be considered an expert in their field and would often place them at the top of the payscale in their work. Instead of addressing the lack of good quality jobs with good pay for young people and graduates, the government has essentially been giving many people no option other than to leave the country or engage in unpaid work. To address this problem USI would advocate “legislating for the removal of zero-hour contracts and unpaid internships, and the phasing out of JobBridge to bring essentially the floor up” while also introducing a living-wage so people aren’t forced to earn less than is necessary to cover basic living costs. As an end note on this topic Kevin made it clear that “good employers don’t need to worry about any of the things I’m talking about”.

In recent years it has become increasingly apparent that learning in both higher education and second level education is compartmentalized, with each subject or module having little apparent relevance to the others. For example, a first year human nutrition student in UCD would do a physics module, which has no clear link to either the other modules or their overall degree. At the same time, many academics feel that students entering higher education from the Leaving Cert are doing so with limited analysis, evaluation and research skills, which are vital not only in higher education, but also in many jobs and in various aspects of life.

“We work extensively on that issue, including with the National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning” which looks at various transitions in learning, from second level to higher level, and from higher level into work and the difficulties that arise there.

“It’s a very strange situation in terms of how you’re assessed at Leaving Cert level in order to get into college. If you want to get into a university you need a third European language, but in order to study French at third level you don’t actually have to have studied French in second level. I studied Law, all the subjects are essentially interconnected, but you’d quite often find it difficult to connect the path between the two subjects despite their apparent and very obvious connections. Those are problems that we need to tackle in a semesterised and modularised system. We need to reintroduce learning as opposed to education, and the idea of students as partners in education as opposed to passive consumers”.

USI’s plans for the future don’t include actively pursuing the remaining colleges that aren’t affiliated to the USI, the only two left being UCD and University of Limerick. UCD Students Union had a referendum on membership three years ago, which resulted in a decisive vote to leave, and another referendum on the same topic was held again in early March 2016, which again produced a decisive vote against membership of USI, with 74% voting against rejoining. While not seeking out the membership of these colleges, Kevin makes it clear that they are not competing with USI as they are operating at different levels. As he puts it, they’re “on different football pitches”, with the student unions in UCD and UL operating more locally, but they will and do cooperate with one another when the situation arises. The USI is also seeking to continue it’s work on voter registration and on pressuring political parties to commit to various issues relating to students and young people, while their Northern Irish wing, NUS-USI, is gearing up for the Assembly elections this summer and for the campaign for marriage equality.

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