Originally written in the Summer of 2003.
It’s been something of a heady year in UCD, sometimes it feels like everything has happened so fast that a year has passed in a month. Then at other times it seems that those of us active in UCD are leaving this year with the experiences and memories of more than one year. It is difficult to have anything resembling an accurate mental chronology of it in my head. There exists just some vague collage of activity and the ensuing ups and downs. One of the lessons to draw from this is the need to archive and preserve what is happening around us, not out of any sense of egotism or over estimation of our own importance, but because of the need to pass on a legacy of struggle to future activists, no matter how big or insignificant the success or failure, a repository of method and struggle can only advance.
With the advent of the internet in recent years and the increased computer literacy of activists there is a ready made medium of preservation through websites and independent media outlets. Perhaps one of our first and most lasting mistakes was not to utilise these ready made tools which have proven to facilitate and solidify the growth of student activist groups on the continent.
Much of the inspiration behind the CFE came from such internet sites and archives, from the development of autonomous student movements which have been developing on the continent in the past few years. The waves of protest which swept the continent in March 2001, as students in networks like the European Education is Not For Sale Network (http://www.education-is-not-for-sale.org) communicated across borders, through the internet to mobilise against the EU Summit in Seville and the creeping corporate take over of education prompted an examination of the failures of the Irish Student movement.
One could only reach the conclusion that there was no real solid basis in Irish campuses for the formation of such a movement. The task was and still is to build one. What exists are fragmented ecological groups and left wing political groups which spout the slogans of the anti-capitalist movement but decapitate the spirit of autonomy and of grass roots organisation which provide the movements backbone, allowing it to grow organically and at a pace it can sustain itself. The importance of these waves of protests and on how they provided an ideological basis for the formation of the CFE can not be underestimated. Many of the activists involved in the early stages of the campaign were hardened campus activists from UCD, basing much of their energies in efforts like Global Action, which had started in an effort to bring some of the momentum of the anti-capitalist movement abroad to UCD. When news of the planned European Days of Action against the Salmanca Education Summit reached us through email lists, discussions broke out about attempting to organise solidarity actions in UCD. There was no atmosphere for mobilisations, so ideas focused on propaganda stunts to introduce Irish students to the adverse affects of globalisation on an ideological basis, ideas ranged from banner drops to setting up toll booths in college buildings demanding tuition fees from passing students. However the energy simply wasn’t there, and the day of action fell on a college break, so it would have been a futile attempt.
Since Genoa a massive attempt had been made by the Irish left to artificially import anti-capitalism to Ireland, and UCD was no different, on-campus campaigns focussed mostly on the abstract, with no real conception of the interaction between international issues and their manifestation at a local level, so despite constant arguments no real attempt had been made by campus activists to reach out to students.
Sometimes, this process simply requires the jettisoning of the activist vocabulary in favour of that of the everyday, it is impossible to defeat globalisation, who wants to smash the letters W,T and O, they are simply letters, an abstraction, but it is possible to defeat and rally students around the very real consequences of globalisation, such as fees and educational cutbacks. In effect for activists in UCD, the rise in capitation fees prompted a serious consideration of the slogan “think global and act local”.
If the CFE in UCD has been a part of a slow process of once again legitimising student mobilisation and direct action as a tactic within the student movement, then the starting point for this process in UCD began with the passing of a motion calling for a demonstration for a better grant at student council in 2002. The motion was put forward by a coalition of independent socialists, Socialist Youth and members of what is now Socialist Alternative. The protest was a damp affair, but empowering none the less for those involved, it showed a way forward outside the ridiculous voter registration and Pat The Politician affair of USI. There was a concious effort even then to link up the derisory grant payment with the spectre of fees, which could really only be identified through international trade agreements and the Skilbeck Report.
The next time you receive official documentation from your college in regards free fees, please note the manner in which “free” is enclosed in quotation marks. If bureaucracy can afford a sense of sarcasm when dealing with the issue, then its about time we realise, students have had the piss taken out of us for years. The government bureaucracy itself can recognise the fallacy of free education and we do very little to address the dichotomy between ideal and real which effects each and every one of us. So, when the 69% increase in registration fees was announced in July, none of us should have been surprised. GATS had long been swimming around with the rest of those acronyms which make up the activists alphabet soup of IMF, WTO, WEF and so on, but the practical significance of these letters had yet to be realised.
The world’s leaders have decided that it is business and not citizens which will dictate the future of public services. The World Trade Organization’s General Agreement On Trade In Services (GATS) wants the government to surrender public services to a private sector where the sole concern is the creaming off of profit with scant regard for the needs of students and the tax payer.
The EU commission describes GATS as ‘first and foremost an instrument for the benefit of business’. Business Lobbyists use the disturbing argument that ‘schools will respond better to paying customers like any other business’. The US business lobby is highly critical of the ‘culture of laziness which continues in the European education system, where students take liberties to pursue subjects not directly related to industry. Instead they are pursuing subjects which have no practical application’. The governments and the global business elite behind GATS want an education system intricately linked to the market and profit. The removal of “barriers” to trade in education services will lead to massive cutbacks in Higher Education. The GATS negotiations aim to remove barriers to free trade in order to give foreign competitors equal access to the Irish education `market’. Barriers cited by the WTO include “the existence of government monopolies and high subsidisation of local institutions”. Free fees for undergraduates and the grant are ‘discriminatory payments’ and face the axe under GATS.
Here in Ireland we have already fallen victim to the first step in this process with the rolling back of free fees introduced in 1996 and a massive 69% hike in registration. A year ago only the obscure Skilbeck report carried out by the Government’s ‘Higher Educational Authority’ hinted at the direction education here was being pushed in. Now in the space of a few months, public discourse has been pushed by the government towards things that were previously unthinkable, the abolition of the grant, re-introduction of full tuition fees, increased links with industry and increased business funding of education. Creating a closed education system, and one totally geared to meeting the needs of big business. In schools, Public Private Partnerships (PPP) are already in action across Ireland, where taxpayers money is used to start up projects before handing them over to the private sector where profit is siphoned off. The end result of this would be a situation any public education that remained would be forced into constant competition with the private sector, leading to funding cutbacks and colleges about as accessible as Tony O’Reilly Hall is to UCD students.
In North America, especially in Canada, this neo-liberalism is being enthusiastically embraced by political elites as a panacea to the social ills of the country. Ontario in particular has slashed expenditure for health, education and social welfare, similar to the current Irish experience, all under the guise of fiscal discipline. The end result of this has been a dramatic increase in fees. Some estimates place the cost of attending college at an average 20%-25% of the average family income, it must also be remembered that at the same time the average family income has not increased, while the cost of basic educational materials like texts and so on has increased drastically. The inability of the family to subsidise education forces a majority of students to depend upon borrowed money particularly from government sponsored student loans. Students there now graduate not only with degrees but with an average $30,000 debt, with few prospects for well paid employment forcing increasing numbers to declare personal bankruptcy as the only means to cope with the financial pressure.
THE FORMATION OF THE CAMPAIGN.
When the ministers announcement came in July, the only response it received from our representatives in USI was a press statement of condemnation, it was this failure to respond and inadequacy which prompted the formation of the Campaign For Free Education. It was implausible that we could rely upon USI and our own union to represent us, when USI did respond, it repeated the photo opportunities of three years ago, dumping a pile of ducks in the Liffey. One other effort to raise the issue in the media was the hand cuffing of student union leaders to the Dails gates, before helpfully unlocking themselves after a symbolic period of time. These rare tokenistic acts were wholly insufficient.
The first meeting was called together in the space of a week organised by Socialist Alternative, Socialist Youth and a labour party activist. A number of students from Dublin colleges attended and discussed the formation of a campaign. Global Action had been discussing organising a student anti capitalist conference that summer, the idea never got off the ground, but its basic premise was adopted by the CFE to get activists together and form a network in preparation for September. Speakers were organised, but unfortunately, due to logistics the meeting never took place. At the same time about 800 stickers were put up around the cities colleges in an effort to get people involved.
One of the first mistakes we overcame was a reliance upon the existing left as a temporary basis and core for the campaign, despite several weeks of effort in terms of trying to establish a campaign in as many Dublin campuses as a possible, there was no real response from anybody outside of UCD, reconciled to this isolation, we retreated and began the process of organising in our own campus.
The CFE was consciously set up with the immediate aim of mobilising students and involving them collectively in building mass resistance to not just a rise in registration fees, but against educational inequality. In terms of public discourse, the issue facing the student movement at the moment is not the 69% increase, this is just a symptom of a wider problem. The government has long since shifted debate, it has covered itself in the language of social inclusion, a stance which has contributed to the idea of students as some selfish middle class elite out to safe guard our own privileged existence in campuses which remain no go areas for a vast majority of young people.
THE PROTESTS AND BUILDING THE CAMPAIGN IN UCD.
A meeting was organised on campus and attended by about 30 people. Widespread discussion was held on the course of action, occupations, motorway blockades and marches. An all important activist list was formed, which proved essential .
But the moment which decisively shaped the campaign came when rumours abounded that Noel Dempsey was opening the new arts annex in the first week, with about 12 hours to mobilise, a number of us ran around frantically on campus shouting at students through a mega phone, for some reason they responded. The minister never showed up, but Brian Lenihan did and was duly received with a sit down blockade of the building by about 60 students, the cops were forced to drag many of us out of the way and the ensuing national and campus media coverage only raised the profile of the campaign within the college if not nationally.
This first action was decisive for two reasons. One, while in the past there had been attempts to organise impromptu protests they usually involved the left attempting to mobilise the left, here for the first time in years was a clear attempt to mobilise students not activists. Also this was not just a demonstration of anger, it saw a return to the politics of direct action and confrontation which if anything defines the CFE. Instead of creating spectacle and photo opportunities, the protest had an immediate goal which could be achieved to block Fianna Fails access to our campus in the exact same way in which they were blocking ours. If they create financial barriers, then we could just as easily create physical ones. For the first few months the slogan “they block our access, we block theirs” provided the impetus for the movement in the college.
The next day USI with several members of the CFE occupied the department of education, those of us who occupied from UCD did so because we believed Bertie Ahearn was visiting UCD the same day and protests on campus were being organised, we hoped simultaneous protests in UCD and the occupation would provide impetus to other student actions elsewhere, unfortunately, the USI occupation despite its success in terms of creating a media frenzy, did little to mobilise and empower students. Those students who did come down to support the occupation, came only to watch and support and were not encouraged by USI to take action themselves. They were congratulated and applauded, then they went home. CFE activists who were also outside the department gates distributed leaflets and formed activists lists in an effort to spread CFE elsewhere. When the police did ‘smash the student siege’ CFE activists organised blockades of the department gates, forcing the cops to release the occupiers through a side exit, rather than arrest them. On a bizarre Monthy Pythonesque note, a day or so after the protest I got a phone call from the USI deputy president, I was to meet him in town, where i was duly requested to dress up as a cowboy for the Star’s short lived ‘Free Edcuation’ campaign. I duly declined. This incident alone probably highlights USI’s failings, any publicity is good publicity, even if it serves only to make a farce of any student movement, and further provoke snorts of derision from the student body.
Early in the year we also used the class rep elections as a platform for our ideas on campus, seeing 21 people who stood on a platform of free education, collective mass action against fees and reclaiming the students union being elected. This was not just about occupying seats in a council, but a political stunt within itself. It represented an attempt to reclaim the union. The hacks that dominate the union do so through isolating the student body from the democratic process, by clouding it and simply not postering for things like council elections. Most students in UCD don’t know who their reps are, because their reps never seek a mandate, they just sneak in by getting a few mates to vote in an election nobody knows is happening. By actually seeking a mandate and by actually postering and leafleting for our candidates, explaining ourselves in front of lectures, we tried to return council to the general student body, by acknowledging their existence and actually recreating the democratic process, forcing other candidates to do likewise.
The months to come would see larger on campus demonstrations, including two days of protest where a motorway outside UCD was blockaded after more than 250 students had marched through all the faculty buildings. Building for these demos provided a further platform for the campaign to explain itself, carrying out stalls and mass leafleting. Attempts were made to occupy admin and O’Reilly Hall, but marching on both shouting ‘O-C-C-U-PY! What We Gonna Do? OCCUPY!’ was probably a tactical error, if anything. The following day after the first day of action more than 300 gathered in an impromptu blockade of the education minister in the Vet Building through a combination of sit downs and the erection of barricades. The Vet building protest is probably one of the most inspirational protest I’ve taken part in in Ireland. Its not just an urban myth that UCD is designed to counter student protests. The barricades by security at the entrance to the building, were reinforced with concrete blocks which fit into the design scheme of the building, attempts were made to rip the barricades down, very minor shoving matches broke out with services, but they weren’t budging and neither were the barricades.
Some of us then put forward the idea that we all jump them on the count of three, everybody agreed, and on three we all jumped and charged the door, blocking it with a sit down. We had the numbers so split up to block other exits. Sit-downs blocked the other doors and barricades of rubble were erected at side exits to prevent the minister’s car leaving the college, locks had been placed on the buildings gates. No person was able to enter the building without the approval of the students at the entrances. For 2 hours the minister was prevented leaving. The college authorities had to sneak the minister out in a jeep hidden around the back of the building. It was a refreshing sight to see students roaming around campus gathering rocks for a barricade. The mainstream media chose to ignore the protest, when I rang RTE, I was told ‘you are a disgrace’. That said station then hung up on me. We had also unwittingly trapped a camera man in the building!
One feature of the protest was the role of the Students’ Union officers. Most of them stood on a hill near by, smiling coyly. Abey Cambell, the vice president when asked by the college media why he was there rather than express support he just said ‘because the sky is blue.’ However most anger was directed at Aonghus Hourihane, the SU President. Hourihane walked by the protest earlier in the day and went into the building to have cheese and wine with the minister. After the demo a large group of students marched into the Union Corridor in a very confrontational protest to demand a stance against fees, some of the sabats locked their doors, and in a moment perhaps symbolic of the state of the union called security on us. In retrospect, it would have been more constructive to forget about the union at that moment, we had shattered all illusions in it at that point. We should have just taken over part of the student centre and held a meeting there. A large meeting of students planning direct action in something resembling St Stephen’s Green Shopping Centre would have been an act of reclamation and propaganda that would have spoken volumes in itself
An opinion poll carried out by the College Tribune saw 76% of students support the CFE, while 90% opposed fees, all at a time where our union even refused to take a position on fees. A student union council meeting then voted to condemn the actions of the CFE at the Vet building blockade, in a motion put forward by a vet class rep. In the SU election later in the year, the general body of vet students would overwhelmingly support Paul Dillon, an activist with the CFE who won the presidents election and was known as an organiser of the blockade.
There was one other organised day of action on campus including lecture boycotts, marches on administration demanding a retraction of their support for fees, an occupation of the department of finance and numerous impromptu protests blockading government representatives from coming into Society organised debates and pissing off a load of hacks in the process. While the first day of action had been a success, the second one did not go as well. About 200 took part in the mobilisation, but it some how seemed a failure, unlike the protests where direct action took place had taken place there was no sense of immediate victory. It was originally conceived as something of a ‘Reclaim Education’ party on campus, but despite our successes we were probably over stretching ourselves here and simply didn’t have the resources to pull it off. Another factor mitigating against the action was the USI disaffiliation referendum which took place around the same time, a lot of CFE activists were caught up in fighting this campaign, which won overwhelmingly on the slogan ‘No to fees, no to disaffiliation.’
At the end of most of the large campus based mobilisations mass meeting of around a hundred people took place in lecture theatres we took over in the arts block after the demo, on regret from the year is not coming up with an organisational method to utilise these meetings more and build upon them as a solid basis for building a mass campaign of hundreds of activists. In retrospect it is easy and frustrating to identify mistakes, but you learn and progress in the course of events.
An occupation was planned for the day before the FF-PD Budget, and before USIs protest on the day. In the morning protesters occupied the Office of PD Junior Minister Tom Parlon, in the Department of Finance. 12 students were involved in the occupation, seven of which are involved in the UCD Campaign for Free Education. The others were from Maynooth, we had formed contacts with them through the earlier occupation. CFE has made a conscious effort all year, to break out of UCD and form links with students elsewhere. In UCD CFE has constantly built for USI demos and thrown our resources into getting students out to them in extremely difficult circumstances. At the demos themselves we have always operated as a block in an effort to organise mass direct action. At the first USI demo this year, we occupied the department of transport for a while with other students.
Our most successful action to date was at the February 5th demo. The last time we gathered outside government buildings to oppose fees, we were told to go home and write letters to our local TD, as a result the march barely made the news. At the demonstration the CFE were determined to organise real action against the government, as USI mouthed off from a truck, quite similar to the one the cops had used to block our path to the Dail at the last demo, we were organising direct action and involving students in the process. As USI told us to go home, 2 seperate blocks ran past cops and barricades and blocked the front of the dail for over two hours in a sit down protest. Despite threats of arrest under the public order act, a mass decision was made by the 300 students not to move. Eventually the police were forced to physically remove us from the road.
While the distractions of USI a referendum and the student union election pushed the CFE away from on campus mobilisations through sheer exhaustion of its members, the biggest factor mitigating against the rising tide of militancy was its isolation within UCD. While other campuses expressed interest in the campaign, they were unwilling to overlook the activist ghetto and mobilise outside in the student body. In a way UCD was a unique situation, a union dominated by Fianna Fail created a situation where grass roots organisation had to take place as the only way forward. In other campuses, unions dominated by liberals are only too willing to organise protests and paying radical lip service when government ministers visit, but there is an unwillingness on the behalf of the left to call action over their heads. In the moment no one considers jumping the barricades collectively and doing something a little more than waving a placard behind crowd control barriers. In student politics there are also the radical insurrectionists, who see the government been beaten through the actions of a handful of students and their heroics, chained to gates and holed up in government buildings. Plans are made in the bar that invariably never are put into action. No attempt is made to reach out to others through organisation, a hierarchy of a clique of friends exists which isolated the activists further from the student body and mobilisations and collective actions of the mass of students are not considered. Usually they dismiss the mass as ‘apathetic.’ An illusion that things can be done through the existing unions to mobilise students, persists and grass roots organisation is not considered as a means forward.
Students as a social body are prepared and conditioned to postpone their frustrations with declining living standards until they make the transition to full employment, they see the major problems and issues of student life as transitory problems and postpone any attempt to engage the issue head on, instead seeing it as easier solved by diverting their energies into seeking an individual solution to the barriers in front of them such as taking a part time job. But now there is a need to recognise the threat posed by the direction Irish education is being pushed in. The reintroduction of fees, under whatever guise it is presented will not only erode the living standards of students but presents a threat to the very right of access to higher education.
Activism cannot and must not exist in a vacuum. In order for the activist strategy to foster change it must exist outside the actual event. What we are fighting for must be bigger than what we place ourselves in immediate opposition to, this means realising what the whole picture is before focussing on the smaller. Approaching things from the bottom up, instead of seeking to chip away at the symptoms. We need to broaden our objectives as a movement and tackle educational inequality in the education system as a whole, as opposed to obvious issues like fees and an inadequate grant. Educational inequality manifests itself in secondary, where access to higher level is determined by such simple facts as whether or not a student stays in school long enough to finish the leaving cert.
As the recent spate of anti-war walkouts how, there is a serious need to create a student movement across the board, which stretches into the secondary schools, we need to actively encourage activism in the secondary schools and promote the ideas of grass roots organisation. This can not be done on the basis of college students leading the way forward, but only through the autonomous formation of activist groups in schools which then network and co-operate with the student movement on an equal footing.
While the election of CFE activists to the UCD SU is an extremely progressive step which will greatly facilitate action against the government next year, this does not represent an end within itself. Taking a union should not be end game for the CFE. There is still an need for the formation of a grass roots student movement in this country, which can operate on two fronts, against the government and against union leaderships which refuse to act.
In addition to the political function of the unions, they fill the role of service provider on campus, further requiring co-operation and a cordial relationship with the authorities which limits a real ability to fight for change. The role of the union as an agent of social change becomes undermined, as its attempts to tackle on campus problems such as food prices is limited to providing alternative food outlets which enter into competition with those businesses the college has allowed on campus, the logic is that free market economics will drive the price of food on campus down.
Students Unions are dependent upon the college administration to collect their dues and there have been cases where universities have silenced radical unions by simply refusing to do this. Often unions are expected to provide answers to the problems of the college authorities. Their role is wrought with contradictions, currently they mainly see their role as ‘representing the views’ of students, suggesting these student leaders do not have to combat the politically problematic issues faced by students, but simply to repeat them in media press releases.
Radical student unions cannot exist where there is no radical student body. To move towards activist based student unions willing to take stands for students, rather than remaining neutral, making finances available to grass roots initiatives-those running for office will have to come from a student movement which does not wholly exist here yet. A student movement can not be created or formed from the top down, it can only grow from the base. Our job as students is to create such a movement here.
The problems facing students and those who wish to attend third level now such as accommodation and the general rising cost of attending college pose a collective problem and as such they demand a collective solution. The CFE aims to operate as a grass roots network of students, seeking to mobilise students collectively against barriers to access in education and also to mobilise opinion against the ideological arguments being presented as a justification for attacks on education. Direct action is not an empty slogan, instead it fundamentally represents the desire for a direct collective response, and action on the issues facing us. Direct action as a philosophy of empowerment, we neither seek to create or engage in the heroic spectacle of a few activists taking action on all of our behalfâ€™s. The direct action we advocate is a breaking down of barriers erected by those who insist upon representing and acting on our behalf. Why mobilise students as some army of extras in the background of media photographs, as those taking the foreground posture half-heartedly on our behalf before telling us to go home and write letters of protest?
Such actions, while useful, will not alone be able to sort out the major issues confronting us. Direct action puts all students in the foreground of the photo, empowering them to organise collectively themselves in whatever sphere they operate in. With the threat of fees looming for next year, there is a need to move beyond protest and towards resistance. The President of USI has mooted the idea of mass non-payment, but such a campaign can not be created through releasing a press release to the media. USI is happy to channel dissent into channels sanctioned by the state, through forms of protest it can contain or watch USI contain for them. We need to organise groups and networks within and without our colleges so that we can act collectively and respond when the government attacks us. We need to legitimise direct action as a form of protest within the student movement. Students should wait no longer stop postponing victories, take every victory presenting itself on all levels, embarrass and harass the government into submission by denying its representatives access to our campuses in the same way it seeks to deny our access. As well as responding to the government through reactive demonstrations and protests we also need to take proactive steps, forcing the government to respond to our agenda of change and desires instead of seeking to tweak theirs.