Leftist students for social progress.

Category: USI

FOI Reveals Minister Harris Discredited Student Voices during Exams

An FOI request put forward by László Molnárfi, Chairperson of Students4Change and Gisèle Scanlon, President of the Graduate Students’ Union, on behalf of the #NoInPersonExams national campaign to Minister Harris’ Office has now been granted. The reason for the FOI request was to ascertain a timeline in which Minister Harris engaged with the 5,000 student and staff signatures of the open letter so that he can make a balanced and fair decision relating to in-person examinations. The #NoInPersonExams open letter is spearheaded by two Trinity students, undergraduate László Molnárfi and postgraduate Giséle Scanlon, and has amassed over 5,000 signatures, which were delivered to Minister Harris in good faith on the 1st of December 2021.

Today we have received the results of this FOI. The correspondance which we received contains 6 records were granted to us after we asked for “Documents, communications regarding the decision of Minister Harris to not intervene in Universities holding in-person exams for Semester 1 of 2021-2022. Any communication between Minister Harris and Donnelly for this issue including the meeting minutes of the meetings that Minister Harris had with
management, staff and student representatives. E.g. the one on December 1st
2021 with the student unions” and “Documents, communications regarding Minister Harris’ and the Department of Further Education “s consideration of the #NoInPersonExams open letter, which was delivered to the Minister’s Office on 52 Stephens Green on the 1st of December 2021”.

As early as November 19th 2021 at a meeting of the Covid-19 TES Steering Group the issue of Semester 1 examinations across Universities and Technological Universities was discussed. Minister Harris said in his opening remarks that “Decisions in relation to examinations should be taken in accordance with the framework in place i.e. on the basis of risk assessment and consultation”, according to meeting minutes.

At the same meeting, the Union of Students Ireland (USI) President Claire Austick raised the issue of having alternative options for students not able to attend in-person examinations, according to meeting minutes of the Covid-19 TES Steering Group.

Dr Joseph Ryan from THEA, the Technological Higher Education Association, brought concerns relating to increasing levels of anxiety surrounding examinations.

The IUA’s representative at the meeting stated the importance of alternative examination arrangements and also access to PCR tests. The IUA is short for the Irish Universities Association and they represent DCU, Maynooth Uni, NUI Galway, TCD, TU Dublin, UCC, UCD and the University of Limerick. The IUA is composed of the Presidents of each of these Colleges.

Just a month later, at the next meeting of the Steering Committee on the 10th of December 2021, in the middle of exams, Minister Harris in his opening remarks is seen to call the student voices, like NUIGSU, who called out instititutions not creating safe exam conditions to be lies. He called upon stakeholders to “debunk misinformation regarding the application of public health advice”. He also said that an agreement was reached that a “one size fits all approach is not appropriate” – this agreement must be referring to the government’s own decision, as meeting minute do not indicate any sort of direct discussion on the topic.

Dr Breda Smyth, is the director of public health for the Health Service Executive in the west, and also is one of the leaders of the Unicov project.

Claure Austick, USI President, after the opening remarks of Minister Harris, reiterated the importance of alternative options for assesment students in light of rising Covid-19 cases.

The IUA suddenly at this meeting agreed with Minister Harris, contradicting students’ and staff’s account on a number of issues, namely the amount of in-person exams, whether these exams are safe and whether there are proper alternative arrangements (e.g. deferral mechanisms) in place. They also claim that whenever an exam was postponed due to Storm Bara, it was moved to a different date “in agreement with local student unions”, but this was clearly not the case for NUI Galway’s Saturday exams.

Stella Griffin from FORSA, an Irish trade union, noted concern for invigilators (since they are older and more at-risk) in exam halls at the meeting.

It does not seem that at these meetings Minister Harris allowed much discussion, either at the November meeting, or at the December one, despite claiming to do so. His Office had already made up their minds before hearing any of the other stakeholders, and the government seems to not have listened to student and staff concerns. It seems that at the November meeting, promises and suggestions were made by a variety of stakeholders that were never implemented by the government. Proper deferral was not implemented across many universities – 86% said they felt pressured into not deferring according to a recent survey, and PCR testing at the time of the Christmas exams was very difficult to access. Eyewitness reports, pictures and videos detail crowded scenes in examination halls. It seems that those in-charge have no clue what is going on on-the-ground.

Following the 10th of December meeting, a document which describes how to answer questions from TDs in the Dail relating to in-person exams was disseminated to government members. It said that the key messaging must be that all stakeholders were consulted. Furthermore, it crafted a reply to possible “opposition attack lines”.

Another meeting was held just between Minister Harris and the USI and different SUs on the 1st of December 2021. The briefing document prepared for Minister Harris for this meeting shows that Minister Harris’ Office essentially let Universities take the blame. This was re-iterated to the representatives at the meeting, who raised the issue of #NoInPersonExams.

Briefing document.

As far as whether the Minister’s Office considered the #NoInPersonExams open letter with 5,000 signatures, they did not. They put it in the government system, but there is no indication that Minister Harris or others in the government took the time to engage with the signatories. This shows a huge disrespect for the 5,000 students and staff who raised the mental and physical dangers of in-person examinations and is an affront to the democratic process.

This was the only communication and document relating to the FOI about whether the government considered the #NoInPersonExams open letter. Branding the Graduate Students’ Union of Trinity a “protest group” just shows how out-of-touch Minister Harris’ Office is with student representation on-the-ground.

Find all the original FOI documents here. Note that for the briefing document mentioned just a moment ago, there were supposed to be “redacted” parts, but the government failed to redact it properly – you can simply copy-paste from the PDF, so we made an unredacted version which describes different issues relating to third-level education at the moment.

We would hope that the Minister has learnt lessons from this, namely that the next time we call to deliver a petition with several thousands signatures and hundreds of thousands of social media interactions, that the Minister will have the good grace to engage with not only the content of the petition, but should extend appropriate respect to the many thousand voters who took the time and consideration to be a part of the campaign.

From a University To A Business – A History of Fees in Ireland

Students4Change supports USI’s F*ck the Fees Protest.

USI’s protest takes place Molesworth Street in Dublin at 2pm on the 23rd. Other regions have protests too, check out USI’s social media.

Tuition fees for third-level were abolished in the mid-1990s, however, this has resulted in the Government being tempted to slowly cut funding.

While student numbers increased, so did taxpayer’s investments into Universities, but the overall money available per-student has been decreasing. For example, spending per student at third-level decreased from €10,806 in 2007 to €7,089 in 2016, a drop of 34.4%.

This is despite the fact that between 2007 and 2016, public spending on education increased by 5.1%. It is simply not enough, and this has resulted in the corporatization of Universities, where they have to make up for the loss of state funding by operating like for-profit businesses, cutting courses and downsizing services like counselling.

The process of corporatization has also seen the loss of democracy within Universities, with once-lively student and academic committees making decisions being replaced by closed, managerial and elite decision-making bodies.

The so-called “Free Fees Initative” that was put in place in the mid-90s soon came to be a myth. Already in 2009/2010, students had to pay a “Registration Fee” of €1,500 to access education. By 2020-2021, this fee, now called the “Student Contribution” stands at €3,000.

On the picture, the 2010 student protests are shown, at which participants were brutally beaten by the Gardaí.

Austerity post-2008 was when bankers got away with gambling away people’s lives and the universities were essentially privatised. In Ireland, banks got a €64 billion bailout, funded by taxpayer money.

Today, only 5% of students are from a disadvantaged background in Trinity College Dublin as per the HEA report of 2020. Socioeconomic diversity is at an all time low accross all Universities, as students must pay up to 14,000 € per year for tuition and overpriced student accommodation.

At the same time, student nurses midwifes and dental practicioners are being exploited. “Before their final year internship, most student nurses and midwives get either nothing or an allowance of just €50.79 per week,” says INMO, their union.

Students are emigrating under this immense financial pressure. However, if we combine our forces, we can still change our situation.

In the UK, grassroots groups organized in 2020-2021, engaging in rent strikes and eventually winning refunds of up to 30% for the academic year.

In the Netherlands, tuition fees were halved following the 2020-2021 academic year for 2021-2022, due to the loss of student experience during Covid-19.

All this shows that another system is possible. We need to organize ourselves in radical, mass organizations and keep pushing for change at every corner.

Town Hall: USI and TCDSU Joint Student Accommodation Bill

László Molnárfi

Recently, the USI held a Town Hall event with students and representatives of Sinn Fein, People Before Profit, Labour and Fianna Fail. The Greens and Fianna Gail did not show. The #EducationForAll campaign demands an end to tuition fees, publicly-funded student accommodation coupled with a tenant’s bill of rights and better working conditions for academic staff.

At this Town Hall, many students and student representatives spoke about the myriad of ways the Government has failed us. This included personal stories about how the government’s lacking Covid-19 response affected students’ lives, international students paying exorbitant fees and being told they need to be on campus for this year (then not getting any refunds), students not being able to access SUSI – and even if they do, the payments barely covering the high cost of living and fees, etc.. The USI will have a recording of the event up.

As for me, I questioned Fianna Fail’s Malcolm Bryne on his support of the bill. Copied below is my speech which roughly matches what I said at the meeting.

“I am here to speak in favor of the The Residential Tenancies (Student Rents and Other Protections) (Covid-19) Act 2021 bill.  I want to thank the USI, Sinn Fein, PBP and Labour for their work in bringing this forward. My contribution is targeted to Fianna Fail, as the representative present didn’t really say anything in relation to the bill.

My experience with student accommodation is as follows. As someone involved in the Trinity College Dublin Student Union (TCDSU) as a class representative, if there is one issue that is facing all students this year it is accommodation. Everyone has been complaining about accommodation. We are being exploited by Big Money multinational companies such as Hines and GSA – the latter, for example, being registered in the Cayman Islands. This has further worsened the housing crisis, and not to mention the financial backing of foreign vulture funds. The accommodation I am at, for example, has successfully lobbied the Irish government against fire safety regulations!  Coming from an international background as a first-year student, I pay up to 5000 euros per semester for student accommodation which I am practically forced into, due to not knowing how to navigate the local rental market. On my very first day in Dublin, I met a homeless student… the very people that my 5000 euros per semester should go towards in support, if these big multinationals actually paid taxes. Instead, they use offshore companies in tax-haven Luxembourg and the likes to funnel money and avoid taxes. The situation is entirely unacceptable.

I believe that this bill represents a step forward.

However, seeing that Fianna Fáil was accused of “absolute hypocrisy” after eight councillors in party leader Micheál Martin’s constituency voted against social housing in January 2020 – this was the Lyonshall development –  makes me worried that FF represent the interests of landlords and not of the students and people.

So, Will Fianna Fail come out in support of the bill? I urge government parties to support this much needed bill. Thank you.”

Many more students spoke of being ‘cash cows’ too.

In his short reply at the end, I perceived smokescreening, deflection and avoidance of answering the question. This was aptly picked up on by Deputy President of the TU Dublin Students’ Union Luke Daly, who Tweeted about how Malcolm Byrne “proceeded to scold people for ‘Anti-FF’ comments in his closing speech.”

“Malcolm, please don’t gaslight students. Fianna Fail along with FG have been one of the biggest offenders of anti-student rhetoric. It’s downright disrespectful to dismiss students’ well-deserved rage and scold them for dismissing your party.
FF need to adapt their programmes, policies and lead by example. Listen to these contributions. Students are living in a nightmare and your party has direct power to end that right now,” he commented in the Zoom chat.

See how you can help the #EducationForAll campaign at the USI’s website!

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