With Ruairi Quinn swiftly reneging on his pre-election promise to the USI (to impose a freeze in increases in the student registration fee) as soon as his seat was taken in Dail Eireann, and alarming talks of cuts of all post-graduate grants, it is little wonder that the future is looking pretty bleak for this generation of young people. While universities are starving for a cash injection, it must be asked whether this is to be at the sacrifice of a sizeable portion of our youth. With these questions in mind, 4 years ago, the national student campaign group FEE was set up. Comprising students and college staff from UCC, UCD, NUIM, NUIG, QUB and even here in TCD, the group opposes the “neo-liberalisation of education”, the roots of which were burgeoned in last year’s Hunt Report. Quite simply, they feel that universities are not businesses, and should not be treated as such. Key to the growth and improvement of our economy and society, students should not be seen as customers or clients, but merely as plain, old, simple students. To date, across the country, marches to TD offices, a petition against Bertie’s honorary professorship in NUIM, protests at Anglo-Irish bank and other grassroots’ actions have sparked a sense of renewed empowerment among staff and students around the country and have perhaps tweaked the conscience of one or two politicians in government. Impossible in the current economic climate you say? Impractical? With the much-publicised USI march taking place this afternoon, I spoke to Aidan Rowe of FEE NUIM to find out exactly how they plan to tackle this tidal wave of fees…
To begin, what exactly is FEE?
Free Education for Everyone (FEE) is a grassroots group of students and college staff, set up to fight the re-introduction of fees while campaigning against the neoliberal restructuring of education and for genuinely free education for all.
How do you feel FEE has been received by the student body in general?
We have our opponents, as you would expect with any political organisation, but generally I think FEE receives a lot of respect and support because of our commitment to taking action for ourselves against government attacks on education.
What do you say to people that would argue that free education simply is not possible during the current economic climate?
That depends very much on the priorities of the people in power. If the Irish political class and the EU/IMF insist on pursuing their austerity agenda for the benefit of the wealthy at the expense of ordinary people, then free education can only come at the expense of working people in other sectors, the unemployed, children with special needs, hospitals etc., which is not a solution. We need ordinary people from all sectors of society to work together to demand that rather than continuing to rob us to feed the rich, that we take back the enormous wealth possessed by the rich and use it for the benefit of society as a whole. This needs to happen on a European level, so we would see our campaign as being inextricably linked to the struggles of ordinary people across Europe against austerity.
What kind of tactics are you employing in your campaign?
Our campaign is based in grassroots direct action. We believe that in order to have any chance of success, opposition to fees must be student-led, involving as many students as possible taking action for themselves. Our campaign is one of resistance: we don’t believe that polite lobbying of politicians or media-friendly photoshoots can meaningfully advance our interests as students. In the past we have initiated occupations of government buildings and politician’s offices, blockades, as well as less militant actions like marches and banner drops.
Do you think a model for free (or almost free) education exists in the world today?
That really depends what you mean by “free education”. I think demands like free fees and an adequate grants system are very much achievable. But I think free education is also an approach to education, which is radically different from the neoliberal model that has been imposed across the 1st World since the 1970s, one which sees education not in economic terms as a way of equipping graduates with the skills demanded by industry, but as an investment both in individuals and society, that sees knowledge itself, and the empowerment that goes with it, as a valuable end in itself. There are several interesting examples of this that emerged out of anti-IMF/World Bank struggles in South America in the late 90s and early 2000s, where schools and universities were taken back by communities and run openly and democratically for the benefit of the community.
For more information, check out Free Education for Everyone on: http://free-education.info/
To join the TCD branch of FEE, text: 0863608197