A New Space for Student Unity in the North?

Paddy Wilson calls for Northern youth to fight together for a better future.

As Northern Ireland muddles its way through attempts to implement the Belfast Agreement in its latest guise, the institutionalised sectarianism that it engenders has effects that resonate outside the immediate world of Stormont. Not least in the world of student politics and activism.

The key political issues in student bodies and the various Student Unions across Northern Ireland have arisen from the same problems that plague the rest of Northern society since the Flag dispute of 2012. Questions such as what emblems may and may not be considered offensive, what constitutes a “shared space” and what are the rights, responsibilities and limitations of what can be done in a “shared space”.

This agenda has been pushed most vociferously by the Sinn Féin society within Queen’s University Belfast’s Students Union, with two serious attempts in the past year. In May 2014, SF put forward a motion to the Union’s Student Council proposing a ban of the sale of British Legion poppies in Union premises, ostensibly to create a neutral environment for all of the student body.

However, in October 2014, QUB SF and SDLP acted against the neutrality they had previously supported. Through a referendum of Queen’s students, they posed the question of should the QUB Student Union act in favour of Irish unity, which would have caused Irish unity to become union policy. This move served only to divide students along Protestant/Catholic lines and would have set back relations among them by years.

With the divisive question of the Border now solved in terms of SU policy, the full force and collective effort of students at Queens must be turned to more vital issues.

On the same online ballot as the Border Poll was one calling for the SU to take a policy of neutrality on the constitutional issue of Northern Ireland, the campaign for which was supported by Workers’ Party Youth. On the day of voting, the neutrality referendum was successfully passed, while the Border Poll failed to even reach the required quota.

With the divisive question of the Border now solved in terms of SU policy, the full force and collective effort of students at Queens must be turned to more vital issues, such as restrictive tuition fees and the lack of meaningful employment awaiting students outside the university.

The imposition of a tuition fee of £3,685 for all students disproportionately affects those who come from the working class and those who have other dependants requiring financial support. Even with the UK government’s Student Loan scheme, which defers payment until the graduate starts earning over £16,910, those repayments can take vital money away from people who would otherwise view a third-level education as a route out of poverty.

The necessity for many to incur significant debt in order to attend university is coupled with the reality that graduates might not even be guaranteed a degree-level job on completion of their studies. In 2013, the Office for National Statistics reported that almost half of all UK graduates are not in graduate-level work. The combination of student debt and a high chance of only obtaining low-paid work has deterred many people who are more than capable of further and higher education from taking up the opportunity. This results in third-level education becoming the preserve of the middle and upper classes, those who can afford it.

Furthermore, the unwillingness of the Stormont regime to stand up to Tory-imposed cuts makes a severe reduction in the quality of third-level education in the North highly likely. Both QUB and Ulster University have made it clear that reductions to the budget of the Department of Employment and Learning, to the tune of £81m, are liable to result in a cut of 1,100 student places, as well as other reductions in service. This is despite the imposition on the student to pay for their education.

This is a situation that cannot be allowed to continue. Young progressive activists should increase their activity within universities and colleges to develop a re-invigorated campaign against the cuts to education services, for a repeal of tuition fees and calling for genuine investment in jobs, so that employment can be guaranteed for graduates. If students can see through the sectarian pandering of the political societies and vote against them, it should be possible to gain support for a movement against the economic inequality that the current system of university and college education is creating in the North.

Paddy Wilson is Press Officer of Workers’ Party Youth