Published: UFOURia Spring 2009
Robin Peake attended the Students’ Union protest against fees at UUC and was taken aback by what he saw.
Students have a history of making a stand, and making a difference. In 1941 the White Rose movement was formed by students in Munich, making a defiant stand against the Nazi Regime. The chain of events leading up to the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 was started by peaceful student demonstrations. In 1967 the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) was formed, spurred by Catholic Students who were benefitting from the free education that had come into Northern Ireland in 1947 under the new ‘Welfare State’ and who were now disenchanted with discrimination from local authorities. The Tiananmen protests in China, culminating in the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989 came off the back of students dissatisfied with the Chinese method of governance. Around the same time in Europe, students were holding pro-democracy protests in Soviet states, which can be argued to be a catalyst for the rapid downfall of communism.
Yet where is the passionate student today? Last year, a protest organised against fees was held at Stormont. Some 30 students bothered to turn up. Not so long again at UUC, the Union General meeting attracted only 40 people, though this was twice as many as the considerably larger UUJ campus. Talk about issues of Fairtrade and the student is interested in change, but only if someone else will do it for them. Speak about poor parking facilities, and the threat of doing away with Sunday train services for which many students on this campus rely on, and there are complaints, but no action.
It disheartens me to see a vast number of young people here, affected by various issues but so dispassionate and apathetic that they don’t want to see anything changed. Maybe it all comes back to selfishness? Why bother campaigning if by the time we have change I won’t be here any longer? Why lobby on Fairtrade if all it does is ease my conscience a little?
Tuesday, 2nd December seemed different though. The Students’ Union organised a protest against Fees. At the minute in Northern Ireland, tuition fees stand at £3,145 per annum, the maximum which Universities can charge. There is a short term proposed move to increase this by £80, to help ‘deal with inflation’. On top of this, Sir Reg Empey, leader of the Ulster Unionists is calling for a removal of the cap, meaning that Universities could charge as much as they like. This would lead to an increase to £5,000, £10,000, £20,000…who knows. Ultimately it would weed out the last remaining students from low-income families, and ensure that our institution-educated people are those people who come from middle class backgrounds. The Bible talks about campaigning for the poor, lobbying for justice.
“Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed.
Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.”
He goes on to say;
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?”
(58 v 6)
Ultimately the majority of students are not coming to protest because of any God-given command, but I was shocked to see the numbers who started arriving from 12.30 in the Students Union, ready to make their voice heard
Why? The increase is unlikely to affect us, especially for those of us who are in our last year; it’s more for those teenagers who will be coming to Uni in the years to come. And yet students wanted to speak for those who couldn’t speak. Students wanted to stand up for their brothers and sisters who would be coming to University after them, and didn’t want them to be labelled with an even bigger financial burden.
There were probably around 150 people gathered in the Students Union building. Councillors Billy Leonard (Sinn Fein) and Barney Fitzpatrick (Alliance) spoke well and passionately. Their calls for students to continue to be active and to hold politicians accountable (all 5 major parties in Northern Ireland committed to a removal of students fees in 2004) were greeted with loud cheers.
Followed thereafter a march from the Students Union building to the Central building. Shouts and chants were heard. Upon entering the front entrance of the University, these grew louder. Classes were disrupted. Students and staff stopped to watch. Security men stood on the steps of the stairs.
“What do we want?”
– “No Fees”
“When do we want them?”
We all sat down on the floor, the local photographer clicking like crazy, the media students grabbing their soundbytes for their voxpops as the chants continued, growing louder. Adrian, the Site VP tried to make a speech but could barely be heard above the racket.
I was in awe. Here were students, doing what students do best. Having their voice heard. Making a stand, against perceived injustice.
The Assembly should be listening. The University should be scared. And I think they were. The poor security chaps didn’t seem to know what to do. As I made my way up the stairs for the class I was late for, I was grabbed on the arm and told I could not do so, that I wasn’t allowed up there with a sign (which was a mock of a Father Ted protest). When I went round and used the lift, there the little bald man on an ego trip was again, having cleverly scented my devious plan. In the end, my class was cancelled, presumably due to the Lecturer being unable to have herself heard as the deafening roars continued.
If we students ever realise the potential to change the society we live in, the world will be an exciting (for some) and scary (for others) place.
I am a happy man. The Revolutionary Student isn’t dead. He’s just having a break