With the impending announcement of Budget 2024, the first week of October saw a streak of protests that brought together students and civil society to demand greater government accountability.
The first week of October saw three protests ahead of the Government's announcement of the 2024 Budget. The Union of Students’ (USI) inaugurated the week with a protest against the government’s 62 billion “rainy-day fund'' on Wednesday October 4th. On Thursday the 5th of October, the Postgraduate Worker Organisation’s (PWO) held protests across Ireland against the government's continuous maintaining of PhD researcher’s ambiguous status and the precarity of their situation. Finally, on Saturday October 7th, the Cost of Living Coalition, of which several student unions and civil society groups are a part of marched from Parnell Square to Leinster House to protest the rise of the cost of living and the increasing inaccessibility of current housing in Ireland.
In response to the government’s announcement of its “Rainy Day” Budget surplus worth approximately €65 billion, the USI and other Student Unions across Ireland, including UCDSU, encouraged students to join them to march on the Dáil and demand the use of the funds the Government plans to keep in case of “emergency”.
The USI considers the “hoarding” of €65 Billion to be a misallocation of funds considering the plight students across Ireland are in. In a statement, the USI said that: “it is raining now for third-level students who are suffering financial hardship or dropping out of college due to lack of affordable student accommodation and other costs”. The march was meant to reiterate, before the budget is announced, that students will be holding the government accountable during the next election term if their requests are once more denied. Among the demands included in USI’s Pre-Budget submission was the demand for free public transport for students, the provision of 30 '000 new beds and the introduction of a rent freeze until the cost of living crisis is somewhat under control. In response to the non-usage of this budget surplus, USI President Chris Clifford said: “it is inexcusable that students couch-surf, commute long distances, and have no hope of a future in Ireland while the government has the capacity to fund that future.”
The march was meant to reiterate, before the budget is announced, that students will be holding the government accountable during the next election term if their requests are once more denied.
The protest began at noon at the Garden of Remembrance and the procession brandished umbrellas as they marched toward Merrion Square. Throughout the procession, chants were heard: “1, 2, 3, 4, We won’t take this anymore! / 5,6,7,8, We need funding from the State!”.
The procession was not large and counted about three-hundred people, making the presence of the UCD Student Union particularly noticeable. Indeed, UCDSU is notoriously not a part of USI, which makes their insistence of the involvement of UCD students during this protest all the more interesting. Speaking to The University Observer, UCDSU President Martha Ní Riada said that “[the protest] was the first national student demonstration since before Covid-19 and it made clear that we need students to be together to fight for change”. She continued to say that their collaboration with USI had been in the works since this summer as both the USI and the UCDSU are members of the Cost of Living Coalition: “It is important for us to be there to show that there is power in student action and that UCD students still need to work collectively with students across Ireland”. In a press release, UCDSU Campaigns & Engagement Officer Miranda Bauer added: “As the country moves onto an election footing, we have a duty to do our bit for the national student voice. Too many UCD students are struggling as a result of choices made by successive Governments.”
Although the vote for UCD to rejoin USI did not hit quorum during last year’s executive elections, it still reached an encouraging 70%, suggesting students are still invested in their union’s presence and involvement in national demonstrations.
On Thursday October 5th, the Postgraduate Workers Organisation (PWO) held a National Day of Action for fair pay and conditions in front of Leinster House as a part of their continuous efforts to remind the Government of PhD researchers' invaluable contributions to the higher education sector. Postgraduate workers in Ireland are still paid lower than minimum wage - approximately 7.88€ against 11.30€, which is still less than a living wage in Ireland which currently sits at 13.08€.
The PWO gathered ahead of Budget 2024 to protest the impact their liminal status has on their wages and other issues they felt were bypassed in the National Review into State Supports for PhD Researchers. The Day of Action was supported by the Services Industrial and Professional and Technical Union (SIPTU) and by the USI to demand deeper and broader reforms to what was announced in the National Review. The National Review conducted by the Government “has totally failed to address the issues faced by PhD researchers across Ireland” according to PWO Ireland President, Conor Reddy. Indeed, PWO Ireland’s response to the report - first announced on the 23rd of February 2023 by the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Skills (DFHERIS) - highlighted its failure to address the status of PhD researchers, the insufficiency of the stipend increase that was proposed given the ongoing cost of living crisis, the absence of any understanding of the difference in conditions for non-EU/EEA researchers and, most notably, the report makes no suggestion for another inquiry or review into the issues it fails to address.
The National Review conducted by the Government 'has totally failed to address the issues faced by PhD researchers across Ireland' according to PWO Ireland President, Conor Reddy.
The lack of Government recognition for postgraduate workers, who are arguably the backbone of third-level education, has reached a breaking point for PWO UCD representative Jack McNicholl. Speaking to the University Observer, he defended the PWO's decision to contact student unions across Ireland and to ballot all PhD researchers on whether they accept the outcomes of the review: “The only way for us to fight this is to combine our labour power and organise to negotiate with government and stage disruptive action if need be.”
Speaking to the University Observer, he defended the PWO's decision to contact student unions across Ireland and to ballot all PhD researchers on whether they accept the outcomes of the review: 'The only way for us to fight this is to combine our labour power and organise to negotiate with government and stage disruptive action if need be'.
The final and the most anticipated collective action was the Cost of Living coalition’s Pre-Budget Protest to make living and housing affordable for all. The procession gathered on Parnell Square and marched on the Dáil on Saturday, October 7th, and included speeches from several representatives from Cost of Living Coalition members. The Union of Students in Ireland, The Irish citizens parliament, Inclusion Ireland, Extinction Rebellion, student unions from colleges across the country, People Before Profit and the Dublin Council of Trade Unions all took to the streets to call for government measures such as a rent freeze, the end of the eviction ban and the abolition of student fees. According to the Central Statistics Office, the Consumer Price Index rose by 6.3 percent between July 2022 to August 2023, compared to 5.8 between the months of August 2021 to July 2022. This particular gathering drew in a bigger crowd than the two aforementioned combined and saw some of the same organisations and personalities. Addressing the crowd, PBP TD Richard Boyd Barret said: “The fact that we have never had as many resources in the hands of the government, that we have never seen the level of profits made by energy companies, banks and vulture funds and yet the Government thinks it is unsafe to use the money.” He continued: “They have no intention of helping during the worst housing and homelessness crisis this country has ever seen. It is abundantly clear that the system is rigged as there is more than enough wealth in this country to help people and house everyone.”
The first week of October thus marked an unprecedented week in mobilisation and saw civil society groups and students alike take to the streets preemptively ahead of the announcement of Budget 2024. It appears that individuals and civil society groups have lost faith in the current government’s ability and desire to enact durable change. Speaking to The University Observer, UCDSU President Martha Nì Riada tackled the question of protest exhaustion and performative activism: “Protests as a tactic, cannot work alone. You need to have other actions happening at the same time. Protests highlight issues and as a union we recognise them as a form of action but we’re also aware that you need to be speaking to government officials and to students on the ground.”
With eager anticipation for Budget 2024, the attention is geared to whether more funding will be allocated to housing and higher education. However, those most affected by the current cost-of-living crisis have once again drawn the short straw, as Budget 2024 rehashes last year's quick fixes and one-off measures, which do nothing to secure the future of higher education in Ireland. While the Budget did give back €1,000 to third-level students, it still failed to provide the necessary amount of funding, which is a meagre amount against the €12.3 billion of the overall package. Furthermore, as it stands, the Budget offers limited support for higher education students. Students from families with incomes less than €100,000 will have college fees for undergraduate students halved to €1,500, whilst those above will see their fees cut by €1,000. Student grants will increase by €300 from January 2024, while students with a household income below €55,924 will not have to pay student contribution fees from September 2024. Additionally, postgraduate maintenance grants will be fully restored for the next academic year, for the first time since the financial crash. There is also €60 million allocated to “address sustainable funding” for higher education and the increase in placements for medical placements. An additional €8.1 million will be allocated to the Student Assistance Fund, bringing the total to over €17 million. At this stage, there are no updates regarding the increasing stipends for PhD researchers. While some Pre-Budget submission demands made by various student unions seem to have been consulted, postgraduate workers have reacted to the government’s lack of acknowledgment of their working conditions and have threatened industrial action.