Last year’s Marriage Equality referendum saw a sharp increase in student voters. Martin Healy wonders whether this momentum will continue into the forthcoming election.

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The Union of Students in Ireland (USI) states that they have registered over 80,000 new student voters over the last two years. Their campaign has not ended there, as they continued to support voter registration drives up to the application deadline last Tuesday. When the Dáil dissolved two weeks ago, there were students queued outside a number of Garda stations throughout the country in order to register.

Are students in Ireland becoming a mobilised voting force? The assumption that students rarely vote has been around for years, both in Ireland or abroad. Especially in the wake of the financial crash and subsequent bailout, it was very easy for students to already become cynical toward any positive results emerging from politics.

This wave of cynicism appears to have ceased thanks to last year’s marriage equality referendum, with around 62 per cent voting in favour of legalising gay marriage, making Ireland the first country to do this by popular vote. The number of students who registered to vote spiked for the referendum, as young people around the country rallied behind a referendum like no other in Irish history.

What remains to be seen is if students will keep up this momentum into the general election on February 26th – and it is hard to see why not. In a recent piece for The Irish Times, columnist Una Mullaly noted how Ireland has seen a shift into activist-based politics in recent years, and how young people are more willing to engage with these issues then the older generations. Young people have already become heavily involved in movements like ‘Repeal the Eighth’ as well as protesting against Irish Water. This is a crucial time for students to have their say due to the housing crisis affecting many here in Dublin, as well as the growing spectre of student fees throughout the country.

As mentioned above, it is clear from the marriage referendum that young people tend to connect and corral around social issues. Young people have joined together alongside their parents, neighbours and friends to protest against the Irish Water charges throughout the country.

A strong sector of ‘Yes’ campaigners in last year’s marriage equality referendum were younger people, whether college-aged, or recently graduated. It is a classic stereotype that college students get immersed into political ideals and possibilities as they enter adult life. If political parties aim to direct their policies toward a younger generation, not only will they get a large quantity of votes they assumed were not there, but they will get a sea of campaigners ready to get behind a political message and be willing to campaign for what they believe in.

The lack of a history of students voting has been particularly tough for third-level institutions over the last several years. Political parties rarely design any of their policies around college students or young people.”

The parties’ manifestos have indicated this shift toward social issues like water charges, as well as support for the ‘Repeal the Eighth’ movement from parties like Labour and the newly established Social Democrats. Parties who get behind social issues like these should feel the bump of the newly registered student voters. While water charges are a universal issue, ‘Repeal the Eighth’ is an issue which directly benefits from younger voters who are more likely to have a liberal view on abortion.

The lack of a history of students voting has been particularly tough for third-level institutions over the last several years. Political parties rarely design any of their policies around college students or young people. While reform for primary and secondary level is always on the books, the same cannot be said for third-level. British political parties have tried to court student voters in the past by trying to cut and lower student fees, as seen with the Liberal Democrats in 2010. That same tactic is not valid in Ireland.

But this may not last. While “free fees” have been in effect for over two decades now, the student registration fee has reached over €3,000 a year. Comments from John Hennessy, who has just finished his five years as chairman of the Higher Education Authority (HEA) make for grim prospects for third-level education and students. He states that “the lack of funding is really hurting the system.” The rise of student numbers, the fall in the number of staff, as well as cutbacks since the recession means that Hennessy sees third level as “stressing the system to the point of breaking.” Third-level lobbying is not as strong as that of primary and secondary level, but Hennessy comments that huge reform is required. This makes for all the more reason why students need to continue the momentum from last year’s referendum into the general election.

Strangely, despite this explosion in student voters, there has not been much of an economic response from the main political parties toward the future of third-level education. There have been few promises shown towards students from the parties: Fine Gael has promised small student loans to be paid back when a graduate enters a specified income threshold (which would likely come at the cost of cutting back the HEAR grant scheme).

Elsewhere, Fianna Fáil and Labour have little to offer to students as well. Sinn Fein claim to have students in mind, stating that their election into government would be beneficial for students, but there is little evidence for this as anything beyond a basic plea for votes from younger citizens.

Political parties have to catch young people’s attention away from economic worries and issues around the state of student fees, as there is enough cynicism already surrounding a generation of people who grew in the boom and subsequent crash and austerity.

It is critical for young voters to keep up this momentum if they wish to see policy directed toward themselves and their futures. If young people do vote in force on February 26th, they may not see a change right away, but the numbers will not lie. Political parties are built to stay in power, and if young people become a viable sector, policies will change accordingly.