Fifty years ago, the famous Gentle Revolutions in UCD had students protesting everything from women’s attire, to administrative incompetence, to insufficient facilities. Aspirations for greater change were rife as students found themselves a window of opportunity to make their voices heard. How are we, in 2018, faring in comparison?
March and April of 2018 saw students from Trinity and DCU make national news as they took measures to protest increases in fees. After an unprecedented price increase of 27% to DCUs student accommodation, students responded by staging the #ShanowenShakedown, a mass sleep out. The students of Trinity College Dublin saw success after two weeks following the announcement of a €450 charge for exam repeats. The bold tactics used by protestors – such as cutting off access to the main entrances and occupying the Book of Kells – caught the attention of the administration, causing them to reverse the decision.
With the never-ending health services waiting lists, and building sites cropping up unannounced, students feel less like the university is working for them, and more that it is working for profit alone.
UCD has not seen similar protests in recent years. The University Observer surveyed 171 UCD students to ask their opinion concerning their own political engagement. 78.4% of students surveyed considered themselves politically aware.
66 of the 171 students had protested something in the past year, and many cited voting and canvassing as forms of taking a political stand. Fewer than 55% could name all of their local TDs, and 11% had not made any move to make their political opinions known.
However, students are bothered by political issues. 69 students feel that not enough is being done to protest accommodation and tuition fees. State funding for education has dropped almost 40%, from €1.4 billion in 2007/2008 to about €860 million this year. The state of fees in Ireland is at crisis point, with austerity pushing many students who cannot afford university to spend more time working than studying.
Counselling and mental health services in UCD are also a central issue. Many express a frustration with the university administration. One student noted, “students should be protesting the lack of transparent governance in UCD.” With the never-ending health services waiting lists, and building sites cropping up unannounced, students feel less like the university is working for them, and more that it is working for profit alone.
If we look back fifty years, it is clear that the big issues – fees and services – have been regular points of objection. The ‘Gentle Revolutions’ in 1968/1969 fell when student activism was at its peak internationally and reverberating through the halls of UCD.
When asked what students should be protesting, one student stated: “Whatever they want really. Protesting is key.”
The “disorderly and disrespectful” move from Earlsfort terrace to the Belfield campus in 1968 caused an apathy towards the “incompetent” administration. Protests were regular and rampant during that time. The avid protestors aimed to draw attention to lesser known student issues, such as the loneliness of student life, difficulties of studying, and general costs of university.
They displayed acute self-awareness, wanting their protests to highlight “the implications on wider Irish society,” and acknowledging their privilege as students. As portrayed in the RTÉ documentary which covered the protests, at the time their ideas were described as “naïve.”
Results did not always transpire. Some issues were addressed – for example, women students who were not allowed to wear trousers to college put on “a mass protest, with women students all wearing trousers and storming the corridors” which “put paid” to that rule, according to a 1969 graduate. In the fifty years since, the library and study space solutions they sought have been attended to, yet larger problems they were addressing are still prevalent.
Skipping forward to the 2000s – state support of education continues to slip while the numbers attending third-level rapidly rises. Gradually, numbers at protests, which had been lowering since the 80s, began to rise again.
2010 saw almost 40,000 students marching against rising fees, which the Irish Times described as “the largest student protest for a generation.” Similar protests, organised mainly by USI, saw students from all over Ireland marching between 2011 and 2016.
2018 and the referendum over the Eighth Amendment has brought thousands to the streets. Rally for Life, and marches for the Strike for Repeal and International Women’s Day, have brought in huge numbers, showing the scale of support for the respective causes. With eyes on the upcoming referendum, they are coming together in strength and solidarity.
The audacity of the 60s and 80s was found in their willingness to commit to a cause. When asked what students should be protesting, one student stated: “Whatever they want really. Protesting is key.” Another said, “Given students have always been the driving force of social movements, I think they should be protesting whatever issues they feel passionate about – so long as they are doing so with feeling, and not for the sake of it.”
The last two decades have seen a fall in numbers attending protests compared to the Gentle Revolution. The protests in DCU and Trinity erupted after a public decision was made, an event occurred. For UCD, decisions on new campus buildings, and the endlessly long waiting list, are slow burners, too quiet to catch. A gradual incline in protesting, and an event to spark it, might take UCD back to its heyday of former protesting glory.