As US students in Duke occupy a campus building in protest, Roisin Guyett-Nicholson, examines why similar things occur less often here in Ireland
This month students in Duke University took to their administrative building to protest over the treatment of a campus worker and the basic wage paid to people on campus. The issue involved the alleged use of a racial slur, supposedly by a high ranking official within the university, who has since apologised. It throws into sharp relief a number of different issues, including both student apathy and underlying racial tensions within the US.
Students began occupying a building on campus in the waiting room of the President, Richard Brodhead. Only around nine students took part, but they managed to cause a significant disruption. Their aims included the resignation of three members of staff and the change in the minimum rate of pay.
The administrative building that the group was in shut down completely while the students were there, with security guards posted on each entrance. The ability of students to cause such a disturbance is often seen as a key part of the student experience. In the 1960s, widespread student protests saw connections to civil rights movements in the US and Northern Ireland. In UCD, protests have allegedly had an effect on how the campus was built, with “secret tunnels” and wider steps to make it more difficult to run.
Despite this, mobilising students is often difficult. Students are currently facing one of the most expensive eras, and with questionable options for employment it should be the exact time that we protest loudly. Particularly in Dublin, we face some of the most expensive rent prices in the country, while fees have increased exponentially with little sign from any of the political parties on how they intend to deal with such a crisis.
With increasing student numbers and no clear plan on how to deal with it, students and the services offered to them are facing a serious crisis.
Mental health too seems to be reaching crisis point, with high numbers of students dealing with depression while the services there to help them do not seem to work. With a six week waiting list for people on the UCD counselling service, the options for those struggling with mental health are being sorely tested.
Ultimately this should be the perfect combination of factors to push students into protest or civil disobedience, yet there often seems to be very little participation in these protests when they are organised. Free fees and res rights marches are not that common and when they do occur, they see lacklustre attendance.
So why do they have such a poor showing? One possibility may be the very reason for the marches themselves. Much of the issues that students face are financial. Therefore, many students need to work a significant number of hours just to make ends meet. As the families of students also face increasing pressure, those needing to rent or even just to pay fees must deal with the prospect of covering the cost themselves.
Trying to deal with working enough hours to pay your way and then to also attend the classes you need in order to get a degree is immeasurably stressful. With accommodation prices set to rise again in the next few months, students are only going to be squeezed more.
The problem this presents for students is that this leaves them little time to participate in protests for better standards. Instead they face the prospect of balancing a relatively hectic work schedule and college life. Alongside this, most students will face the pressure to take part in extra-curricular activities as CV builders.
Thus dealing with the prospect of increasing financial pressure, most students will struggle to balance all of their commitments, never mind the need for student protest. Therefore a vicious cycle emerges, whereby students must deal with various pressures in order to go to college, and yet this prevents them from exercising their full protest potential.
The small number of students in Duke looking to deal with fairer worker’s rights may be in the minority. This is not necessarily by choice but rather as a result of the greater problems that students have to deal with. Particularly in the US and potentially here too, students will face a crisis of funding and have to deal with either heavy debt for the rest of their lives, or crippling working hours while studying. Not only are neither of these scenarios ideal, they also prevent students from becoming involved in ways to prevent their exploitation.