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22 May 2003 Edition

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Students protest return to fees

BY JOANNE CORCORAN


Students in Dublin turned to radical action this week to protest at Minister for Education Noel Dempsey's proposed reintroduction of third level fees, and the slashing of the Back to Education Allowance.

In a day of protest on Tuesday, students chained themselves to the railings in front of the Dáil, occupied the lobby of the Department of Social and Family Affairs, and barricaded themselves into a room in the Department of Transport. The events took place at different times of the day to ensure maximum disruption.

Colm Jordan, President of the Union of Students in Ireland told An Phoblacht that direct action was the only course left for furious students.

"We have been nothing but reasonable in our approach to this," he said. "We've sat down with politicians, we've obtained policy proposals from most political parties, TD's have put forward motions in the Dáil for us, we've even met with the Minister and he told us that he would consult with us.

"But then what happens? Everybody finds out on the front page of a national daily that figures for fees are already being discussed. I think what we've witnessed is an Oscar winning performance on behalf of the government."

The reintroduction of the fees is being hyped by the government as a way to improve access to colleges. They claim this will be made possible through the redirection of the fees to those who cannot afford to enter third level education, a claim hotly disputed by the Students union.

"Fees are simply a revenue raising device, first suggested at a time when the government is intent on hiking indirect taxes and user charges," Colm argued. "It has nothing to do with improving access to third level for anyone, and as such is a regressive rather than progressive measure."

Noel Hogan, Campaigns Officer for USI, says the mere existence of fees will be a disincentive to going to college.

"The lower your income the greater the disincentive will be," he said. "If you come from a low income background it is difficult to face the prospect of three or more years of full-time study rather than entering the workforce, without the prospect of significant loans to repay after it.

"The government's case is based on the proposition that the only money available for tackling problems at primary and second level must come from the existing overall education budget. This is a profoundly flawed argument that ignores that the basic problem in Irish education is a lack of overall funding."

The students occupied the lobby in the Department of Social and Family Affairs specifically to highlight Minister Mary Coughlan's slashing of the Back to Education Allowance. The allowance which was cut by 25%, was available to the long-term unemployed, independent parents and people on disability allowance.

Mike Power, a student in UCD who is married with four children, said that the decision is going to have a deep financial and social impact on people like him and their families.

"Making the return to full-time education has not been easy for me, but having got this far, I really do want to complete my studies in science at UCD," he said.

"Back to Education Allowance students have had their dreams shattered by a government that has reneged on all its election promises while acting with hypocrisy."

The BTEA students were informed three months after the decision was taken and just five weeks before exams, in what Noel Hogan said, is a callous attempt to restrict appeals.

"In total 6,743 single parents, people with disabilities and long term unemployed who were brave enough to return to education have received a blow that will force many to abandon their studies," he said. "Participants had a legitimate expectation that the terms of the BTEA would be fully implemented and that they would continue to receive payments for the duration of their course.

"Rather than becoming numb to these betrayals, we feel it is vital to fight each one more vigorously than the last."
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