Another academic year is fast-approaching us. Freshers are preparing to open an exciting new chapter of their lives and current students are mentally preparing to make the slug back to university life as a long summer comes to a close.
The upcoming academic year could possibly be one of the most monumentally significant for quite a number of years in student politics. Alas, as apathy continues on its upward trajectory, will anyone really take notice?
Issue #1 – Tuition Fees
Students from NI who have studied here have been far more fortunate than their counterparts in other parts of the UK, thanks to the NI Executive capping the tuition fee rate at £3,805. However, that may not last for much longer. The Minister in charge of tuition fees, the Alliance Party’s Dr. Stephen Farry, has signalled that there needs to be a conversation around how higher education is funded in Northern Ireland as the sector is increasingly coming under pressure due to a lack of funding. Earlier in August, President of NUS-USI used A-Level results day to reiterate his call for the scrapping of tuition fees, adding that “in the last year alone our tertiary education system has been the target of significant budget cuts. I would strongly urge our politicians in the Northern Ireland Assembly to reflect on the hope and opportunity that today provides to so many of our young people.”
The likelihood that tuition fees will be removed is still something of a pipe-dream and the real battle will revolve around preventing any hike in fees.
Issue #2 Budget Cuts
How much longer can the NI Executive continue now that the UUP have decided to pull their Minister out of Government? The truth is that nobody really knows and despite all the media focus that this is receiving the NI Executive has still not found any solution to the Welfare Reform impasse. This means that there is still a budget crisis which in turn has an effect on how much money Queen’s receives from the Department of Employment and Learning as it continues to have its budget slashed.
In May the Belfast Newsletter reported that Queen’s University was passing its cuts onto some of its poorest students by cutting the bursaries that such students receive by almost 70%. You can read more about that here. Not only are current students being impacted by cuts but university places are already being stripped back due to funding gaps which means that there will be less opportunities for prospective students as student places are set to be reduced by over 1,000 over the next three years. General student apathy means that this could be one issue that slips through the net without attracting the attention it deserves.
Issue #3 Equal Marriage
Northern Ireland is the only part of the British Isles which still does not allow for marriage equality. This is one of a handful of issues that students mobilise easily around. Expect to see more of that as NUS-USI President has blogged on why he feels that it’s an important issue for him and the wider student movement.
Issue #4 NI Assembly Elections
Providing that the Assembly doesn’t collapse this will be a huge one. Traditionally young people don’t vote and NUS-USI look like they’re going put in a lot of work to try to turn that trend around. Expect to see pledge cards and promises aplenty as politicians visit Uni campuses in NI more often than they normally would. There are many issues out there for students to focus on, these four barely even scratch the surface. The biggest issue that student leaders will have to confront and deal with is student apathy. Last year student protests around Queen’s were poorly attended, even over issues that you would normally expect to attract lots of attention, such as tuition fees. In addition to this, the number of students voting in the recent QUB Student Union elections was at an all time low.
Quite possibly the real issue is, who cares enough to act?