Students Pen Open Letter to Governing Authority Over COVID-19 Financial Fallout
The student group Fix Our Education UCD have submitted an open letter to the university governing authority, calling for a reversal of the more than 12% rent increase on campus, a protection on funding for mental health and disability services, a protection on staff pay rates and a re-evaluation of university spending protocols.
The letter comes after UCD President Andrew Deeks said in his President’s Bulletin last week that the potential long-term impacts of COVID-19 for UCD could be “very serious” and have a severe impact on the university’s commercial activities.
In a historic first, the 37-member UCD Governing Authority (GA) met on Thursday morning using video conferencing tool Zoom, as governors work from home during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Signed by 19 UCD student societies, the letter says that “we recognise the budgetary constraints that will arise as a result of the shutdown of various university commercial activities.” Fears have mounted that student services may suffer as a result of financial loss caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The letter continues by attacking budgetary cuts on student services following the 2008 financial crash: “Student Health and Counselling services and disability services for students are at a breaking point and cannot take any additional cuts.”
A number of demands are outlined in the letter, presenting renewed calls for university action on a number of issues which came to the forefront at student protests earlier this year. The students are calling for: “A deferral of the proposed 12% rent hike in college accommodation until the impact of falling costs and newfound financial constraints which students have been placed under can be accurately assessed,” “Protecting the basic level of funding for mental health and disability services on campus,” “Protecting the basic pay rates of university staff, an end to zero hour contracts and casualisation of labour,” and “A re-evaluation of university spending protocol to tackle excessive spends on elitist infrastructure and wasteful luxuries.”
In February, the University Management Team (UMT) made the decision to increase rent on campus by 4% year-on-year for the next three years, further increasing the cost of Ireland’s most expensive on-campus student accommodation. This move sparked a number of protests, with students calling on an immediate reversal of the decision.
Speaking to the Tribune, Ruairí Power, Co-Chair of Fix Our Education UCD spoke on how the COVID-19 pandemic has further justified their cause: “It is unlikely that the philosophy of the UMT is going to completely change, this is however an unprecedented circumstance. They have to take into account: students have lost jobs; families have lost incomes. […] There’s a major change in the situation from when the decisions were made, so they do need to re-evaluate it. We’re simply asking for a deferral of the rent increase until an accurate analysis can be done to base the justifications for it from that point onwards. The rent increases were never justified, but [the COVID-10 pandemic] provides an even stronger justification that students will not be able to afford this.”
Joanna Siewierska, President of UCD Students’ Union, has said “we were delighted to see students raise the issue of funding and rents ahead of GA. We echo the concerns of F.O.E.” In a statement to the Tribune, Siewierska continued: “We are not in a position to comment about the business of today’s Governing Authority meeting, however we were also preparing to discuss student supports at it. We hope to work further with the President and the University Management Team in the coming weeks to ensure that every step is taken to protect and further invest in student support services on campus, even in light of potential budget cuts. We are also still calling for a stop to the rent increase and will continue the protest campaign online.”
The letter was submitted to the GA secretary late on Wednesday night which was weeks after the formal deadline for submissions to the meeting on February 27th. The letter was also emailed to a number of governors, yet many members did not receive the document before the meeting.
It is understood that the President and Deputy President are preparing a response to the letter and its demands.
Fix Our Education UCD advocates for “safe and affordable Mental Health, Disability and Housing services in UCD” as well as criticises a number of capital funding decisions by university management. The group intends to spend time lobbying politicians for government funding of higher education and running online campaigns during the current restrictive measures in place to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.
The 12-member University Management Team (UMT) have also held daily online meetings throughout the current university shutdown.
The Taoiseach Leo Varadkar announced on Tuesday that universities, schools and crèches will remain closed until at least April 19th. Outdoor gatherings have also been limited to a maximum of four people unless individuals belong to the same household. Non-essential businesses are also now closed.
The UCD campus is currently operating under “out-of-office” protocols, resulting in heightened restrictions on staff and student present on campus. The university’s libraries are also closed until further notice.
Updates on the COVID-19 university shutdown will continue over the coming weeks…
Conor Capplis – Editor