The United States has been witness to an outbreak of student protests across college campuses over the charged issue of race relations. Student activism is not a recent phenomenon in the US; protests, boycotts, and student movements have been part of student life for decades. This particular string of anti-racism protests seems to have stemmed from the popular Black Lives Matter movement. Looking at the passionate mobilisation of US students it raises the question of why exactly the Irish student body is so apathetic
The Irish university campuses have been relatively quiet for the past number of years, despite the fact they have been hit with rising registration fees, accommodation shortages, cuts to funding, and sliding rankings. It would be wrong to try and equate an increase of the university registration fee with systemic racism, but universities and colleges on both sides of the Atlantic are being faced with their own difficulties. It is clear to see there is a big difference in the mentality and action of students in Belfield, Dublin and New Haven, Connecticut.
The recession, and ensuing austerity that hit Ireland, has had a serious effect on students and universities. The so called ‘Free Fees’ have increased year on year; 3rd level funding has been cut along with student grants; and we are facing an out of control accommodation crisis in the capital. For the most part, excluding a large protest in 2010, Irish students have not mobilized in a way similar to our US counterparts, or even our neighbours in the EU. Many would blame the ‘Irish psyche’ for this; a history of oppression and the domination of the Catholic Church have meant that we do not always air our grievances – we have somewhat adopted the British stiff upper lip mentality. Others would argue that the way our university system is designed hinders student activism on campus, for example college is a much more community binding experience in the US. Your choice between the Huskies or the Bears defines you much more than choosing between UCD and NUIG. Most people live on campus in the US, and most would not travel home on the weekend, which is common practice in the Emerald Isle. The fact that students may have a stronger community bond to their college is definitely a factor that helps explain the difference of action between the two student bodies.
It would be unfair to suggest that Irish students are lazier or less involved than their American counterparts, they just engage differently. The student vote was seen as the driving factor in the passing of the marriage referendum and students are involved in the current Repeal the 8th Campaign, so it is clear that Irish students play their part. The comparison between the student lobby’s powers and influence will be seen in the presidential election in the US and the General Election in Ireland. We must look at how these different types of student bodies engage in the political process, and ultimately if this engagement works in their favour or has any effect at all.
By Ruth Slamon