László Molnarfi was elected president of Trinity College Students’ Union this year after campaigning on a radical left platform. We interview him here about the issues facing students, the growing politicisation among young people, and the possibilities of campaigning for radical change.
You were elected President of TCDSU last year after chairing and campaigning with Students4Change – a socialist campaigning group. Do you see a politicisation happening now among students? Do you think there is an appetite there for radical change?
There is a momentum for anti-capitalist politics, because people are looking for an alternative to the prevailing capitalist system that seeks to exploit us in the interests of profit. Students4Change has hit over 100 members, and has branches in TCD, Maynooth and Galway. As well as this, Students4Change has had a massive influence on the Trinity Student Union, with myself and others getting elected to positions within its structure. The election was a success because our message resonated with people. Practically, this means that our student union will be at the forefront of pushing left-wing ideas and radical action, and in trying to break free from illusions of apoliticism as well as reformism and electoralism amongst students. At least, this is what our faction is attempting to do. Many students are involved in campaigns but may not have a socialist consciousness, but a liberal one.
There is still much to do. The student movement overall is still dominated by liberal tendencies, and a class collaborationist line that seeks small reforms as opposed to systemic transformation. Student unions, due to their structures, are still co-opted and are mainly service and event providers, and so is the USI which has gone through a period of NGO-ization, although movements towards radical action are happening. These movements mean a politicization and an increased collaboration with opposition parties – however, this radicalism still takes place within a liberal-bourgeois democratic framework. The type of politics that requires the conscious opposition of all existing structures, senior management and the state, is still far off when looking at the scale of the whole island of Ireland. The best way to conceptualize this is to see that the number of grassroots groups – which can break free from the top-down hierarchical structures of student unions – is still low. Student unions with militant leaderships can also break free from the usual lobbyist and seat-at-the-table approach, but this requires considerable effort as it upsets norms, structures and in some cases goes against the constitution of these organizations.
The lesson to draw here is that direct action is not always associated with a left-wing consciousness. We shouldn’t mistake the two. It is very important to always consider the social hinterland of a protest movement. For example, the class nature of the movement. In the case of the student movement, its class nature is uncertain and its consciousness levels are muddled by the idea of student consciousness. There is a need to escalate from the isolationist ideas of student consciousness, and radicalize that into class consciousness. Student consciousness, in its most reactionary form is the power over the lecturer, and this is a flawed conception. Only a student-worker alliance can mount a sufficient challenge to the prevailing neoliberal capitalist socioeconomic dogma. If, let’s say, a movement against fees takes place in a consumerist framework, based on the idea that students should pay less, but does not challenge that framework, it is an anti-capitalist action submerged in capitalism. If a movement against fees takes place against a consumerist framework, with a vision, that is anti-capitalist action. We must keep organizing in student unions, and outside of student unions.
What are the main challenges facing students now?
Students are affected by the housing crisis as well as the cost of living crisis. This is a result of state policy prioritizing the profits of multinational corporations and vulture funds over building public and affordable housing. We have seen students sleeping in cars, couch-surfing with friends or dropping out of education, abandoning their lifelong dreams and passions. Across Ireland 15,000 are in rent or fee debt to their institutions. 88% of students worry about finances. One in three have considered dropping out. At the University of Galway in 2022-2023, 91 out of 300 deferrals were associated with the housing crisis. Those students that can find a place are often living in unsafe conditions in digs, paying extortionate rents to private student accommodation providers while having no rights and are commuting long hours. The situation has also created a two-tiered experience for students, with those who can find a place to live near their universities, and those who can’t. The first category can enjoy social life and take part in College activities, while the other cannot, as they come to College, study and have to leave to get the last available public transport back. This is a massive class issue.
Ireland also has one of the highest fees in the EU, for both Irish, EU/EEA and international students. Some students can spend €20,000 to €30,000 per year for a course, and this is excluding accommodation and living expenses. This is pricing students out of attending College. We are treated like cash cows, to plug the gap in government funding. As a result, attending third-level education is still very difficult for those from working-class backgrounds. In order to be able to afford education, many students are working long hours, which in turn impacts on our academic performance as well as our mental and physical wellbeing. In fact, 55% of students skip lectures to go to work, according to a 2019 ICLU survey.
Another issue is that as our third-level institutions become underfunded, they start acting like for-profit businesses, driving up fees, campus rents and cutting crucial student services. In this way, our institutions are complicit in the neoliberal model that has been forced on society. The issue of student services is especially important to note, because welfare services like counseling and healthcare are not being funded. Waiting lists can be months-long. It is damaging to students, especially during already stressful times during a cost-of-living and housing crisis, that they face massive barriers to getting help. It can already be hard enough to take that first step and apply to counseling or other welfare services – there should not be cruel delays.
This is not to mention that the reinterpretation of education as a product, a transactional exchange, has caused mass alienation of students and staff from the joy of learning and researching, and represents a severe attack on the foundations of the university. The prevalence of control mechanisms and the culture of silence and complicity that has been engendered has sapped staff morale. The quality of education, due to staff precarity and high student to staff ratios, has worsened. 50% of all university workers are casualized, left in job insecurity and struggling.
This is not to mention the issue of postgraduate researchers, who are workers in everything but name, and who hold up the entire third-level system through their teaching and research, yet receive meager wages and no basic workers’ rights like sick leave or parental leave. We have seen staff commuting for hours, unable to afford groceries and quitting academia, just like we have seen students struggle with the same issues. The point is that the system affects both students and staff, and student-worker power is needed to challenge it.
Ireland is bringing in massive budgetary surpluses as a result of its role as a global tax haven – some reports say we could have a surplus of €65 billion by 2027. Yet this hasn’t resulted in any significant improvements in people’s lives when it comes to housing, education, healthcare and so on. Why do you think this is?
Students and staff, and academia as a whole, are under the most severe of attacks from the government. Not just academia, however – workers, pensioners and families, we are all under severe attacks from the state who are imposing austerity policies to maximize corporate profits. Youth emigration and homelessness are at an all time high, at a time when corporate profits are soaring and the economy is booming. As Marx said, capitalism is a system which at the same time as increasing wealth, does not increase wellbeing.
This government has done undeniable harm to our communities. This is not by accident, or by incompetence. The system is working exactly as it is intended to. They follow a neoliberal capitalist economic policy, and represent big capital, vulture funds and corporations, not the people, our communities and workers. In fact, almost 80 TDs and Senators are landlords, which is a prime example of the state and bourgeois representative democracy being inextricably linked in with corporate interests. Their policies have seen homelessness grow to unprecedented levels during their time in government, a failing healthcare system, a housing crisis, inaccessible education – and the suffering of so many people. This amounts to social murder. Social murder is when people are made homeless or when people become sick or die prematurely because of policies that have been imposed from above, specifically austerity policies in Ireland since the 2010s. The government isn’t providing us with the bare minimum, the ability to have a roof over our heads, the ability to buy groceries, and to not have to worry about what we have to eat at the end of the day.
It is important to note that the system is working exactly as intended. The government is beholden to vulture funds, corporations and capitalists, and so they have followed a neoliberal housing model that is for-profit, making accommodation both scarce and expensive, in an effort to drive up corporate profits. Homelessness figures are at a record high, youth emigration is at worrying levels while derelict properties, 12,000 in Dublin alone are everywhere, due to investors keeping them empty for speculative purposes. Solutions such as CPO or CSO are not being applied, nor is public housing being built.
With regards specifically to education, we currently bear the brunt of neoliberal market policies imposed from above by the government. The system that casualizes and outsources the workforce and puts staff on insecure contracts is the same one that hikes fees, rents, cuts welfare services and refuses to grant postgraduate researchers workers’ rights and a living stipend. Not only is it hurting us, but it chips away at the lifeblood of our institutions – the free exchange of teaching and research – by underfunding the arts and humanities, installing managerialist styles of governance and restructuring to integrate academia with the needs of the labor market.
A few weeks ago, you and other students took action and blocked the Book of Kells in protest against rent increases. What is the situation for student housing on campus now? What is the importance of this kind of direct action in building a fightback?
Government policies have undoubtedly caused a housing crisis, but our institutions are complicit as well in the for-profit model of housing. Due to government underfunding of academia, in line with neoliberal economic policy, our institutions begin to act like businesses. They don’t stand up to the government, but engage in practices like casualizing staff, driving up fees and rents. 93% of Trinity students find campus rents unaffordable, rents which have increased 50% since 2014 in some places and can be as much as €12,000 per annum. This is actively pricing students out of education. Many drop out of education altogether, abandoning our dreams and passions because of factors outside our control. Many are simply not going to university, or emigrating. Those who do, there is a two tiered student experience, those who can afford in Dublin, and those who can’t, and are locked out of education.
The way that the housing crisis affects students is three-fold. Firstly in private student accommodations, secondly in university-owned accommodation, thirdly in other rental accommodation. From the private student sector, the government has given over responsibility to multinational companies like Hines, Aparto, Uninest etc. to provide housing, and this is done at extortionate rates. International students are especially affected, because they do not know the non-student rental market so they are forced into purpose-built student accommodation. Secondly, the university owned accommodation is similar – they underfund our institutions and as a result our institutions conform to a corporate pattern and drive up rents. In fact, the gap between public and private student accommodations is increasingly closing. No student living in student accommodation, private or public, has proper tenants rights. Finally, those who live in other rental accommodation are affected just like everyone else is by unaffordability, scarcity and bad living conditions.
Students have been raising the alarm bells about this for a long time. In fact, we penned an open letter as TCDSU in March 2023, asking College for a rent freeze. This open letter went ignored and in June 2023, College increased campus rents by 2%, the maximum legally allowed. This begs the question – how are we supposed to make our voices heard? We have a seat at the table, but we do not have a voice at the table. Through direct action, we gain a voice and a bargaining tool at the negotiating table with College. At the same time, we are putting pressure on the government through the College, as long as we craft our communications in a way that explains the systemic link between university marketization and neoliberal state policies. It is difficult to be a student or staff in today’s Ireland, so we have to say enough is enough and stand up to senior management and the state.
It is important to stand up to senior management as well with a clear line of class struggle as it exposes that they are class allies with the government. For example, the Irish Universities Association (IUA) lobbied for universities to be exempt from the rent pressure zones limiting rent increases to 2%. Taking direct action and using language that evokes the class struggle and offers a systemic critique is crucial to advancing from student consciousness to class consciousness. This is also why we emphasized that postgraduate researchers and university workers face the same struggle, and that it is the same fight. We had speakers from the Postgraduate Workers Organisation as well as a member of the teaching staff on a precarious contract.
The protest looks to be a success because negotiations have taken a positive turn after we authored an open letter that got 600 signatures following the blockade, and a solid step is expected at the 26th of October Finance Committee meeting. It is important to note that I believe this is the most student unions are capable of. They are capable of securing basic demands like putting a stop to a rent or fee increase or securing a rent freeze. Much like trade unions which are limited to trade union consciousness, student unions are limited to student union consciousness, the bureaucratic behemoths they are. Further action needs to be taken but this can only be done by grassroots organizations, as evidenced by the militant action students are taking up in the North and in the U.K. Occupations, rent strikes and demands which go beyond reformism are being carried out exclusively by grassroots organizations. In order to escalate from securing this win, to class consciousness and fighting the neoliberal capitalist system, students must organize in groups other than the student union while at the same time also applying pressure on the student union.
What kind of role do you think the USI can play in fighting for better conditions for students? Is there anything you would change about the USI?
The Union of Students Ireland (USI) is flawed in its structure. It is a union for student unions, not a union of students. This makes it top-down and difficult for them to take grassroots action, seeing as they are multiple layers of abstraction away from students on the ground. Nevertheless, the left-wing faction has managed to make an impact. At the 2023 USI Congress, a motion of no-confidence in the government was passed which mandates the USI to advise students to vote against the government. Communications from the USI have become markedly more adversarial towards the government, yet as discussed before there are fears that this operates still within a liberal-bourgeois framework. The reality is that an organization like the USI would have a difficult time breaking away from electoral and reformist politics, because it has become co-opted. As I said in another article of mine which referenced the NGOization of the USI:
“It must not be chalked up to coincidence, for example, that the Union of Students Ireland (USI) and affiliated student unions have employed the rhetoric of decommodifying education yet will promote the StudentSurvey.ie tool, which is a consumer satisfaction survey. On a closer look, the National Student Engagement Program (NStEP), a collaboration of the government and the USI incorporating this survey, has provided €138,712 to the accounts of our national union in 2022. The advocacy goal of public education therefore stands in stark opposition with the promotion of this survey, in an instance of Orwellian doublethink.
The ensemble of student unions are not independent actors, but are themselves extensions of the state apparatus and continuously assert their cultural hegemony over student activism by weight of their social power situated in capitalist power structures. Governments, institutions and the media recognize them as the rightful representatives of students; they recognize themselves as such.”
This year, we have a stronger USI executive, and it remains to be seen whether they can resist the pressures of co-optation. Firstly, coming from the USI’s own structures and links with government projects. Secondly, coming from smaller and rural student unions, who are oftentimes not as political as larger unions like TCDSU, and who see themselves as mere service and event providers and make no attempt to change this. The USI’s recent ItsRainingNow protest was a march, which happens each year – it remains to be seen if they will take up the struggle with sit-ins, occupations and more radical action over the year, or if their momentum will fizzle out like before.
It would be a welcome change if the USI were to be held accountable directly to students. Our national union is too officer-driven rather than student-driven. Therefore, if we want to ensure that in the future, radical action happens, the USI’s voting system should switch to allow universal suffrage. “The power to mobilize comes from sustained engagement of students with the union which will happen if USI sabbatical candidates have to campaign amongst the student body rather than just campaign student union sabbatical officers. I have been working hard on making the USI adopt universal direct elections, with members of the executive being elected directly by students on the ground. This started with a motion at the TCDSU in 2022-2023, as well as a motion passed in 2023-2024 at the USI National Council mandating the USI National Executive to look into the possibility of adopting direct elections. This is based on a policy paper I developed on possible options and voting systems to adopt to this end.
Postgraduate workers have been getting organised and have formed a new, rapidly growing union, the Postgraduate Workers’ Organisation. Are there new opportunities for undergraduates and postgrad workers to work together?
Undergraduate students must stand in solidarity with the demands of postgraduate researchers who are getting organized in the Postgraduate Workers Organisation (PWO). They are demanding a living wage and workers’ rights. They are demanding the bare minimum, and yet this government has betrayed them in Budget 2024. The new budget gave a €3,000 increase only to SFI and IRC-funded postgraduate researchers, and this still falls below the €25,000 minimum wage as well as it only affects 30% of all postgraduate researchers. The reason why it is crucial that undergraduates and postgraduate workers stand together is because disruptive action and strike action is on the horizon. At times like this, we must stand shoulder to shoulder with our class allies. Within just a year, PWO has amassed 25% of all postgraduate researchers, a result which would not have been possible without a massive grassroots support and need for change. In comparison, TCDSU sabbatical elections have turnouts of 10-15%.
It is important to note that the same system that exploits postgraduate researchers is the same system that charges unaffordable tuition fees, increases rents and underfunds student services. We are fighting the same neoliberal and austerity-driven approach to academia.
Furthermore, staff working conditions are student learning conditions. Postgraduate researchers work as teaching assistants for meager pay, are overworked and stressed. The same is true for many early-track academics. This undoubtedly affects the quality of education.
Finally, solidarity is the only way for us to stand up to this government and their neoliberal approach that causes undeniable harm to our communities and perpetuates social murder. Solidarity is when we support each other even if we are not directly involved. In the case of undergraduates, therefore, we must support postgraduate workers who are organizing and stand behind them.
There is a strong tradition of solidarity with Palestine in Trinity. Can you talk a bit about this? Are there any plans for more action in 2023-24?
TCD BDS is the only active BDS group on university campuses. It has its origins dating back to 2018, when a student referendum was held and passed with an overwhelming majority on the matter. Since then, TCD BDS supported by TCDSU has been involved in campaigns to implement an academic boycott of Israeli universities, as well as to make Trinity divest its €2.5 million euros of stock in the war-industry, and cultural events on campus. Our latest success has been to get our College to divest from the war-industry, but there is more to do. Our College still has links with 13 Israeli entities, amongst them universities which are directly complicit in the Israeli war-industry and security forces ecosystem. We plan to ramp up our actions especially in light of the genocide being perpetrated by the fascist Israeli government on Palestinians. We have also had interest from other student unions, namely in NCAD and UCD, in setting up their own BDS groups, as well as this we passed a motion at the USI to support the Palestinian cause.