The early years of this decade brought a great deal of change to the organisation. USIT, which was previously owned entirely by USI, was now to be under joint ownership by the union and the staff of USIT. USI would move offices to North Great Georges Street in order to avoid paying the high rents they would incur if they remained in the premises adjoin- ing USIT.
1982 saw an attempt by the British government to reduce the number of students in colleges, slashing grants to colleges in order to ‘encourage’ them to reduce places in their courses. At the same time the government in Ireland once again was threatening a fees rise, an increase of almost £500, which could ultimately have the same effect as the British initiative. In response, USI was to organise more mass demonstrations, as well as increase the publication of campaign materials in order to engage more students.
Tensions would continue to rise between students in individual colleges and their administrations, with many groups taking to occupation as a form of protest. In 1984, a breakout of protests was to deeply alarm the government and receive its condemnation. Supported by USI, students in the National College of Art and Design staged an occupation of their Administration Block which was to go on for several days.
Meanwhile, Trinity students occupied a section of the Department of Social Welfare office in protest against the lack of student supports provided by the department. Speaking at the time, USI president Giollaiosa Ó’Lideadha stated: “Students are no longer prepared to tolerate exorbitant fee increases and inadequate grants. Many eligible young people are being forced out of higher education on to the scrap heap of mass youth unemployment.” This spate of student sit-ins and occupations would continue, with several clashes occur- ing, including forced removal of students by Gardaí from institutions such as the Department of Education.
After being in existence for 28 years, 1985 saw the appointment of USI’s first female president, Patricia Hegarty. Noting the history of the union as male dominated, the new president would comment that “more women are becoming involved in USI because they identify more with the union – and that’s come about partly through the election of a full time Women’s Rights Officer”. With a stronger focus on the necessity of equality within the union and in society generally, Hegarty would continue with her union to fight and campaign upon the same lines as previously, to allow for the provision of education without crippling students with unnecessary debt.
During the warm up to the 1986 general election, USI was swift to remind the government of the voting power of its 50,000 members with a variety of marches being
held throughout the country. Hoping for a promise by political par- ties for the freezing of fees, USI deputy president Sean Ó’hArgáin stated: “We want that commitment openly and publicly made.” He hoped that it would become an election issue.
Cutbacks would continue in the college sector, with a 3% drop in the budgets for Regional Technical Colleges a particular issue. However the protests would continue with a new call by USI for Minister of Education Mary O’Rourke to set up a representative body for an education review. Rallies and campaigns would point out the need for wider consultation, clear terms of reference and the addressing of the true problems within third level education.
Along with the issue of education reform was the need for serious social reform within colleges, with 1988 seeing an invigorated campaign for greater acceptance of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender students. Speaking on the issue, Fidelma Joyce, USI Women’s Rights Officer, stated: “While gains have been made we still have a long way to go and I feel that in some ways the gay rights movement hasn’t gone outside Dublin.” USI would push forward for the setting up of more gay societies within colleges, an effort which would form a concrete beginning of the union’s strong record in terms of the LGBT movement .
1989 would prove to be a red letter year in the history of USI, as it would prove the dedication and courage of the union’s members. The Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child (SPUC) brought a case against UCD and Trinity student unions in order to prevent them from providing information regarding abortion to hundreds of women who were requesting it every year. The unions were defiant against SPUC and even though the Supreme Court would rule against them on the 28th of July, these students representatives
would stay true to their course and continue to provide the information, which was of interest to the welfare of those they were meant to serve. Francois Pitton, then President of UCD’s Students Union, stated: “SPUC has declared a moral ‘Jihad’ and have now been given the backing of the courts, but they are just burying their heads in the sand. It won’t stop women going away to have abortions.” This would prove to be only the beginning of the students’ fight as the court cases would continue into the 90s with USI on centre stage.