USI Vice President for Academic Affairs.
All-Island Civic Dialogue on Brexit.
Mon, April 30th 2018 – Dundalk Institute of Technology.
“My name’s Oisín Hassan, and I’m the Vice President for Academic Affairs with the Union of Students in Ireland. USI represent 374,000 students across the island of Ireland, both North and South, alongside our friends in NUS-USI in the North.
As an all-island student movement with strong links to our colleagues in NUS UK, Brexit completely disrupts the delicate context of post-secondary education that we work within. For our students and the staff in our institutions Brexit is an impending nightmare, and with no deal on the substantive points of the border or the Customs Union any discussion on the impact Brexit will have on education seems far off.
Decision makers must begin to consider education in more detail, and importantly, publicly place it on the agenda. It’s vital that issues of education are not sidelined to mere talking points on the eve of a deal.
However, the student movement recognises that without a deal on a frictionless border, freedom of movement, and securing no diminution of rights for all people on the island, then the detail of education policy is a moot point.
The most recognisable aspect of free movement for our students is, of course, the Erasmus Programme, with thousands of young people able to take up periods of study in institutions across the EU. In a society emerging from conflict, the ability of our students to seek new opportunities to learn and to grow has been invaluable. Without Britain’s adherence to freedom of movement, they will exit Erasmus.
Across the Irish border, students and academics travel each day. Ireland’s closest partner in academic research is Britain, and that relationship hinges on the ability of students and researchers to work cross-border in everything from history and anthropology, to cancer research. The loss of Horizon 2020 funding to British Universities will potentially devastate whole departments and disciplines, and that will have a significant effect on the ability of Irish researchers to gain access to funding.
It is absolutely crucial that the discourse around Brexit begins to look more closely at the issues that a blow to research culture on this island could bring.
Our Undergraduate students rely on research. They might not be aware of it, but a vibrant body of postgraduate research students and the departments of academics that support them ensures a continued quality education for the undergraduate students studying in the same discipline. It is a crucial part of ensuring access to education for a wide diversity of young people.
Indeed, the Republic will be the only anglophone country left in the European Union once Britain withdraws, and with that comes opportunity. Our institutions are eyeing up potential EU and non-EU students alike, as Britain becomes a much less attractive place. Therein lies the problem, the market approach to education. Competition among our Universities and Institutes. Competition between Ireland and other EU members.
An increasingly marketised view of education, where the shiniest prospectus and an overtly touristic sales pitch are aimed at attracting the international student as Britain shuts it doors.
So, let this be a word of caution to Government and to Higher Education Institutions: international students are not a sport. They are not for exploitation. The value of internationalising our education lies in diversity, in cultural exchange and the sharing of ideas and perspectives. Everything Brexit does not represent.
Brexit is not an opportunity to be an opportunist.
It is imperative that we utilise it as an opportunity to lay out a progressive version of ourselves, in the face of an uncertain future, one that we hope will not be defined by the divisions of the Brexit referendum.
Since the sun rose on Brexit Britain on the 24th June 2016, there have been those who have argued that Britain can replicate what it will lose, or renegotiate access to various programmes and agreements. When Switzerland failed to negotiate freedom of movement with Croatia it quickly unravelled their membership of the Erasmus.
Our apprentices in the North have directly benefited from the European Social Fund, and so far no real solution is on the table to replace that funding.
And what of research funding? Surely Britain will simply replace the funding it will lose, allowing academics and their students to continue to collaborate across borders for the betterment of global society?
How will research funding fare in the tussle between sectors? I suspect not particularly well when Government Ministers and backbench MPs weigh up the options in tight budgets.
And we’re also assuming that the British Treasury will actually have money to share around. In December, the Resolution Foundation reported that Britain will be £65bn worse off until 2025, and that living conditions face the biggest fall since records began.
Governments, are going to have to find the will and the money to invest in third-level education.
It already faces a funding crisis, and now, we face a race against time to find solutions to the damage Brexit will cause.
USI fears that an already struggling Higher Education now faces years of papering over the Brexit cracks. With that in mind, students travelling North-South, East-West, and from EU countries must have their fee status secured. Students are not cash cows to fix the impending problems. Education is the great leveller for young people, their families, and their communities, so access must be protected and strengthened.
USI represents a string of Students’ Unions dotted around the Irish border. I’m sure you’ve all heard the stories, and perhaps have family members, who make the commute to school, college, and work every day across the border. Many of you will remember how the border used to look.. A visible sign of the division of our beautiful island.
Just recently I was told of a student in Letterkenny Institute of Technology who crosses the border 7 times a day.
With that in mind, let me run you through a potted history of the movement I represent. I hail from QUB originally and in the throws of the troubled 60s our Students’ Union, depending on whether Nationalists or Unionists controlled the Council, would disaffiliate from either NUSUK or from USI and join the other one. This got incredibly frustrating for all involved, so in 1972, down in Galway the two national Unions came together and negotiated the Bilateral Agreement.
This meant that all affiliated Students’ Union’s north of the border where represented by both NUS and USI, and could not be members of just one. Subsequently this became the Trilateral Agreement to strengthen the autonomous decision making of students in Northern colleges, now known as NUS-USI. Twenty five years before Good Friday the students of Ireland and Britain pioneered a way forward out of darkness, out of continual division.
They created a unity that would strengthen the student voice throughout the years of death and destruction.
Fast forward to 1998 and the EU was written into the very law that underpinned our Peace Process.
As a Northerner, it would be remiss of me not to mention that There’s an empty parliament building on Stormont estate with no one home. Our young people need their decision makers around the table with a consistent message.
In closing, we’re on the precipice of potential catastrophe. That doesn’t mean that all is lost. The student movement is working together closely to ensure the freedom of movement and the mobility of our academic community is not hamstrung post-Brexit.
The value of education to our modern society is intrinsic, and it must be defended. USI, NUSUK, and NUS-USI will be there to champion, no matter what.
Donald Tusk quoted the USI motto a few months ago, so I’ll leave you with it.
Ní neart go cur le chéile.