John Logue, the 23-year-old Letterkenny man who has just been elected president of the Union of Students in Ireland, wants to see a country of activists during his tenure.
John wants the 250,000-member students’ union “to start ‘little fires’ all around the country, and start a national momentum”.
The University College Dublin law student -- he is finishing his final year -- was elected president at the annual USI congress held in Ballinasloe, Galway, earlier this month. He takes office on July 1st. But John plans to start preparing for his tenure as soon as he finishes his exams on May 5th
“The stuff coming down the line at the minute is too serious to be lax about it,” he said.
Born and raised in Letterkenny, John and his family first lived above Ruth’s Pharmacy on the High Street -- his mother, Siobhan, is a chemist and his father, John, is a carpenter with Apple Tree Woodworks. Later the family moved to Lurgybrack, where they still live. His sister Ali, who attended Loreto Letterkenny, is studying dentistry at University College Cork. John attended Scoil Colmcille and St. Eunan’s College before entering University College Dublin.
Chief among the issues the incoming president expects the USI to address is the funding of third-level education. The USI is holding a special congress on May 23rd to determine future policy on third-level funding. Student fees now run €2,250 a year, up front, though they will rise to at least €3,000 by 2015.
That incremental, annual increase is, in essence, a tax, John said.
“My challenge to the people in Donegal, if you’re not willing to pay a household charge of €100 what in the name of God are you doing paying a €250 tax?” he asked. “That to me is incomprehensible.”
In the current climate, there are likely a large number of families that may not meet the grant threshold, but could not afford those student contributions.
Student unions at third-level institutions around the country will ballot their members on the issue in advance of the special May congress. One option they will consider could see state-guaranteed loans for third-level students, another would leave the current funding system in place, another would revert to the long-standing USI opposition to any fees.
An option John favours would see students pay nothing until they complete their degree and secure employment that pays wages above a certain threshold. At that point, the graduates would pay about €7 a week up, to a third of the cost of their degree, freeing up more money for third-level funding and potentially leading to higher grants or grant thresholds.
John has seen first-hand the impact the USI can have on policy. Job Bridge, the national internship programme, stemmed from a USI proposal.
“To allow people to maintain the skill set they got in college or previous unemployment until the next job offer came -- we just thought that was a very worthwhile thing,” John said. He sat on the initial implementation committee with the Department of Social Protection for Job Bridge.
“That comes back to the idea of what we should do,” he said. “Should we protest, protest, protest, or should we highlight what’s wrong and provide solutions?” John prefers the latter course.
John first became involved with USI about a year ago when he was elected coordinator of Leinster for USI. He was encouraged to throw his hat in the ring by Gary Redmond, the University College Dublin graduate he succeeds as president.
It was the challenge that attracted him, he said, adding: “You may be slightly out of your depth, but you have to rise to it.” He said experiences like Job Bridge opened his eyes.
“I came into USI very sceptical about the organisation and what could be done,” he said. But with Job Bridge, “USI created a policy document that led to the policy itself.” In the same way, John said he wants people around the county to recognise their power.
“It’s easy for us dictating policy and campaign strategy in Dublin, but I want to see families in Donegal rising up the same way they didn’t pay the household charge,” he said. In the same way that revenue from the charge was taken from local authority allocations, revenue from student fees is deducted from third-level funding, he said.
John emphasised that these issues not only affect students.
“If a student has to emigrate because they can’t find work after graduation, that’s a family problem,” he said. “If a student has to pay an increased student fee that’s not just a student problem that’s the family’s problem as well, because the family will probably be helping them. If student grants get cut that’s the family that suffers, not just the students.”
That is why he wants to make local political lobbying a priority. He said it was not simply mass protests that brought farmers and older people results at government level. John knows all about protests -- he was a prime USI organiser of the protest that brought more than 35,000 students to government buildings to protest rising fees. But before older people marched to the Dáil, John said, there were hundreds of older people speaking to every deputy.
He said that rather than focusing on a one-day march, “I’d rather see that effort used to its full extent in the local communities.
“When you get enough TDs worried about their own seats ... that’s where I think the success of the campaign will come,” he said. The USI will train students in effective lobbying: The last two weeks in July the USI provides training for every student union officer in the country and they also run an “activist academy” in October, two days of training for any student interested in taking part in the USI campaign.
The USI will be at the forefront of the campaign against raising third-level student fees, he said. “But it will be up to every household and every student within that household to work with us on it,” he said. “Our campaign is going to be completely local next year.”
“We want every constituency clinic in the country to have a student at it, and not just students,” he said. “We need to get a mass consensus that higher education is not a luxury any more. It’s an imperative.”