Fighting fees for a brighter future

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Fighting fees for a brighter future

By Andy Gray (@AndyGrayNI)

With record numbers coming out to vote in the recent Assembly election, it is clear that politics has once again recaptured the interest of young people in society.

After Brexit, there were grumblings that “old people had taken away the future for young” people, but ultimately, not enough young people came out to make their voices heard.

But in the recent Assembly election, a vote sparked off the back of Martin McGuiness’ resignation as Deputy First Minister over the DUP’s handling of the RHI scandal, young people were determined to make a difference.

There are several factors that sparked the interest of the younger generation.

General Election Turnout % (Source: EONI) United Kingdom Northern Ireland
2005 61.4% 62.9%
2010 65.1% 57.6%
2015 66.1% 66.1%
2017 68.7% 65.4%

Firstly, the impact and fall out of the RHI scandal cannot be underestimated.  DUP leader Arlene Foster’s leadership over the scandal has been a disaster, with even many unionist voters moving away from their traditional vote in protest.

The DUP’s refusal to support equal marriage has also been heavily criticised by many young people. It’s no longer a generation of us versus them politics, manifestos and policies now do matter.

A demand for equality cannot be understated, and young people are leading the charge.

One factor that has played a part, and often went under the radar, is student fees. It’s attracted interest from young people right across the UK.

With constant threats to raise Student Fees from the Conservative Party, Labour have come out fighting and said they plan to abolish them altogether and create a higher education for the masses.

The issue of student fees has also grabbed attention back in Northern Ireland.

Unlike Scotland, England and Wales, students in Northern Ireland only pay a third of the price for an Undergraduate course, meaning that once again, Northern Ireland finds itself in a special position.

Speaking to students about the issue, the feeling is strong that students should not be hit by rising costs and more crippling debt that will hamper their future.

Luke Sunerton, who studies History and Politics at Queens’ University Belfast, believes that the student voice is stronger than ever.

“I think students, especially over here, have become frustrated at the same old excuses and bad relations between the different parties,” he said.

“But recently I think parties have recognised that they need to appeal to the younger voter too and there has been a real push to get the new generation on board.

“But I have to wonder really how much politicians want our vote, especially on equality issues and also with uncertainty over student fees.

“To get ahead when there is a push to get young people to go through university so that they can get a job when they graduate, but now after graduation there are few job prospects and a huge chunk of student debt.”

With student fees facing an uncertain future both locally and in Westminster, Mr Sunerton believes that it is a key issue among young people and first time voters.

He believes, “It’s definitely crucial for the young voter. Over in Westminster you have two contrasts with the Conservatives and Labour so I think interest has been peaked nationally.”

Cost of Undergraduate Tuition (Source: England and Wales Scotland (For Scottish Students) Scotland (For rest of UK) Northern Ireland
Cost (Per Year) £9,250 £1,820 £9,250 £4,030

Kevin McStravock, President for the Student’s Union at Ulster University, believes that government have to take students seriously about the issue.

“I believe strongly that students should have the right to access publically funded student tuition,” says Mr McStravock, “20 years ago, a lot of the now senior politicians would have been able to access tuition without having to pay for it and now students simply don’t have the same opportunities.

“I feel that everyone has a right to education and that everyone should have a right to try and better themselves. Everyone should be given an equal opportunity to progress their career without the financial burden that becoming a student can bring.

Ahead of the upcoming General Election, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has pledged to make higher education free and to write off any remaining student debt, something that Kevin believes is a positive step forward.

“It should be acknowledged that is budgeted so that is a good starting point,” he said, “I think there is still a lot more work that needs to be done to implement that. There is a huge cost associated with this but I believe that he has justified the reasons for it.

“I think it’s definitely achievable, it just depends on how the funding gap is addressed and the way in which it is paid for.”

With many Universities in the UK now run like a business, Mr McStravock believes that an open approach about the issue of fees is the only way to tackle the problem, “We are forward and the Chancellor of the university knows that we are opposed to fees.

“We understand that there is a huge funding gap in Northern Ireland but they know that we are fully opposed to any increase in fees.

“We’ve tried to find the areas in which we have common ground so we can easily work with the University to lobby with local government.”

Before the collapse of the Assembly in December, the Student’s Union organised a petition against the rise of fees which would be presented to the Assembly upon its return, and the President of the Union believes that it got a positive response.

“The vast majority of MLAs who replied to us were positive and recognised the need for additional funding for higher education. Some of them offered support which suggests that they would be in favour of tuition fees being scrapped.

“Obviously since then the Assembly has collapsed, but when it gets back up and running we will continue to lobby and provide a voice for students.”

With more young people coming out and voting in their masses, they are now deciding that it is time their voices are heard.

For the first time in many generations, young people are coming out in their masses and voting. Turn out percentages are up and are at a consistent level, meaning that it is now time for politicians to take note and listen to the future.

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