One would usually associate them with supporting any trade union action and opposing any cuts, but this week the national students' body, the Union of Students in Ireland (USI), did us all a service by calling for the restrictive Croke Park deal, which protects the public sector, to be renegotiated.
The students cited the seriousness of our economic situation, and the need for a wake-up call for all. But the real clincher is the realisation that, in their own sector, a massive percentage of funding still goes directly to pay for high salaries. As the outgoing USI president, Gary Redmond, put it: the Croke Park Deal shelters the highest paid university staff at the expense of frontline college services such as mental health counselling and career advice. How could such a "deal" be working, when some heads of universities are being paid salaries of up to €450,000 a year?
This is not the first time the USI has made this call. The union also did so in December 2010, but then it didn't get so much notice, just abuse from the hard-left minority who regard such calls as heresy and who have traditionally dominated student politics. But the student world has changed from the days of rent-a-crowd protest politics. Today's students have studied and worked hard and they want to get jobs and survive in much-changed economic landscape. This is why their call against restrictive practices is so welcome. It is also
welcome because they are calling for renegotiation when too many others have given up and accepted the status quo, which exempts our still burgeoning public sector from any further downsizing, pay cuts or meaningful reform.
The students only have to look at their own sector is see the lack of progress by the Croke Park lockdown. In fact, our universities illustrate everything that is wrong with the Celtic Tiger. From being the envy of other countries, and a hothouse of entrepreneurial and intellectual talent, our third-level sector has bankrupted itself with high salaries, poor productivity and minimal periods of actual lecturing. The salaries and expenses of those at the top are simply staggering.
Last week, Dr Paul Mooney, the former president of the National College of Ireland, lifted the lid on university practices and on the light workload of so many of the staff. An Bord Snip Nua had made similar observations, particularly in relation to the technology sector. And yet, this week, we saw the continuing failure of university and other high-earning academic staff to take a voluntary pay cut as requested by the Education Minister Ruairi Quinn. Last year, Mr Quinn asked that all those earning more than €200,000 accept a pay cut. He was specifically thinking of eight academics, including four college presidents, who earn more than €200,000 per year. But to date, only two presidents have responded. TCD provost Paddy Prendergast has taken cut of €1,492 and NUI Galway president Dr Jim Browne, has taken a cut of €2,500. Dr Michael Murphy, the UCC president -- and the highest-paid president with an annual salary of €232,000 -- has not taken a cut. Nor, apparently, has Dr Hugh Brady, president of UCD, who earns €202,000 a year, and has also been in the media concerning his impressive travel expenses. No wonder Gary Redmond and his student comrades are angry.
More diplomatically, Mr Quinn expressed his disappointment with the overall response to his request. "Everyone who was fortunate enough to be in employment has had to take a reduction in pay," he said. "People in a position of leadership have to give leadership."
But leadership seems to be the last thing these top bods are showing. They are instead living in an ivory tower with an utter sense of entitlement. They have even invoked the concept of "academic freedom" to protect the principle of permanency in their profession. Last year, 150 academics wrote an open letter criticising the Croke Park agreement on this basis: "The right to permanency and tenure to retirement age is the bedrock on which academic freedom rests."
Hilariously, Senator Ronan Mullen rowed in supportively, warning us not to undermine academic freedom, "given that some of the more important criticisms of what has occurred in this country in recent years have been made by people in academia rather than in the Oireachtas". Really? But is that not what academics are supposed to do? So why do they need to be made permanent to do it?
But this is the privileged world protected by the Croke Park deal. Well, now the students themselves have loudly come out against it and against a situation where the resources go to the selfish people at the top and the leftovers go to them.
But is this not just emblematic of a wider national situation, where the country has been bankrupted by bailouts and reckless spending, not least in the huge salaries of higher civil servants, and public officials and endless quangos (and there are no more expensive quangos than the education quangos)?
For the students, this is particularly unfair. They did not create the downturn or even contribute to it. They are actually the least culpable. They didn't buy houses, they didn't ask for benchmarking.
And yet they are the downturn's greatest victims.
Fed a diet of Celtic Tiger propaganda, they worked hard and and now they see the jobs disappear, and emigration loom.
They are paying for the sins of our bankers and developers. They deserve better. But the great thing is that have protest clout. They do take to the streets and, in calling for the Croke Park deal to be reopened, they have done us all a service.
Genuine student protests led the way in challenging the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe, and the right-wing dictatorships of Greece and Portugal in the Seventies. Can they be the catalyst for the same sort of change here?