Image courtesy of RTÉ

The Social Democrats launched their general election manifesto ‘Building a Better Future 2016-2026’ at the steps of the GPO today. The pillars of their platform are an increased investment in public services, a reduction in the cost of living, serious political reform of the Oireachtas, and a commitment to responsible budgeting.

The core policy highlights of their manifesto included an overhaul of the HSE and creation of a single tiered public Irish National Health Service, the repeal of the 8th Amendment, the abolition of Irish Water, and most enticing for students – an initial reduction and capping of the student contribution fee at €2,000.

The proposed €1,000 reduction in the registration fee they claim could be enacted in the lifetime of the next government through an increase in public funding to third-level education, and would be a positive step in moving towards ‘EU average funding levels’.

The document also contained encouragement for current or hopeful postgraduate students as the new party stated they would restore maintenance grants for postgraduate students.

Previously the Social Democrats would not be drawn on the issue of third-level fees and only committed to oppose any further increases. But this strong policy stance on moving to publically fund higher education will provide a challenge to the main parties as they draw up their own election manifestos.

Labour minister for Education Jan O’Sullivan last week announced at a party event in the Connolly café that Labour would commit to a €500 reduction in the student contribution charge if returned to government. The Soc Dems have been adamant in criticising the current coalitions latest pre-election budget of tax cuts as ‘auction politics’ and a reckless erosion of the state’s tax base. Yet Social Democrat youth engagement officer Joe O’Connor maintained that their proposed reduction in the registration fee was not an act of electoral competition with the Labour Party, but a realistic policy alternative to the status quo.

O’Connor argued, “it is achievable and financeable on the basis that we propose to increase public funding year on year to the sector to move towards a more Nordic model, and in lifetime of the next government to fee levels of €2,000”

The USI in response welcomed “that the Social Democrats are including the issue of higher education funding in their manifesto.”

Deputy President of the Union Annie Hoey stated that the “USI will remain firmly in favour of fully exchequer funded education, and will continue to lobby and work with the coalition of groups who support free education and political parties in order to achieve that aim.”

Another policy position that would be welcomed by students and young people was a commitment to legislate for better working conditions by banning zero-hour contracts and tackling precarious “if-and-when” contracts.

Similarly the party claimed the acute issue of rent increases affecting many UCD students each year could be ameliorated through stronger rent certainty measures. Primarily by tying rent increases in areas of rapidly rising rates to the cost of living, preventing arbitrary and untenable price hikes.

Roisin Shortall, party co-leader alongside Catherine Murphy and Stephen Donnelly stated, “the entire focus of our policy framework is ultimately to reduce the cost of living for all by investing, at source, in key public services.

Shortall continued, “Political manifestos are generally huge bland documents that are read by few. We have created a set of practical policies that are accessible and brief yet their implementation would ensure a fairer society for us all.”

The Social Democrats will run candidates in 14 constituencies in the general election and have made a serious bid to attract the student vote with their emphasis on a publicly funded third-level system.

The general election manifestos of Fine Gael, Sinn Fein, Labour, and Fianna Fail have yet to be released, but their positions on funding higher education and the registration fee will be a crucial issue in winning or losing the undecided student vote.

  • Jack Power, Politics & Innovation Editor – Volume 29