With three candidates running unopposed for SU elections and student recognition of the union at an all-time low, Bridget Fitzsimons asks if students even care
Depending on your point of view, this time of year can be either incredibly exciting or horribly annoying. The Students’ Union’s annual sabbatical elections mean that the university walls are cluttered with the faces of those running for election, with hopeful electioneers making lecture addresses several times an hour. On the day itself, crowds gather in buildings to jostle for the attention of voters, and end up managing both to create a tense atmosphere, and to annoy almost everyone.
This year, however, it looks as if the excitement and annoyance of the SU elections are to be greatly diminished. In previous years we have become used to highly contested races, fraught debates, and an atmosphere of huge competition. But now that three of the races – those of President, Entertainments Vice-President and Welfare Vice-President – are uncontested, it is time to ask whether students even care about the SU. Another reason for examining the worth of the SU comes with the poll conducted by The University Observer elsewhere on these pages, showing that student recognition for the five current SU sabbatical officers is embarrassingly low.
Students cannot take all the blame for being uninterested in UCD Students’ Union – it can often seem like no effort is being made to make the Union more accessible to the average student. While there are far more class reps this year than in previous terms, a visit to Union Council is ample evidence of the fact that many of these reps – whose job, among other duties, is to attend Council on their classes’ behalves – simply do not show up. It is the same old faces that inhabit Council every week. Some classes have dedicated class reps who take their job seriously, but quite a number of the inhabitants of Union Council are everlasting students whittling away a year of their varsity lives.
While nobody can deny that the SU does achieve things and that its officers work hard, it must be asked why these officers aren’t interacting more with the people they claim to represent? In saying that they speak for the 22,000 students enrolled in UCD, the SU sabbatical officers claim a responsibility to know, and be known, to their constituents. Collectively, students pay €2,000 in wages every week to the five sabbatical officers; the least that they can expect, in return, is proper value for money in the form of openness and transparency.
The SU has essentially become a closed corridor, not being particularly open to the average student looking to get involved. To say that it is riddled with cliques is an understatement: to put it bluntly, if you don’t know the right people already within, there’s no point in an average student attempting to do anything within the SU. You may have a passion for education, welfare or campaigning, but don’t count on being elected unless you know a lot of people – and they must be the right people – even if you do manage to get into the electoral race.
Perhaps this is why there are only eight candidates running for the five sabbatical positions, and why only one woman has decided to run. In a university where the majority of students are female we have become forced, year after year, to tolerate an overwhelmingly male-orientated and biased SU. Similarly, different races and ages are barely represented, nor are those with disabilities. For an institution with a population as diverse as UCD’s, our student representation is depressingly uniform. We have all stopped caring about a Union that doesn’t itself care about being visible to us. It is clear that change needs to occur when people do not know who the sabbatical officers are, or what they do, and fail to recognise them from posters that are clearly not doing what they are intended to.
A Union must represent all of its members. Unless the Students’ Union is visible, the roles within it will continue to be irrelevant. Why would students vote for, and how are they meant to recognise, people who won’t make themselves known to them? The next crop of sabbatical officers will be the same as the generations that came before it – unless they take real action to engage with the people that put them where they hope to be. Hopefully they will take the results of The University Observer’s survey on board, and use them as motivation to become more visible and relevant to students for the next academic year.
But students too must take action. If posters and campaigns are not grabbing students’ attention, it can’t be all the fault of the Students’ Union. We need to engage in our Union if we’re to get any benefit from them at all. To change, we must all be involved, and the SU, not just its officers, must make an effort the make this happen.