By David Farrell
The Union of Students in Ireland (USI) was founded in 1959 to promote and protect the rights of Irish students. It has over its history fought the Irish government and other bodies on issues of equality and social justice. Yet these achievements lie in the distant past. Since then, the once rebellious, cantankerous and domineering USI has become dull, obedient and largely ineffective.
The very notion that it is a ‘representative’ body is farcical. If you were to ask a few friends who the current president of USI is, it’s likely very few could think of the name, except perhaps “the lad who got arrested in the Dáil”. This is even despite the fact that he was a UCD student. This can hardly be the height of ambition for USI; to gain acclaim for an arrest on breaking Dáil standing orders. Yet this is the one thing John Logue is known for and little else.
This is not to criticise Logue or the office board, but rather the method of their election and the organisation itself. Those seeking office face not the students, but Student Union Council, with no direct mandate or contact with those they purport to represent. This, coupled with the organisation’s lack of presence or even mention on campus, makes them a largely irrelevant institution to the average student. The only real mention one finds of them is during election time or when they organise a week long ‘Congress’ to decide upon their plans for the year, with hundreds of delegates coming together courtesy of USI. These ‘debates’ and ‘elections’ are that in name only, with the hard decisions having been made beforehand. The delegates merely vote as they’re told with the decisions already made at a local level. Yet the show continues.
This is only an extension of the culture that has become rampant in Students’ Union politics. The belief that to represent students we must follow after the ‘big boys’ and like them, they must wear suits, have big conferences and make important speeches. It then looks like a feeder school for the big leagues. Ignoring the principles upon which USI was founded, it should be firmly rooted within the campuses of Ireland, with regular students articulating the real concerns and hardships on our terms. Not some bastardised attempt at sounding official.
In his manifesto and his speeches John Logue decried the increasingly repetitive series of marches engaged upon by USI, he wasn’t too far wrong in the idea that they were losing their effect. He called for a more concerted and professional attempt at lobbying the powers that be. While acknowledging one key problem, it has served to further remove USI from sight and sound of the regular student, moving it from the very special position as an upstart student movement to a dreary, dull and ineffective lobbying board.
This lobbying board though has been almost entirely useless. Since free education was introduced in 1998, USI have presided over a period of huge growth in the registration fee. Something which started off as around a £90 charge for registration has ballooned into a €3000 barrier to entry, on their watch. Coupled with negligible decreases in grant payments as social welfare and pensions went up, students were left behind by the giveaways of the Celtic tiger. Not only that we’re now getting the worst of it on the way down too, with the SUSI fiasco just the tip of the iceberg. These changes were hardly introduced without some outcry from USI, but on the face of it, those cries haven’t made the blindest bit of difference. Unless someone within USI has something new in his bag of tricks, it will be doomed to further failure. Their poking, prodding, screaming and shouting hasn’t worked.
Students’ Unions are all far from perfect and in dire need of an overhaul. The financial drain to UCDSU in USI affiliation fees is absurd, with about one sixth of the Union’s budget committed to USI for their ‘myriad’ of activities. When faced with such a financial crisis surely UCDSU can go without forking over large portions of its budget to such an inept institution. Maybe our ‘local’ students’ unions could represent us on the national stage without the need to appoint ‘presidents’ and ‘vice-presidents’. Why can’t they amongst themselves come to decisions on how to further our goals without the bureaucracy and expense, at least then we can question those decisions and can see those responsible discharging their duty, without the relative anonymity of a national office. Surely, such an open agreement could be reached that could see a rotating ‘chairmanship’ jointly held by a ‘big’ and ‘small’ institution seeing priorities more firmly enacted with closer collaboration between universities and unions without the awkward guy in the middle that is USI.
While USI is part of a larger problem, by disaffiliating ourselves from it UCD can start out on the road to reform and set the wheels of change in motion. Those making the case for staying with the USI will point to their past achievements and probably sell you some long-winded plan. Too long have those in need suffered while USI has sought to get a broad consensus or waited on the government. USI is not fit for purpose and we should move on and call for a new approach to addressing the grievances we bear. Perhaps one that better involves the students would be a good start.
by Evan O’Quigley
Every year in the SU Presidential elections there’s always one candidate running on a platform of leaving USI. It seems to be the new radical belief among students that leaving USI would solve all of our woes and problems. There are some reasons why leaving the organisation could indeed benefit the college and the money that would be saved is one which is most often spoken about.
It is questionable whether in fact the money that would be saved by leaving the USI would actually do any good. It must be clear at this point to all students that the UCDSU aren’t exactly accounting geniuses. While the current SU, in fairness, have made considerable efforts, and have been partly successful, in ridding of some of the €1 million in debt they were left by previous dodgy administrations, are we to believe in general that students are the most trustworthy of managing our money? What would we get as students that would be so great after leaving the USI?
It should also be noted that while there are some serious problems with USI, there are positive aspects. Their constant campaigning for equality rights for women and LGBT students is to be admired, along with promoting labour rights for students who work part-time and offering support to mature students.
The USI are a great disappointment. The only news about them anyone paid the slightest bit of attention to is John Logue’s arrest for standing in the Dail; for the heinous crime of standing. Oh, what a revolutionary man he is indeed. Leon Trotsky he is not. While Logue publicly backs the USI position supporting free fees, it is clear he has no personal ambition to support this policy.
After the students of Ireland voted last year to keep supporting the ‘free fees’ scheme last year Logue responded by stating: “The position of our Union is clear. Education is a right, not a privilege; we will work with our members for the maintenance of Free Fees. I look forward to the work ahead and look forward to working with you to bring the strength of our argument to the people and to government.”
However, Logue revealed in a Hot Press interview back in August (long after the preferendum) that he personally favoured a graduate tax scheme for students, bringing on him the ire of many student and youth groups such as Labour Youth, who issued a press release condemning the remarks. At the time Seamus Reynolds, the President of Maynooth SU referred to his comments as ‘baffling’, considering the results of the preferendum and the mandate of the USI to favour free-fees. Logue responded to the controversy by saying ‘the logical answer’ is to follow the mandate. Well that’s some great enthusiasm!
USI needs a leader who is following the mandate of the students of Ireland, not based on ‘logic’ but based on actual principals. The solution to the problem we have therefore should not be to leave the USI but rather a change in leadership. The current platform of students having little say in what actually goes on, with representatives from SUs voting instead with little consultation, and the politics of it being entirely consensus based rather than following the views of the students most concerned is unhelpful in combating the issues that students face, and major reform must be undertaken to strengthen student power through the USI, not without it.
Without some kind of national group holding together the students of all colleges, students will find themselves increasingly powerless. Granted, it’s likely at this rate the government will ultimately screw us one way or another, but it does not require that we take it sitting down. The increasing dismantling of the welfare state in favour of destructive austerity by both the previous and current governments has undoubtedly made life more difficult for students. With increased registration fees, grants and services cut, along with the total eradication of postgraduate grants, the situation is not at all good. It is clear the USI have not been effective enough in dealing with these issues, but throwing the baby out with the bathwater is not the solution to any problem.
The baby in this case being the USI, the bathwater (the part we should get rid of) is the apathetic career-minded future dwellers of Leinster house that have been the only ones interested in joining the USI. Trying to prove that they can make the ‘tough decisions’ like the government claim they’re doing whenever they impose a new austerity budget (tough decisions would be maybe pointing fingers at the people who actually caused the recession). USI needs, instead, leadership of those who are genuinely concerned about student issues, not about a large salary, considerable pension and benefits along with political power that comes with being active within the USI.
It’s for this reason that most USI presidents tend to be ‘insider’ types and hardly represent students’ belief in education equality. It is no surprise that many of our high-ranking politicians, including the current Tánaiste, made it through the ranks at USI before going on politically at the national level.
There is without a doubt, many major structural problems within the USI. Focusing too much on realpolitik and keeping up appearances, giving the effect of caring for students, while really allowing the powers that be to get away with daylight murder. The answer however, is not to get rid of them, but rather for a revolution in student politics. If the USI aren’t along for the ride on this potential revolution, they very well might destroy themselves in the process, and it will be up to the students of UCD to decide that when they vote.