Head to Head: Should UCD leave the USI?

 
 

YES – Elizabeth Beecham

Is UCD’s membership of the Union of Students in Ireland worth the €125,000 it cost us last year? I believe UCD can provide the advocacy, support and representation outside of USI that we so desperately need at this time to protect our welfare and education. I know it is easy to build a straw man debate about the futility of UCD’s USI membership by highlighting just how much is spent on it, but it is perhaps the most pressing consideration when evaluating how we as a student body are benefitting from our membership.

Austerity and budget cuts have become the white noise that infiltrate all of our university experiences. UCD is struggling to educate its ever-growing student population with less funding from the state, and its international recognition slipping ever lower. I, like many, believe that every cent should be utilised in a way that improves the student experience, and USI membership is not delivering to UCD students to justify this cost. That €125,000 has almost endless potential uses on campus.

UCD is strong enough in numbers and student leaders to have a pivotal role in any governmental negotiations without needing the banner of the USI to advance our aims and grievances. At a student population of nearly 25,000 it is difficult to see how we could be sidelined, especially considering our respected place within Irish academia and UCD’s contribution to every aspect of Irish life and society. Some have even argued that being so large we dominate the USI, reducing its benefits as a forum for smaller colleges and institutes of technology.

Through its Students’ Union, UCD already has the internal structures to better facilitate student engagement on a greater level, and earlier on in their university education. It is far better placed then the USI to work with residences, clubs and societies and departments of the university, to respond more dynamically and effectively, and to do so in tune with the mood on campus on a certain issue. Take for example the mental health initiative Please Talk, which began in UCD and spread to twenty-seven colleges across the country. Please Talk was UCD’s way of starting to tackle an issue in a sensitive, powerful way and enhanced the sense of community within the University. Regardless of one’s views on the SU or its Sabbatical Officers they are an engaged, visible force on campus and as such are less remote both metaphorically and geographically than the USI. If one wants to encourage real student participation, even activism, then surely the UCD Students’ Union can achieve this more effectively than the USI. Leaving the USI would not result in a dilution of core student messages such as arguments against fees, as the media seeking the opinions of both the USI and the UCD student leaders would instead strengthen the power of the message.

The only argument for remaining within the USI is that it is easier for the government to negotiate with one umbrella organisation than with UCD as an outsider, yet this argument isn’t compelling enough to justify every cent of our USI affiliation costs. The USI has activated the student movement against fees in recent years and for this it has to be applauded. Apart from this, to me, an average student, the USI merely represents a bureaucratic level far removed from my university experience and unable to enhance it.

Rebuttal – Lauren Tracey

While I do agree that UCD is a formidable force in the academic world and we are the largest university in the country, this is not a question of our student population and our high status in the university world. The Irish government refuse to co-operate with academic institutions nationwide; primary education, secondary education and third level budgets are all being slashed, while social welfare and the health services have taken severe hits. Minister Noonan and his colleagues are determined to take money from wherever they can, and the strong united voice of not one, but forty united colleges and universities around the country would be heard much better and make much more of an impact than forty individual voices.

It must also be considered that leaving the USI would make it much easier for the government to insist on only speaking with just that organisation, therefore eliminating nearly 25,000 students and their representatives from discussions.

It is ridiculous to argue that the ability to negotiate as a team with the government on key issues, such as student fees and the expansion of third level education budgets, is not ‘a good enough reason’ to leave the USI. We university-goers are not the Celtic Tiger generation, we haven’t got the money to spend on these extortionate fees and if the USI can help us avoid paying them, and represent us well while doing it, then I am very much in favour of remaining standing alongside them.

NO – Lauren Tracey

Over the past number of months Ireland’s student population has been faced with some incredibly difficult circumstances. With registration fees set to rise, maintenance grants at risk, and the prospects of securing employment as graduates becoming bleaker by the day, now the students of University College Dublin may be asked to consider the possibility of leaving the USI, the sole national representative body for students in Ireland.

At a time when the rights of students are being progressively chipped away by a government intent on skimming money from every department and sector they possibly can, how can it even be considered that UCD should leave the USI? The acknowledgement must be made that the idea of UCD’s Students’ Union moving out on its own and establishing itself among the larger student representatives is appealing, but leaving the USI altogether brings the old African proverb to mind; “only fools test the water with both feet.” There are many benefits to be gained from remaining within the organisation, and students should be aware of the enormous gains that come from ties with the institution. The USI, at its very core, was conceived to represent those who had been placed in the points race and made it to their chosen universities and colleges.

According to figures on the official USI website, presently the USI represents 250,000 students from forty colleges around Ireland. They stand with the Student Unions’ and fight for the key issues of financial support for all students and ensure that there are appropriate standards of living in place, particularly for those who are vulnerable and living far from home. They tackle issues in conjunction with the Students’ Unions, and strengthen the voices of those we elect to represent us. Withdrawal from the USI would severely weaken the voice of UCD’s Students’ Union officials. Without the backing of such a major force in student politics, UCD runs the risk of being left out in the cold during both discussions with the government and campaigns for student rights. In times such as these this could only prove a disadvantage for the students attending UCD.

Representing the amount of students that the USI does makes the organisation a strong presence and voice in Ireland. It is through its vast array of media links and contacts that our Students’ Union receives the publicity they require to make their campaigns known countrywide. Losing such an important media link would badly damage UCD’s ability to publicise important issues. The student march against fees in December highlighted how a connection with the national representatives of students is a positive one for UCD’s Students’ Union. Student opinions are aired on national programmes such as Prime Time and RTÉ News through USI officials.

It is also important to consider that one of the services the USI offers is training events, which allow our Students’ Union representatives to “fulfil their roles as efficiently as possible throughout the academic year.” The USI has been running successfully since 1959 and is choosing to pass on their knowledge and skills to Students’ Unions across the country so that the student is represented to the highest standard on all platforms. The links with the USI provide UCD’s SU officials with a degree of credibility, with the skills to represent the students of their university with responsibility and knowledge, and with tools to have their issues raised accurately and adequately.

A break with the USI is not the right choice for UCD students at this current time, when the possibility of even attending university next September is fading fast for many. Now more than ever, the students of University College Dublin need to be represented, not only by their own SU, but at a national level by a body with as much experience as the USI.

Rebuttal – Elizabeth Beecham

The degree of media attention garnered by the USI-led protest on fees and student supports is undeniable, yet I fail to see how leaving the USI could hamper UCDSU’s capability to promote and highlight these issues through the diverse media outlets at our disposal. The role of Campaigns and Communications Officer is dedicated to this, and persons who are nominated and elected to this position should have the skills and ability developed to advance our concerns. They do this through acting as class reps and working with clubs and societies, and don’t require professional media training paid for by us.

Recent proposals to amend the USI constitution announced could exacerbate this problem, with officers remaining in their roles for more than two years. USI has a dual role to play: representing our views as third level students in Ireland, and advocating and articulating these views to the educational establishments and government. The USI fails to truly represent UCD students meaningfully as it is seen as a preparatory school for would-be politicians, all paid for by our Student Registration Fee.

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