Record levels of society membership don’t tell the whole story of declining student participation in extra-curricular activity, according to Gavan Reillly
Balancing the need for a healthy social life with a reasonable academic effort in a college environment is never easy. A vibrant social atmosphere and a tough academic workload never make easy bedfellows. Since beginning the arduous process of semesterisation and modularisation in 2005, UCD has seen this particular marriage hit rocky times, as the academic duties of a conveyor belt of exams and continuous assessment impact on the free time students find on their hands, and their ability to engage in extra-curricular activities.
The continued ability of UCD’s vast and dazzling array of student societies and sports clubs not only to stay alive, but to continue attracting more and more students as members, as well as repeatedly bettering their lists of celebrity guests throughout each year, must be congratulated. While sporting and society life in Belfield is subsidised to no small end by the University, student institutions largely survive with whatever sponsorship they can muster in the current financially lean climate, as well as the modest revenue earned through membership fees. Sadly, raw data like membership levels of college societies does not tell the whole story, and college life cannot realistically claim to be in such rude health as it might have been a few short years ago.
While the primary role of any university is of course to act as an educational institution, imparting its students with the intelligence to make salient and substantial contributions to wider society, the importance of a healthy social environment cannot be understated. Interpersonal and emotional aptitude are of inestimable value to any person, and the best way for an educational institution – particularly one of UCD’s mammoth size and diversity – to nurture such competencies amongst students is the continued support and sustenance of the extra-curricular variety for which UCD is uniquely famed. It’s worth noting in this regard that, a few exceptions aside, membership of political societies saw a steep fall on campus this year.
When outlining his own idealistic blueprint of a college and its role in society, UCD’s founder, Cardinal John Henry Newman, described a university as “the high protecting power of all knowledge and science, of fact and principle, of inquiry and discovery of experiment and speculation”. That UCD has survived 155 years and lived to tell the tale of monumental social, political and economic changes in Ireland is a remarkable feat, but alongside UCD’s incalculable contribution to Irish academia is the awesome role it has had in giving hundreds of thousands of new students a place in which to lay the foundations of their adult lives; to meet like-minded souls, be exposed to new concepts and thoughts, and debate the issues of the day; to undergo the metamorphosis from ageing teenager to young, confident, complete adult. All of these roles are vital to the standing of a university like ours, and all of these were put at real risk of withering away under the academic strain that students found themselves facing under the revamped academic structures.
The attempts of the University over the past years to re-instil a sense of ‘community’, while well intentioned and worthy of praise, have been delivered in a method somewhat wide of the mark. With students finding themselves with less time to get involved in extra-curricular activity, let alone to help organise it, it is myopic of UCD to assume that blithely organising a Community Musical, for example, will instil a sense of neighbourly pride amongst a student body comprising tens of thousands. While such projects of course reap just rewards, it must be acknowledged that the most communal feelings nurtured by a musical are largely restricted to the core group of students who organise such productions. Students watching a production in O’Reilly Hall might be able to appreciate the work that goes into staging a show, but they are much less likely to feel like an active part of it. The establishment of a Musical Society, allowing more people to get involved at their own pace, is a step in the right direction.
There is no quick fix solution; no magic wand that can be waved to restore student life to health. There are scores of societies and clubs in UCD, each catering for their own miniature communities, and each deserving of its own special attention. The role of the University must be to nurture and assist each of these individual institutions if a real and lasting sense of community is to be forged on our maturing campus.