As the Students’ Union Sabbatical elections loom, James Fagan contemplates how students’ unions could do their best to represent their members, and argues the case for a more effective national union
As I write this article, I am travelling by train through the countryside. The fields are seas of emerald, flowing past in stark contrast to the bare skeletal branches of the trees which line them. Yet, as it is spring, the scene has an aura of renaissance about it. Every tree is waiting to bloom back into life and complete the picture.
In many ways it’s fortunate that the Students’ Union elections fall at this time of year. They bring the promise of injecting life into UCD by making it a university of the students, providing them with what they need. The bleak winter of student politics, however, isn’t so cyclical.
Every year brings promises of a greater focus by the candidates on what they think we want. We have Ents candidates promising wild parties that would rival the orgies of olde, Campaigns & Communications candidates pledging to stick it to The Man, while the President guarantees to change the world in the name of UCD. But yet, it’s a rare occurrence that meaningful policies and initiatives actually come about as a result of Union elections. Most promises are unattainable – and, at best, populist hooks to secure votes.
A students’ union is an important facet to any college; it’s the only method of focusing the needs of the student body into a coherent form and bringing it to the attention of the governing authority. The office of the Welfare Vice-President provides vital information regarding counselling and sexual awareness. The Education VP helps to voice students’ concerns regarding curricula and related issues. However, it would appear that some candidates want to use it as an opportunity to bolster their CV or to extend their time in college, their commitment to the job half-hearted.
It’s rare for one of the sabbatical officers to actively seek out and meet with the students they have been elected to represent. They need to take the time to invite in views of the students during term-time, and not just when drawing up a campaign manifesto. Since when have the student body’s pressing concerns only existed in March? All sorts of problems crop up during the year, but there is no clearly visible or promoted channel for raising them. Why should this year’s troubles have to wait until next year to have action to resolve them taken?
The other problem is that unions can find themselves working to fulfil outdated and unwanted mandates. Seven years ago, our predecessors voted in two referenda about the sale of Coca-Cola products in Union shops. Ever since, candidates have run for office pledging to once again put the Union’s Coke boycott to a vote. To date it hasn’t materialised – at the time of writing there are whispers that it may take place this year, but I’ll be a Doubting Thomas and wait until I see it with my own eyes.
The impetus required to bring about such a referendum isn’t so large – particularly when you’re taking a sabbatical from college and you have no academic worries. If you’ve promised to do something, you have no excuse for not following through with it. An elected job comes with the expectation that you are an instrument of your electorate, and will toil hard to achieve what they want in an expedient manner.
More worrying, however, is the position of the Union of Students in Ireland, our national union. USI’s officers aren’t elected directly by its members, yet it claims to represent the interests of all Irish students. This hardly appears to be very democratic; this can lend itself to the use of extreme approaches to issues without any form of a rational debate. Take the example of sit-ins at government ministries: as a tame and impotent way of campaigning; it cheapens the value of the student viewpoint by perpetuating the belief that we are all grouchy extremists in our approach to politics.
An appropriate example is an incident which took place at Durham University, where a public debate was to be held, featuring two speakers from the British National Party. The response from the National Union of Students, USI’s British counterpart, was a lengthy letter to the Debate Union and the President of the University filled with quasi-legal nonsense and threats of disruptive protests. The debate was called off. What must be questioned is what gives the national union the right to dictate the lives of its member students, empowering it to prove nothing and to stifle debate. It is paramount that our Union works to ensure that such an incident can never happen here.
Moreover, we need to ask ourselves whether membership of the national union is essential. It can work as a unified voice when there are issues, but paying it over €100,000 per annum in affiliation fees means that money that can be spent on the concerns of students is going to waste.
Democracy is, by its own essence, about representing people. Unions have an onerous duty to look out for our welfare. The officers have achieved great things in the past but at the moment there is a serious stagnation in UCDSU. Whoever comes into power this March needs to fully understand this, get out of the office and meet us, the students. Until then our university will never see its full potential come to bloom.