There is no doubt that the Students’ Union plays a huge role in the student experience, but how well do they actually represent the UCD student body? Bríd Doherty and Sinead O’Brien debate the issue
While the Students’ Union in UCD may have a reputation for being an aggregation of cliquish, right-wing careerists, it can be argued that this year’s team of sabbatical officers and the assemblage of elected class representatives do in fact adequately represent UCD’s student body.
Come election day, you might resent being persistently accosted in the hallways by candidates and their blind followers offering over-zealous renditions of banal manifestos. You may also find the ballot sheet containing uncontested nominees to be slightly offensive, if not largely demeaning. You might even totally and utterly begrudge the very existence of the Students’ Union, the involuntary contribution you must make upon registering to UCD and the type of self-serving, politically motivated animal that breeds within it.
But it is here where I must admonish the begrudgers (myself included), and tell them (and myself) to get stuffed.
Indeed, the individuals who make up the Students’ Union council may not always be representative of the archetypal UCD student, or simply put; may not be representative of you or me. Perhaps to phrase it even more coherently; our representatives in the Students’ Union are more often than not, predisposed to a particularly calculated craving for power and authority. For example, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that such individuals have already conceitedly worked out how they will achieve government ministerial positions by the year 2020.
However, that is not to say that UCD students are not well represented by the Students’ Union council. Those who represent us in the SU are eager and willing to carry out the tasks the rest of us have turned our nose up at.
The election process cannot be criticised for being undemocratic. Every student is entitled to run for sabbatical and class rep elections. Every student is entitled to vote, although only 4,300 did so last year during the sabbatical elections.
It is fair to say that the union is open and transparent with their student members. SU Council meetings are held fortnightly and open to all members of the Union; i.e. to all students registered at UCD.
To maximise efficiency, only elected class reps may speak and vote at council meetings, but as a member you are empowered to make your feelings known to your class rep and he or she can then speak on your behalf.
The SU publicly publishes their annual budget, and although they can be criticised for running at a projected €12,500 deficit this year (admittedly an improvement on the €25,340 deficit run up by Gary Redmond in 2009-2010), at least it is open, honest and subject to criticism about their spending from their student members. And, more importantly, it is this expenditure which funds the activities and facilities that enhance our college experience.
This year saw a dramatic increase in nominations for class rep elections, amounting to 315 nominations in total. Perhaps this rise in student interest in the Students’ Union is due to recognition of the fact that the SU is an effective vehicle for supporting and voicing students’ concerns.
One issue that affected students this year was the restricted opening hours of the University libraries. Thanks to the persistence of the SU, next semester will see a welcome extension of library opening hours.
On a much bigger scale, the Students’ Union should be commended for having successfully challenged the re-introduction of third-level fees, something that probably wouldn’t have been achieved without the lobbying, organisation and preparation of the SU and the USI.
The Students’ Union gives UCD students a voice, and have proven to be quite competent at advocating on our behalf. An excellent example of this is when Gary Redmond, acting in his role as President of UCD Students’ Union, presented to the Joint Committee on Education and Science his concerns over the delay in enacting the Student Support Bill (2008) back in December 2009.
Redmond skilfully pointed out inefficiencies within the maintenance grant system and highlighted that the administrative costs for processing a single grant application amounted to significant waste. He showed that on the lower end of the scale, it cost €71 to process each application form in Westmeath County Council, and in the higher end of the spectrum, the cost of processing a single grant application amounted to €485 in North Tipperary County Council.
I highlight this as an example of how beneficial the Students’ Union is to the average UCD student. It is highly unlikely that students would have their voices heard without the existence of such an established and organised association.
Therefore, the Students’ Union has proven itself to be a very useful platform from which to discuss and improve both the serious and minor issues that affect students studying at UCD.
Currently five men preside over the upper echelons of the Students’ Union. Throughout the short history of our independent state, university students’ unions were places in which initial political alliances were formed, loyalties established and connections made.
UCD’s Students’ Union has, since its inception in our university, been a breeding ground for individuals who wish to further their own ambitions and ascend into the Irish political hierarchy. It may also be said in this regard that student politics sets the tone for Irish politics. Irish politics of late has become a barrage of nods, winks and people looking out for one another, rather than for the citizens of this nation.
Women blatantly lack representation on the committee. The officers are currently, as they generally tend to be, exclusively male. Since I began my studies at UCD, there has not been a single female sabbatical officer. This is a blatant lack of representation of the entire student body. It makes the Students’ Union seem less approachable to female students, as it is such a male-dominated entity. It also cements the image of the Students’ Union as an old boys’ club of sorts.
There seems to be a set path, which by following one may rise through the ranks of UCD student representation. The typical path commences with a successful candidate occupying the role of class representative, before graduating to the position of Programme Officer, being elected a sabbatical officer and then rising to the ultimate position of SU President.
All four of the current SU Vice-Presidents have followed this pattern, as has their President before them. Scott Ahearn, Jonny Cosgrove, Pat de Brún, James Williamson and Paul Lynam all graduated up the system before taking their current roles. While the four Vice-Presidents have jumped three of the first hurdles, and it remains to be seen whether or not they will stand in the presidential election. But can they really care so much for the cause of students, when they seem more willing to climb each rung of the ladder towards presidency, rather than to focus on one particular area and invest their time and energy in it?
It is evident that SU representatives’ time and energy is focused on advancing their own objectives rather than those of the students he represents. This furthermore ties into my point about the correlation between Irish and student politics. One can be Minister for Finance without possessing any kind of financial qualification. It is merely the attraction of being in power that compels many of the representatives to stand for election. It is not based upon an interest in the office they are occupying.
Student Union expenditure is a manifestation of poor representation of students. We only have to look back to semester one and the criticism that resulted from extortionate SU spending on class rep training for an example of this problem. It is quite evident that the training could have been carried out for a much lower cost.
It also must be asked why students have to pay for such things as STI tests, while the SU decide to use over €10,000 of their budget to facilitate a weekend away for a few students, rather than minimise the cost of training and put that money towards something that would benefit all students. At the very least, we, the student body, should have a say about whether the SU should be allowed to expend such a sum on training.
Class SU representation is also very poor. Particularly in the area of Arts where, for example, English, Drama and Film are all placed in the same bracket with only one class rep for all three subjects. This isolates a lot of students from representation. A class rep should be someone who is known to students and someone who they feel they can approach. This is not possible when hundreds of students only have one representative.
It is, I feel, reasonable to expect Students’ Union representatives to take pride in the positions to which they have been elected. A certain formality and respect in the conduct of these officers would be far from misplaced.
However, the offices of many of the representatives are kept in a manner that does not show any form of regard for the position that they hold. The rooms are often dirty and untidy and seem completely unfit for visits from students. In light of the amount of politicians and individuals from outside the university who come to visit the Students’ Union, it would perhaps be appropriate for them to keep their offices in a more respectable state. This is the image that they are perpetuating of UCD students and it is certainly not a favourable one.
It cannot be denied that the SU have done some wonderful things and that certain members are devoted to their positions. However, it is clear that certain areas of student representation are lacking and that ulterior motives may often be at play in the minds of those in power.