This has been a year of crisis and change for the Students’ Union. Breslin lists her biggest accomplishment as managing the financial situation, and this is a fair assessment. At the beginning of her term, the SU was in debt to the tune of €1.4 million, and the its future was very uncertain. One of her main goals in her manifesto was to develop a four year commercial plan, and she not only did this, but was approved for a €1.1m loan on the back of it.
To tighten up financial controls she also instituted several new financial structures outlined in her manifesto; requiring a finance committee to approve large expenditure, presenting audited accounts to students and having a detailed budget where deviations must be reported. In addition to overhauling the financial structure of the Union, Breslin and her team also helped secure €1m of extra funding for the library, over €500,000 extra for the Welfare Fund, and negotiated the minimum registration deposit needed from half down to a third.
This was a greater achievement for Breslin, when you consider that UCDSU has had no General Manager this year, leaving Breslin to fulfil both roles. Being the political, financial and commercial authority for the Union has been a huge strain, and Breslin is looking forward to the the President not being “the only person really who has an authority on the Union”.
“My role since I took office has been both the General Manager and the President,” she explained. “We’re paying a separate General Manager a whole separate wage, way in excess of the President next year… It’s fine being the political authority… but particularly being the commercial authority is very difficult and long term that’s a very risky situation for a student President to be in. I think it’s very important there is a General Manager that takes a huge amount of the responsibility that I had this year in terms of organisation and commercial, and places that in the hands of someone that is a full time staff member and accountable to the board of directors and has continuity and a qualification.”
Perhaps because of the necessary focus on financial issues this year, many of the objectives outlined in her manifesto were not achieved however. Breslin describes her biggest failing of the year not being able to secure a bar for the campus. The Student Club was closed last June after suffering heavy losses of up to €156,000 per year. The University provided €750,000 to settle the Student Club’s debts, but the bar was only opened for one night this year under an agreement for the SU to fully cover it’s costs.
This, however, proved too expensive.“I simply couldn’t ever have comprehended that it would be €3,600 for a night… I thought it would be much much lower so it wasn’t sustainable. I think maybe we should have taken a financial hit and opened it more nights. The Union would have covered it and I think other year that definitely would have happened but this year, notwithstanding our loan, cash flow is still very very tight. I’m sure there is something that I could have done better along the way, but still in hindsight I’m not sure where that point was.”
Several other promises also failed to materialise, from creating a part time jobs database, to having assessment dates and deadlines published in academic calendar at start of semester. A scheme to provide cheap external doctors for students, something which has run successfully in NUI Maynooth, could not go ahead as doctors were unwilling to offer their services for low prices. “I emailed and posted letters to probably around 15 doctors surgeries, and some of them got back… but they were all very set letters, offering reduced rates of maybe around €40, so I was disappointed by the number of replies that came back and also the rates they were quoting and it didn’t really work as intended, so the focus came back to trying to deliver the health service here.”
More promises, although not achieved in Breslin’s term, are in the pipeline and should be in place by next semester. Her plan to give space in the Arts tunnel to students to run their own business or charitable event has not come about, however the funding for the project has come through from the HEA. With this funding available, Breslin feels it is important that students get the most value from this, and wants to make sure that the original idea is what is most wanted before pressing ahead. The plan to expand the UCARD to the SU shops is also in progress, and will be in place for next semester. A proposal for a ‘Opt-in box’ for donating to the Welfare Fund has also been sent off as part of a wider review of applications for student support services.
While many of Breslin’s campaign promises were not fulfilled, she has inarguably left the Students’ Union in a stronger position than she found it. The financial measures taken have stabilised the organisation, and it is now in a position where it can start to grow again. In terms of Union time being spent well, it’s hard to justify implementing small promises to tick boxes, when such huge, and at times detrimental, issues needed to be solved, in order to ensure the Union’s continued existence.
Speaking on what she learned over the year, Breslin stated: “The level of responsibility, I thought I understood it, but I actually didn’t fully appreciate the importance of managing a 24,000 person representative organisation with €4m turnover… Sometimes there are a lot of politically popular decisions that you can’t make when you’re actually in the position of responsibility and you have to take the bigger picture and take the more realistic approach… I had great times and really horrible times, so overall I couldn’t do it again but I don’t regret it at all and even though you don’t enjoy every day, it’s such a hugely beneficial experience that it’s worth it. I think.”