It is likely that the average student on campus will have heard a hundred negative things about UCD Students’ Union for every positive they hear. That is, unless they are heavily involved with the union itself, or have close friends who are. The general perception, at least at a quick glance, is that the Union isn’t all that useful to students, or that it’s simply a way for baby politicians to get some elected experience onto their CVs.
Half these students are unaware that many of the services they use throughout the year such as the shops or the second hand book store are run by the Students’ Union, or that the Union regularly weigh in on University decisions on anything from library opening hours to the number of counsellors there are in the health centre. The rest know all this, and still feel completely disconnected from the Union, despite it being the body designed to represent them.
A large majority of students remain largely oblivious to the Union’s presence until they’re being physically pushed to the ballot box to vote in the elections in March. For a minority however, the Union is where they have met some of their closest friends and spent more time than they ever have in class, working with one of the campaign crews or as an elected official representing their class or school. The average students’ view of the Union, it seems, is largely tainted by how involved they have become in it.
The Students’ Union is an elected body within UCD, currently made up of five sabbatical officers, eight executive officers, and just over 100 class representatives. It was set up with the intention to act as a voice for students, to represent their needs and defend their interests. Students’ Union President Rachel Breslin explains how this is structured: “The Students’ Union has different pillars. There’s the campaigning pillar, the representation pillar and the services pillar. The representation pillar is where we filter up from on-the-ground students up through our reps, up through council, up through exec, through the sabbats, and bring them to the relevant people. Also we provide services. I see the Welfare Officer’s almost main job as being a service, as that service isn’t provided by the college in terms of a peer support and the education officer likewise. We also provide services like Clever Cuisine, or the shops. The campaigning pillar is kind of linked to the representation pillar, but it’s the one that goes out and does awareness campaigns or the national campaigns.”
Students’ Union Campaigns and Communications (C&C) Officer Paddy Guiney echoes this sentiment: “The point of the Students’ Union is that it represents students. It’s an independent body from the college itself and it’s a union that represents students and campaigns for their issues and looks after their needs and that’s over a variety of areas… The most important aspect of that isn’t the Sabbatical Officers, not the Exec, it’s the Union Class Reps (UCR). They’re the direct link between us and every single year group in UCD. If students don’t get involved, we don’t have a link to that class. They’re not going to be as represented.”
This year however, has seen only 50% of the available UCR seats filled for first Union Council, which took place last week. With so many seats vacant, many classes are now, as was Guiney’s concern, left without a direct link to the Union. UCDSU Arts College Convenor Declan Clear is quite realistic when it comes to the SU’s reach: “They do represent students… I do think it’s important. It does provide valuable service but I’m not going to say every single student benefits from the SU because they don’t.”
As per the C&C brief, Guiney ran a full ‘Run for Class Rep’ campaign, urging students to run to become a member of council. However, despite being hounded by their College Convenors and many classes being lecture-addressed by Guiney, in a large number of cases, students could not be convinced to get involved. Breslin reacted to these results, saying: “The Union is making efforts to show that we want you. If you don’t want to run for election, you can join a crew… I think it’s just important to get involved. I’m always very conscious that some students would never want to get involved with the SU and it wouldn’t be for them. You do have to take ownership of your experience of college and that’s what getting involved is; it’s taking ownership.”
Such a large number of seats left unfilled coupled with a low voter turnout, year on year, could very easily be construed as a sign of disengagement with what students want, especially when you factor in how hard both the class rep and sabbatical campaigns are pushed every year. One Economics and Politics student commented saying: “I don’t really care. I have never voted in any of my rep elections, or the big ones where they’re all over the place. They do what they do, and fair play, but very little of it seems relevant. I just don’t pay any attention. I don’t think my vote makes a difference, and I’m not sure that they do either. I just don’t see the point.”
Breslin herself admits that they are aware that this is an issue facing the Union: “It is a problem, and something that we really need to look at. It certainly must be a sign of disillusionment.” In contrast, a newly elected UCR in the Law faculty commented that: “I’ve seen how much those Officers think and work and try to get people involved in the Union so I don’t blame the SU for the disengagement.”
Last year’s Science Programme Officer (now known as Convenors), Chris Wong believes that past Union’s actions are to blame for the current situation. “Due to the negative press UCDSU has received over current issues, that has made the Union lose a lot of face. If you don’t have faith in an organisation to avoid a situation like that [the Union’s €1.42 million debt], who would want to invest time and effort into it?”
Clear is certain too, that the Union’s perception is part of the reason for consistently low turnouts. “A lot of students see the SU as a big party fraternity and that it’s a big clique. I don’t think we have a 100% approval rate of the students. There is apathy, and I suppose even myself, I’ve been anti-SU in the past… I felt that if you couldn’t beat them, join them and work your way in.”
Can an organisation with seemingly quite little confidence from its electorate then claim to be representing what students actually want? Breslin points out that the Union make concerted efforts to have their UCRs consult their constituents, as well as holding occasional ‘town hall’ meetings, in order to ensure they’re not just representing “a vocal minority”. The Law UCR however, had a different view: “What makes it representative is the fact that everyone has a chance to be represented. The vast majority of students do choose not to vote in those elections. The people who claim the SU isn’t representative just aren’t seeking representation. When people say it’s not representative, I think what they mean is if all the people who are too cool to vote had actually voted; someone else would have got in. That’s probably a fair point. I think a lot of the time ‘hacks’ get in because 100% of hacks vote but only 4% of students vote.”
A final year Commerce student however, commented that: “I know they always bring discussion topics at council to talk about and decide on but my rep has never asked my class’ opinion on any of them. I don’t know how they can claim to represent our opinion if they never ask.”
Breslin feels that some of the criticisms levelled at the Union, while understandable to an extent, are not always entirely fair. “We get criticised for being unrealistic in terms of fighting to maintain the contribution charge while at the same time coming under equal criticism for not being radical enough and not fighting hard enough. We get criticised for spending students money and being paid to do the job and spending money on activities, but at the same time, this year we’ve spent very small amounts of money, but you have a perception there that the students’ union are spending a lot on things that maybe individual students don’t prioritise.”
“I think you also get criticised for the fact things don’t happen overnight. That’s very understandable and reasonable. They expect that when negative decisions are made overnight, like the closure of the bar or the library opening hours, that change should happen straight away. That’s one that I’m much more understanding of because I can see where it’s coming from. We have to follow procedures, and unfortunately those do not happen overnight. You can’t jump from hearing information into radical campaign.”
Some of these criticisms are the first to come up, when the University Observer looked for a snapshot of students’ views on campus. One final year law student stated: “You never see them, except when they need you to provide numbers. The government would take none of their national campaigns seriously if only the elected people showed up. They make you pay for a t-shirt to go out and make almost no difference year on year. Half the time I think it’s just so we don’t go mad at them for doing nothing. They know they’re not changing much with their marches.”
A second year medicine student quickly picked up on the financial criticisms: “I think the Education officer and Welfare officer do actually provide services that some students really need. The Union gets some good things done, but mostly it just seems to spend too much money on things that only matter to a small number of students. Especially when you see how much debt it has racked up, and when you see the bar still closed, you really wonder what it is they’re doing. What is the point if all they seem to do is waste money, but not really give you back anything?”
Regardless of these criticisms, whether involved in the Union or so far removed they couldn’t name a single SU Officer, the consensus seems to be that without a Union, UCD would be a much worse place for students to be. Breslin, more than anyone, is certain of this fact. “I think almost every aspect of UCD would be different without a union because the we sit on representative bodies, the academic councils, the programme boards, the governing authority and make inputs every day that are preventative. A lot of what you see the union do is reactive but it’s also at one of those committees when something comes up saying, ‘I don’t think that’s okay’ before it gets any further; you halt it and that’s something students don’t see, nor should they have to, it’s our job. I can’t even imagine some of the negative effects that that would have or some of the measures that would have come into place but I think, almost every aspect of UCD life has been influenced by the Students’ Union… As well, you can’t put a price on enthusiasm and that’s something that the Students’ Union will have if we’re fighting a battle with the college or the state that they’re never going to be able to equal.”
Guiney, too, backs her up, saying: “The University, we’ve a good relationship with them, but they like doing their own thing and they don’t like telling the Union at all. You need representation. People who are in their 40s and 50s are not going to be engaged with students as people who are going to be 18-22 or who have just graduated.”
A Business and Law second year picked up on the importance of the Union when it comes to University matters, despite her lack involvement in the SU in her time in UCD. “It’s easy to be critical of the small things, but I think we do need them there bring things to the college or government and tell them what we want or need. Small groups wouldn’t have much effect and wouldn’t get the same respect at that level. Whether that’s worth the money in their budget every year, I’m not sure, but that’s another issue entirely. That’s more a matter of better management.”
Wong makes the point, as well as representation with the University and the State, the Union provide services that largely go unnoticed. “Many people that complain about X, Y, and Z gloss over the services which the SU successfully provide and this is because they have been established for so long it just feels as if the college offers it all without consultation… Even if you are anti-SU, pro-SU or don’t really care about the SU you should factor in the pros as well, even if there are cons.”
While many still argue that the Union are useless, irrelevant or simply a waste of resources, it seems the general consensus from those at all levels of involvement with the Union, is that students would be worse off without them there. Whether or not they believe that the Union is representative, people prefer to know that there is someone there to look after their needs, should they ever require such a service. There are still problems, but the Union acknowledged all of the many concerns and criticisms of its electorate as ones they are aware of, and working on.
“One way or another”, the Law UCR concludes, “the Students’ Union hasn’t really done any tangible bad. If you take one free condom a year and you’ve construed some benefit from the Union. I know you’ve paid a bit for it but who cares. Realistically, the Union is very cheap for what you get out of it.”