Business and Legal (B&L) student Aodhán Ó Deá admits that his year as UCD Students’ Union (SU) President was more challenging than he expected when he ran for election in Spring 2008. “I didn’t know there would be a huge recession and the potential introduction of thirdlevel fees so we had to overcome those challenges this year,” he comments.
Indeed it was the SU’s fight against third-level education fees that dominated the brief of almost every SU sabbatical officer this year and Ó Deá was no exception to this. His year as president was peppered with protests, occupations of governmental buildings and lobbying TDs in a bid to thwart the looming spectre of fees.
Citing the first student rally against third-level fees on 22nd October as being his high point of his presidency, Ó Deá availed of the anti-fees movement in terms of raising the profile of the SU as a whole.
“I felt that [the rally] really showed the students coming together. I think the SU was responsible for their enthusiasm. We did lecture addresses, we handed out leaflets at the bus stops and we knocked on doors around campus. We really got the union out there and got people interested.”
Being the president of the largest SU in Ireland, Ó Deá faced expectations that UCD would be the strongest voice against the potential re-introduction of fees. In terms of success, Ó Deá is adamant that the Government has listened to students and that contrary to recent reports in the national press, fees will not be introduced.
“I personally believe that ‘fees’ will not be introduced. Any decision on Graduate Tax or loan system is being deferred further and further. It’s a positive thing,” he explains, adding, “We have raised valid points to the Minister of Education [Batt O’Keeffe] through our protests, through the 5000 letters we sent out, through the time spent lobbying various TDs.”
It is apparent that Ó Deá has spent a significant portion of his tenure fighting fees. Whether this will prove to have been a successful campaign remains to be seen, however Ó Deá’s year as president was also marred by the constant threat of cutbacks to student facilities. Ó Deá acknowledges that fending off these cutbacks was a major undertaking for the SU officers. “[We were] fighting cutbacks in everything – every single committee meeting was a fight. You have to understand, when I came into the job it was a completely different economic climate and a completely different university,” he explains.
“This has been a positive year for the SU. I think we have been extremely visible and did a great job”
When examining Ó Deá’s election manifesto, it is clear that certain promises he made have not come to fruition. Ó Deá blames the majority of these shortcomings on the cutbacks.
The extension of Student Health Service opening hours, as promised by Ó Deá, was not delivered and the contraception clinic in the centre was closed due to lack of funding.
Ó Deá admits that the Student Health Service was particularly problematic for the SU.
“From the very start of the year, the Student Health Service has been a very tough challenge. Our hardest battle was maintaining that the service remains free for students. Unfortunately, the recession has hit the health service badly and when I wrote my manifesto, it seemed that certain things were possible that aren’t any longer. There was still money in the university last year that could be allocated to the health service. There isn’t now.”
Referencing his manifesto, the SU President says that when he promised a SU deli in the Newman Building and SU shop in the Newstead Building, he didn’t comprehend the licensing and structural requirements that would be needed.
He claims that he is “working on” delivering the cycle lane through campus and is confident that he still has time in office of prevent the security gates around the campus residences from being utilised against the will of students.
On the question of the ‘rip-off campus’, the SU President is convinced that he has improved the situation by reducing the price of tea in Insomnia and Elements. He also cites the introduction of a recognition scheme for voluntary work in campus and the implementation of a bilingual campus as elements of his manifesto that he successfully achieved.
Despite admitting some failures with regard his manifesto, Ó Deá attests that he feels “this has been a positive year for the SU. I think we have been extremely visible and did a great job.”
His main priority at the time of coming to office was to make the SU a more visible force on campus, saying “I’d like to think we’ve been a SU for the students. I like to think we’ve been visible and relevant this year. I like to think the students know what we do.”
The fight against fees was a convenient springboard for this objective and it is clear that Ó Deá’s team has been successful in this front. Yet it seemed that it was more the work of Campaigns and Communications Officer than Ó Deá himself. Although the issue of fees raised the profile of the union it could be argued that any president in the position of Ó Deá would have been taken along with it.
At the beginning of the year, Ó Deá seemed uncomfortable in the position of president, ill equipped at speaking with the media and overshadowed by and unable to unite some of the other sabbatical officers. However having gained greater experience throughout the year, Ó Deá was more confident is his position and has lead his union through a relatively successful year.
Ó Deá will continue with his B&L degree whilst balancing his position of Irish Language Officer for the Union of Students in Ireland. In July, Ó Deá will be replaced by outgoing Entertainments Officer, Gary Redmond.