In anticipation of the referendum on whether UCD Students’ Union should disaffiliate from the Union of Students in Ireland (USI), several articles in this issue debated the purpose and value of students’ unions, both regional and national. The Head to Head on page five brings up issues of effectiveness, cost and representation, while former UCDSU President Pat de Brún’s piece on political engagement in the student community comments on the change Irish students’ unions have undergone in the last few decades, from ideology based protesters, to a student service provider.
More and more students in UCD, including our own SU Officers, are questioning the purpose of the USI. Founded in 1959, the USI was designed to give students a united voice throughout the country. Its aim was to bring the political grievances of students and individual students’ unions to a wider audience by presenting a single message. The individual students’ unions also filled this ideological role, primarily discussing politics and organising demonstrations and protests to attempt political change.
In 2013, things are different. As de Brún explained, outing yourself as belonging to a political party is incredibly damaging to ones sabbatical election campaign. Almost no officers or class reps have a declared preference for a party, and shy away from expressing an opinion publicly on a non-student related issue to avoid any possible unpopular opinions and to maximise their appeal. The fashion in UCD today is for non-political politics. While this may seem like an oxymoron, in practise it works very well.
Though having studied politics in UCD and as a wannabe journalist I am clearly interested in politics as a whole, I do not subscribe to any particular party or viewpoint. I have dabbled in political activism, and attended meetings for almost every political party in Ireland from the Socialist Party to Fine Gael, but none have appealed. This is possibly due to my preference to sit in the sidelines and snark rather than participate, but the vast majority of students are similarly politically unattached, either through disillusionment at the current existing parties or simply through disinterest. All students however, must be represented by the Union.
So this is where the shift has come from. To try and involve more people, and to try and get more votes, each year has seen the ideology of the candidates downplayed to non-existence. To prevent alienation in office, other than the annual anti-fees parade, activities are limited to non-controversial things such as raising money for charity, gigs, financial assistance and shops. And this has been a good move. The thing is, when you come down to it, students don’t want to protest. They want to see LMFAO and eat sandwiches. If the Union is to represent the students’ interests, they are doing it with €1.40 Insomnia coffee.
The problem for USI is that they don’t fit into this new way of doing things. Students are demanding services, not ideas, and a central group relying entirely on the money regional unions give them has absolutely no ability to provide anything practical. During the debates on their value, the USI focus primarily what they provide to regional college unions such as rep training and Pink Day training, but for €120,000 the SU could easily do this themselves and have enough left over to get Tony Blair to serve them Ferrero Roche. When UCDSU are forcing staff to take pay cuts, it’s very hard to justify such a sum.
Leaving USI seems like a distinct possibility at the moment unless John Logue pulls something amazing out of his tattered union bag, and if UCDSU disaffiliates, it’s difficult to see how USI could continue in anything like it’s current setup. Should we leave, therefore, I think our SU should take this as a sign to acknowledge their change in purpose, and accept that they no longer function like a union in any sense. What we have instead is a government, and a fairly effective one at that.
While there is no defined difference between a union and a government, I believe the main difference is that of influence verses resources. A union’s job is to try to lobby and persuade governments to implement conditions favourable to its members. The SU do attempt this, but rarely to any effect. What they do have however are their own large resources. When the problem of SUSI arose this year, students’ unions around the country howled at the government to fix it. This could never have much impact because despite what many believe about the government, the SUSI fiasco was not out of malevolence, it was out of incompetence. They didn’t want SUSI to break any more than we did, and they were trying to fix it as best they could (grossly inadequate as it was) with or without student complaint. What did help the situation was the allocation of resources by the Welfare Office to financially assist students effected. While the national government was helpless, our local student government stepped into the breach.
This is the true strength of a Students’ Union, and it has nothing to do with politics.