As the first round of class rep elections take place in UCD, and students’ unions all around Dublin are currently or planning to hold referendums on whether they should be affiliated to the Union of Students of Ireland (USI), it raises important questions about the representation of University students; about both how they should be represented and how interested students are in the various unions that claim to be their voice.
With the new Students’ Union Constitution brought in this year, class reps have been divided into two sections: Union Council Representatives (UCR) and Class Representatives. While the UCRs get to do all the really fun stuff such as attending and voting at Union Council meetings, attending committee meetings, distributing Union materials and informing students of Union activities, the Class Representatives seem to be entirely on hoodie-buying duty.
This doubling of student representation seems to have backfired for the Union however. Nominations for UCRs closed last week with the 204 available seats receiving nominations for just 101 of them, and only 52 of those had more than one nomination. Even worse is the graduate UCR positions. Just seven of the 62 positions received any nomination, and only one seat is contested.
The lack of interest amongst postgraduates is hardly surprising. The oldest of the Sabbatical Officers are aged 22, and all of them are undergraduates. While this is being changed with the new constitution’s division of the Education Officer position into Undergraduate and Postgraduate Education Officers, the fact is older students feel much less need for representation. Having completed at least one degree (quite possibly in UCD) they know their way around. Even if they are not familiar with the college, they are old enough and experienced enough to know where to go and who to ask to solve any issues they have, they know how to make friends, they know how to use a condom. There really isn’t much a Students’ Union can offer them.
“The Unions, both UCD and national, have the same overall objective: to be the voice of the students. But as I said earlier regarding class reps and postgrads, do most students want a voice?”
The Union of Students in Ireland (USI) affiliation referendum has also brought up other issues regarding student representation. The ‘Yes To Disaffiliation’ campaign in Trinity have argued that the USI does not provide Trinity with adequate representation of its views and needs and claims that the USI is neither credible, capable or accountable for it’s actions. The ‘No’ campaign fights back by saying there is strength in numbers and their unity has granted them access to authorities such as the Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn.
The main argument in favour of an overarching students union such as the USI is that with a single voice, a single face in the form of the USI President, which can present student needs in a quick and easy package to the Irish media. This is certainly a good point. The issues within the modern media of budget cuts, understaffing and overwork mean that stories that are too complicated and take time to report accurately are ignored. If every single Students’ Union from around the country was issuing press releases with varying opinions and different demands, most media outlets would find it easier to ignore them rather than take the time to evaluate each report. That the journalism relies so heavily on the reprinting of press releases in a practice that is often referred to as ‘churnalism’ is a shame for anyone hoping to seek a career in the field, but is perfect for an organisation such as the USI. With easily packaged information sent out regularly from a reliable and credible source on student issues, the USI has a very high chance of their various launches, marches and campaigns being publicised.
The Unions, both UCD and national, have the same overall objective: to be the voice of the students. But as I said earlier regarding class reps and postgrads, do most students want a voice? The number of students who voted in the Sabbatical Elections last year was around 8%. That sends a pretty clear message about the interests of students in those who apparently represent them when over 90% have no interest in influencing who makes up their government. When the voice of the apathetic drowns out that of the active, you have a very serious problem.
Yet this is entirely ignored by our unions. Each year the officers proclaim their delight at the turn out, and announce that their victory has given them a mandate. Given that the Union use Proportional Representation to select the winner, many officers have received the first preference of just around 3% of the student population. Union Council Representatives were deemed a great success by the Campaigns and Communications Officer last week despite just over half of them remaining vacant, and over 95% of the postgraduate positions receiving no nominations.
With the arguments on all levels of student representatives over the issue of who can provide the best voice for students, they should consider that of the uninvolved student, the overwhelming majority who do not support a union. In this case, in-action speaks louder than words.