Reimagining the Students’ Union

Aidan Rowe talks about the flaws in the student political climate

Student politics is broken. With the exception of those running for Exec. positions who have begun to believe their own bullshit, we all know this without having to be told. We see the bizarre spectacle of candidates and their acolytes in brightly-coloured matching t-shirt rushing around trying to give you a sticker or a packet of Haribo in exchange for a vote, and making promises so outlandish that to call them impossible would be to credit them with an undeserved sense of dignity, and we feel instinctively that this is not the way that things were meant to be.

But that feeling that something is wrong hints at another way of doing things – at a dim unspoken vision of what student politics should be, and could be in some distant future. This article is an attempt to give some solidity to that alternative vision.

Even Zimbabwe holds elections

Right now, the Students’ Union is not a functioning democracy. What we have is an on-paper democracy: we have democratic structures (elections, Union Council etc.) but without any participation by the vast majority of students in the decision-making of the Union.

Part of the problem stems from the way candidates approach elections, most of which doesn’t even rise to the level of Jackie Healy-Rae clientelism, who had, at least, some idea of what the voters of South Kerry actually wanted, and (when the cards fell right for him) some prospect of getting it. In student politics, the electorate is treated with the utmost of contempt. When you are handed a can of Red Bull and told “vote for me”, the message is that it doesn’t matter what you think, all the candidate is interested in is your vote. When you are handed a manifesto which promises a new indoor ice-skating rink or an international airport or whatever, the message is that you as an ordinary student are too stupid to understand the intricacies of actual decision-making. Worse still, students have become so used to being spoken to in this manner that whenever genuine people come along, they must either adopt this approach to campaigning, or simply fade into obscurity.

In between elections, then, Union Council is supposed to serve as the organ of popular decision-making. The reality is somewhat different. Every year, Union Council is populated by the same clique of SU insiders, many of whom have aspirations of running for SU office in the future, with another stratum of wannabe insiders who haven’t quite made it into the clique just yet. Once elected (i.e. once they’ve found ten of their friends to sign their nomination form), Union Councillors are able to drop all pretence of actually representing a constituency, or even caring what their classmates think about the Union, and pursue their own personal agendas through the SU structures. The Exec., meanwhile, undertake only the most minimal and perfunctory attempts to get ordinary students into UC positions, which usually involve visiting a couple of 1st Arts classes, with the result that many constituencies don’t even have tokenistic representation is the decision-making structures.

So what’s the solution? The solution certainly isn’t to be found in vague nice-sounding soundbites about putting the U back in SU, which are so popular with candidates at this time of year. Candidates have been using similar slogan’s for decades and the U is still quite firmly absent from the reality of the SU. (Also, you can’t spell Union without ion, although I’m not sure what relevance that has.)

Nor is a solution to be found in electing student politicians who are good listeners or more approachable or more willing to take people’s suggestions on board. The reality is that the average student isn’t a well of fully-formed Good Ideas just waiting to be tapped by the right person. Good ideas come about through a process of mutual discussion, where the unique and subjective experiences of individual students are brought to the table, discussed, argued over, perhaps even fought over, and a conclusion is reached which is better than the sum of the parts. The problem therefore is a deeper one of how decision-making is approached. We need an SU which really involves as many students as possible in decision-making and which gives them the power to actually make decisions.

Something like that already exists on paper within the structures of the SU, but in a way which makes it practically unimplementable, namely the Union General Meeting. If we’re serious about the idea of making the SU democratic in a real and practical way, then bringing back mass assemblies is something that must be looked at.

The Students’ Union is not the Make-a-Wish Foundation

Yes it would be nice if there was a new swimming pool complex on North Campus, or if the condom machines in the SU jacks sold cocaine, or whatever other Awesome Thing you can imagine. But not only are these things impossible, they are also not what student politics should be about. The Students’ Union isn’t supposed to be a mechanism for student to somehow get loads of Awesome Things from somewhere. It’s a Union. It’s about representation. It’s about collective bargaining. It’s about lots of struggles, some of them small and boring, some of them big and exciting, to make the lives of students materially better in tangible ways. It’s a real and serious problem that the everyday struggles which really matter to the lives of students never get seriously discussed, because we’re too busy talking about which of the Awesome Things that candidates plucked out of thin air is most desirable/feasible.

Putting the ‘politics’ back into student politics

The Student’s Union is also not some kind of apolitical neutral service provider. Like it or not, a lot of the struggles in which students find themselves (most obviously against fees and for grants, but there are others) are inherently and necessarily political struggles. But despite this, student politicians – even those with strong and deeply-held political beliefs – run a mile from even the whiff of a strong political position. Why?

Anyone can say they are against fees and want to campaign against fees, and in fact every candidate in every SU in the country says precisely this. The important question is how and why? There’s a big difference between someone motivated by left-wing ideology who believes the campaign is best fought on the streets and who sees the fight against fees as being linked in with the struggles of workers and a right-winger who believes that the solution is effective lobbying and that the fight against fees is a fight against (public sector) workers to decide who feels the brunt of the cuts. I’ve written elsewhere about why I think it should be the former and not the latter, but that’s not the point of this article. The point is these questions matter, and as long as candidates are allowed (and indeed encouraged) to pretend that they don’t have any political opinions, then we’re very much gambling that what they mean when they say “against fees” is the same thing we mean.

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8 thoughts on “Reimagining the Students’ Union

  1. Wow that was a nice rant. But what would you have the SU do exactly? You are quick to put down everyone working within the union at the minute but how do you know you would do a better job? And as far as i can see, this year at least, things have been done. The computers have been upgraded to windows 7, the library printers arent a complete nightmare, the Gathering ticket prices have been reduced and i noticed a great increase in mnetal health campaigns this year as compared to last year. So whats the problem exactly? And all this nonsense about a ‘clique’ in the union is more nonsense. The reason that happens is becasue if a person hangs around the union and learn how it works, making them qualified to run for positions. Keith Broni is a prime example of this. He was heavily involved in the development of the print and he works hard even now within the union to improve and produce quality Comms within the college. He knows what he’s doing and how to do it.
    Similarily with Rob Munnelly. He also knows what the Union can do and how to do it. And i certainly didnt see any outlandish promises in his manifesto. Obviously every candidte is going to mention Fees because its an issue on everyones minds right now and a very importandt one at that.
    So I’m sorry, but I can’t help but feel youre being a little hypocritical, by attacking the system, but offering no insight into what could change and how it mihgt happen.

    • “The reason that happens is becasue if a person hangs around the union and learn how it works, making them qualified to run for positions.”

      This is precisely the problem. Being aware of the reality of SU decision-making shouldn’t require you to be friends with someone on the Exec. It should be something in which every student can play an active part. The clique exists precisely because the SU is not a democracy, and it will only disappear once we change the way we make decisions.

      “how do you know you would do a better job?”

      Two things. Firstly, the fact that I have deeply-held left-wing political views which I express robustly and uncompromisingly makes me unelectable in practice, so the question is kind of moot. Secondly, the whole point of the article is that the problem is not the individual candidates per se, but a much larger cultural problem, which we should take concrete steps towards fixing.

      “So I’m sorry, but I can’t help but feel youre being a little hypocritical, by attacking the system, but offering no insight into what could change and how it mihgt happen.”

      In my article I offer 3 concrete things that we can start doing. They are:

      1. Bring about direct democracy by utilising the existing Union General Meeting provision.
      2. End the culture of wish-thinking. I.e. stop demanding Awesome Things and focus on the everyday reality of 3rd level education.
      3. Make the SU an ideological battleground.

  2. The first step towards a solution in Maynooth (and it won’t solve everything) is to introduce regulation with regards literature and posters. Ban the Redbull Brigade, ban the sweeties, ban the 15,000 leaflets run off by your mate with a printer in work.

    Put the candidates on a level playing field, and watch some ‘campaigns’ fall apart.

    Also, watch out for candidates saying they’ve “fought fees”. This one comes out every year.

  3. Aidan,

    I most certainly agree that tehre are sreious problmes in the way that the SU is run. You have especially hit the nail on the head when it comes to the ‘insider’ that goes on within the SU. Generally, if you know the person, they might actually listen to you. Otherwise, they do not care!

    There is also the need to inform the general student population of the decisions that the SU are making that will effect the people that the university is about, the stundents! They need to be informed about what is goin on. It is one of the major problems that the SU has. Throughout my life as an NUIM student (in its fourth year), the only time you see the Su Council around is when they are feeding you sweets at election time looking for your vote. No wonder the vote on the constitution did not reach a minimum quota. The students did not really care!

    There certainly needs to be greater dialogue by the SU between regular students who may not be involved in clubs or societies or who are not involved in politics. This is so that there can be a ‘real’ relationship between students and the SU. By doing this, students can actually understand what is going on for them and pressure the SU in making real changes in the interest of NUIM students.

  4. ” And all this nonsense about a ‘clique’ in the union is more nonsense.”

    Seriously? I’m three years in Maynooth and the same people have been around the union/playing musical chairs for years now. There is NO mass-engagement with the union at all.

    I’d apply this to the

  5. Ok ok, so you think there is a problem, and there isn’t enough interaction between the union and the student body. But who is more to blame? An uncaring Union? Or a majority of uncaring students? I would tend more towards the latter. The problem doesnt lie in the union, it lies in the mindset of students who just don’t care enough to do anything about it. The candidats who ran in this election that i know personally, really care about this college and its students. Maybe this has been different in the past but i cant imagine so. So it must be in the uncaring student that the problem lies. Would anyone disagree?

  6. Oh but yeah i agree on capping the amount of money allowed for candidates. Even most of them think it would be a good idea. well the ones i was talking to anyway…

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