Thoughts On Junkets
I wanted to jot down some thoughts on our upcoming Class Rep Training so that students and non-student critics may better understand why we’re doing what we’re doing. Some have characterised our decision as entertainment driven – they say it’s so we can have a fun weekend away at the students’ expense – but in reality the current state of our Union demands this level of training, and that’s what the time there will be spent on. Some claim that this training would be less costly to students if held on campus, but in fact the opposite is true. No short answer, no soundbites – here is my reasoning. Let me explain.
Five years ago the Registration Fee was 775E. Families could afford it, students in general had far more disposable income and problems, though serious, were fewer in number. It was over these good years that we lost class reps and our Students’ Unions, without big issues to champion, were relegated in the minds of their members to solutions in search of a problem. I can remember even three years ago FEE were seen as fringe, rebel-without-a-cause extremists, and were asked by their Union – at Union Council no less – to be less ‘in your face.’ Two years ago, they were widely acknowledged as the real champions of free education on campuses across the country. The climate changed.
As the climate has changed, the need for strong student representation across the country has grown exponentially. Fees are higher, books are dearer, grants are smaller and harder to get. It wasn’t easy when I was studying and it’s getting harder every year. We need strong Students’ Unions now and a democratic, informed union is the sum of its parts. So let’s talk about those parts. Let’s talk about why class reps are important, how the system is now, and what the system should probably look like.
Class reps in any union are important for a lot of reasons, but vital for three key reasons:
First: Communication and Awareness: We need our Class Reps to stand up in front of their class and inform them. Facebook posts and All-Student emails get glossed over. We need the message to get through. And I’m not talking events and poster policy. When I was in my 2nd year here I was living in Maynooth, working 35-40 hours a week to pay my way and scraping through my classes. It was easily the worst year of my life, and I didn’t even have kids, a mortgage or a family I had a responsibility to. I didn’t even know there was a Students’ Union until my final year – the students who most badly need that help tend to be too busy with real life to be be aware that the help exists. There was no SU website and no Class Rep to inform me that there was an SU to help.
We have some new Welfare initiatives coming this year from the SU, but they’re not much use unless people know they exist.
Second: They provide actual services to their classmates.
Third: Real Representation. It’s the only way any Union can claim to be democratic. We can’t honestly say that we’re representing our members when most of our members aren’t represented at all, and the half of the few representatives that exist don’t go.
At the moment, all a class rep does is attend Union Council. In theory. They’re few and far between and half of them don’t go. We need every student to be adequately represented, and we think our class reps can do more and know more than they do in other colleges.
Where we want to be is to have a strong turnout of engaged, skilled class reps. Most other colleges – and all are different – have had this for years and know how to do it. For us, this will not happen in one year. Maynooth is basically starting from scratch. We don’t have the tradition of class representation that other large institutions have. If we did this would be easy. It’s hard for us to say ‘get involved’ because there’s been almost nothing to get involved in for years.
Union Council Attendance Figures for last three years:
NR = No record exists
QF = Quorum failed
We need a better system. The question is: how do we do it? We need a long term solution, not a series of knee-jerk reactions to snippets of information. So I spoke to a bunch of other SUs, looked at what they did, how they got class reps, what their class reps were able to do, and how they kept class reps year on year. Here’s what we got, and we tailored it to our context:
We don’t just want every class to have a class rep: we want every class to be genuinely represented. We need our reps to be confident and comfortable addressing a class. We need them to know as much as possible about the University so they can give sound advice. Because they’ll also be the internal departmental reps who meet with lecturers at least once a semester to discuss their course and other issues, we need them to be confident in their negotiation skills, confident enough to stand up to their department and confident in the backing of their Union.
2. Identify with the job
We’re asking a lot of class reps. We want them to be these super-reps, to give their time to representing their class and to do it for free. Because training them is expensive, you only want to have to do it once. So we need them to enjoy and identify with the job so they’ll stay on next year, with their training behind them and with experience of the job. Money is saved and the class has a better rep.
Why a Hotel / Cost
Because there are six years’, not one years’, worth of reps to train. Last year UC attendance peaked at 24, bottomed at 16. We don’t even have figures for the year before except for one council that had 31. The year before that UC didn’t even reach quorum two out of the six times it met, and another two times there weren’t enough reps present to even vote on anything. This year we’re looking at about 120-140 class reps. That’s incredible.
This is not a night out for the fun of it – we run enough events in the SU Bar for that. Some have suggested small, cheap incentives like pizza to get people to attend UC. The truth is that freebies like free pizza and free sandwiches and a free drink have been tried and failed in the past. It gets people to go; it doesn’t get them to act. So this year, on top of stuffing them with knowledge and skills, I want them to bond with each other, so they’ll get to know each other and identify with the position of being a class rep from the outset.
It’s true that some will be incentivised to become a Class Rep this year by the prospect of a night away in a hotel, and that this flaw in character is not becoming of the person you want representing your class. I understand this. Nobody wants this. But the truth is that this is the result of years of no proper culture of genuine representation in Maynooth. A few years from now, with a few years of classes seeing their Class Rep at work, and when being a Class Rep has grown in the Maynooth mindset as a serious job with actual responsibilities, that serious job will attract the right kind of candidate. It doesn’t yet. Having the most popular person as Class Rep this year is, in too many cases, regrettably unavoidable. But that class still needs a skilled, active Class Rep.
We can’t have it on campus this year for the same reason that other colleges with many nearby amenities – shops, pubs, cafes – have theirs off campus. Too many people stay for the food and bed but leave during the modules. In designing this year’s training, we had the benefit of almost a decade’s worth of other colleges’ institutional memories. For a college of our size, in our kind of setting, having it on campus will not work this year. Noble as that would seem in this economic climate, we have a a greater responsibility to students to make sure they’re represented. I think we can do better than to repeat others’ hard-learned mistakes.
The most popular person in the class might be great craic in The Roost, but is not going to hang around for 90 minutes on the 1997 Universities Act, internal university committee structure, standing university committees, etc. Some of these modules are really, really boring. But if we have a captive audience and by the end everyone who attended the training knows their stuff, that class will still have a skilled Class Rep for that year. With these skills, that person is more likely to to their job. Having done their job, they are more likely to identify with it, do it well and do it again the next year if their class deems them fit. And then they won’t need training again.
We can’t have it on campus until we know that the people who signed up are serious about it, and we can’t trust that everyone is serious about it until the responsibilities of the job are widely known and only serious people go for it.
DCU can have theirs on campus because they have a tradition of an active, engaged Class Rep system, and because there’s almost nowhere for their students to go instead of the training. I hope that will be us soon. We’re having ours in the cheapest hotel we could find. One night, two days of modules. Many SUs go for two nights with students leaving in the evening; we think we can do it over the two days but just stay one night by leaving earlier on the first day. Three or four people to a room, no gala dinner – we’re not even paying for dessert – and no frills.
Most hotels quoted us, and university Unions spend, in the region of 9K – 14K. We have the total cost of the training, not just the hotel, down to about 5K – we’ll have the full breakdown for everyone at Union Council. With a similar number of reps, we’re paying a little over a third of the average the cost of other colleges that do this for training, and we’re spending basically nothing on ‘party provisions’. We are careful with students’ money.
Recognising the importance of getting out of Maynooth, we initially approached nearby colleges – UCD, DIT and TCD – with the concept of a ‘campus swap’. We would go there and they would come here. It would cost almost nothing, and everyone wanted to do it, but we ran into accommodation issues. We tried B&Bs, hostels, travellodges, etc, but nowhere like that could fit us and didn’t have a room large enough to hold Union Council. We got quotes from every suitable hotel and one made us a very good offer.
Because DCU have that tradition of Class Reps, they can get in special speakers for free on sponsorship. We can do this when we’ve built up the system and sponsors can trust us on turnout.
This will be the first proper Class Rep training in many, many years and it’s designed to make sure that every class is properly represented, and with a medium-term goal of making the position of Class Rep one that is skilled, engaged, responsible and viewed by peers as such.
I’ve said there are six years worth of Reps to train. We’re gonna train them well. When all this is over we’re gonna have a mini army of skilled representatives about campus. About 130. Guess what. If we do this well and even half of them really identify with their responsibilities and stay on as class rep next year, then that’s half the number of people we have to train next year. And in three years, with enough experience and practice at it, we’ll almost have nailed down the training and we’ll only need to train first years. About 40 students. The cost revises downwards every year.
Scrutiny is good. TCD, UCD and others come under huge scrutiny every year about the cost of their class rep training, and rightfully so. Students have a right and a duty to hold their Union to account over every penny spent in their name. That’s why this year we’ll be publishing detailed accounts of not just of this project but of every account the Students’ Union operates.
We’re spending the smallest amount of money we can on a huge, vital project. It absolutely has to be done right. We know from experience that the easiest way to make sure all your decisions are popular is to never make any decisions, and with almost no student representation in the past that line has been very easy to tow. It can’t happen anymore – not this year, and not in the future. This is too important.
Too many people can’t afford college now, but nobody is poorer because of this training. To make sure that those people who need help the most are aware of the help that exists is to put in every class an expert in it – not some classes, not just classes with people who were bothered to go to the training: every class.
Any student in doubt about the need for this project and this training, or any student worried that this training is a ‘junket’, is very welcome to come along, sit the training with us, witness the value of it for themselves and give feedback.
My absolute best,
MSU President 11/12