In his first article for the Student Observer, Eoin Griffin writes of the need for a coherent and empathetic student leadership in the wake of serious problems locally and nationally.
Recently in UCD some 300 students marched in protest at cut backs to student services. This would not seem the most unusual occurrence, except for the fact that they were not voicing their anger towards college administrators or government ministers. Instead they were actively challenging their own Students’ Union.
They marched to deliver approximately 3 000 signatures to SU President Pat De Brún demanding an explanation as to why the SU operated print facility was closed in early December. This closure resulted in the loss of, what many considered to be, an essential service and two long term jobs. In a worrying development it was revealed by the UCD SU, in an open letter to students, that they have debts of approximately €1 million. External auditors will soon be publishing a report on the exact financial position of the Union. Considering proper accounts for the UCD SU bar have not been filed since 2004 it would seem that this could be just the beginning of a raft of cut backs in student services on the Belfield campus.
Another example of such on campus student division occurred in Maynooth earlier in this academic year when almost 1 000 members of the union signed a petition voicing their concern that Maynooth Students’ Union (MSU) were holding their class rep training off campus over the course of a weekend instead of using the facilities available on campus.
What is worrying about these incidents is the fact that they occur in a time of unprecedented economic turmoil and austerity. With students facing a guaranteed rise of €250 to contributions from next September, the students in this country seem to be mired in division and a malaise of disinterest. Juxtaposed to this is the ever present threat of full tuition fees and the persistent cuts to maintenance grants and higher education funding. All things considered the student movement could be in a healthier condition.
How can one hope to mount a successful campaign against such cuts when the structures that are in place have been proven not to work? Since “free fees” were introduced by the Rainbow government in 1996 we have seen the registration increase from £190 that September to €2 250 from September 2012. That can be chalked as 14 increases in the last 16 years.
There seems to be no sense of ownership of the unions by the people who they claim to represent. This lack of a sense of ownership can be linked to the inadequate form of democracy that is practised by Unions up and down the country. Instead of holding vast open meetings to discuss Union policy the practice of using a bastardised version of representative democracy is preferred. In the majority of cases a class rep is elected at the start of term and that is the last meaningful interaction they have with their class. Instead of going back to their class on a continuous basis to seek their mandate for different votes it is instead left to the class rep to vote in whatever particular way they please.
In such a climate is it really surprising that the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) (of which every member of MSU is a paid up member) recently passed a new constitution without so much as a tokenistic conversation with their rank and file members. There was no open forum on our own campus to discuss any of the proposed changes. If one was to visit usi.ie or the USI’s Facebook page one would find no mention of the recent passing of the constitution. This appears to be a strange approach from an organisation that claims to democratically represent the best interests of 250 000 members throughout 40 educational institutions on the island of Ireland.
Our own college presents a microcosm of the issues facing the student movement. It was heartening to see how MSU mobilised to get as many students as possible to attend the annual march around Dublin on the 16th of November just passed. In contrast it was disappointing to see the disdain with which people who asked questions of the plans to go on class rep training were treated. One must recognise the essential nature of having a collective bargaining voice for students on campus and nationally. However Unions must also be kept accountable by their membership. One should not have to seek to have accounts published or minutes from Union Council meetings published. Instead the Union should behave in the most transparent and efficient manner possible.
That leads us to the decision by MSU to support the new USI constitution. A Union Council meeting that did not reach quorum was held during the exam period and with only 24 hours notice. It is necessary to point out that the USI had also called a Special Congress at about a weeks notice which left MSU in a difficult position. Arguments can be made that the constitution needed to be passed as quickly as possible to allow for it to be utilised at the next USI National Conference. However if a document is so important to the continued health of the national representative body how can one also argue to disregard the opinions of the vast majority of people that USI claims to represent.
This is a constitution that increases the number of terms that an officer can run for one particular position, increasing from a maximum of two to three terms. It also removes the position of LGBT rights officer. In the old constitution if the president was re-elected for a second term he or she became eligible for a pay increase of up to €8 000. Under the new constitution, should any officer be re-elected for a second or third term, in the same position, they shall receive a long service increment or increments as decided by the Finance Committee.
As we head into election season in Maynooth it would seem we need to reaffirm what exactly we expect and require of our Students’ Union. While unemployment figures remain stagnant and almost every family is touched by emigration it seems now more than ever we need a Union that encourages empathy and the power of the collective student voice. No longer can we afford for election campaigns to be run on the back of populist policies, or for them to be fought in the pubs of our University town. Instead there is a need for students to engage with the candidates on offer, and really question whose side a candidate is really on.
For more info on the changes that the new USI constitution brings, here is a quick run down courtesy of IATD SU.
-Eoin Griffin is an MA student in Digital Humanities and activist with Free Education for Everyone
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