Student unions - forsaking their name and the students of Ireland

When one of the few major demonstrations mounted in opposition to the cuts was met with police brutality last November, USI leader and Ógra Fianna Fáil affiliated Garry Redmond condemned his own members. In the face of student transport being cut, fees being hiked and vital part-time employment vanishing, the conservative and inactive unions, writes Éimhín Ní Cionnaith, have shown about as much integrity as can be expected from a careerist leadership.

The majority of student unions in this country have failed. The services they promise to the thousands of students that attend third level educational facilities and the role they are supposed to play as unions have little basis in reality. Student unions do not cater for the masses; they serve instead the interests of the select few in the almost cardinal clique that can always be seen hanging around the SU bar clothed in garishly coloured hoodies with “class rep” and “vice vice vice president’s secretary of Dance Soc” pitifully sewn on. Regretfully, this is who runs the unions, and this is the impression given by most student unions around the country.

An example of a union that failed the simple system of nominating a candidate for the Student Union President was the SU in DCU. In the academic year of 2009/2010 a student by the name of David Doyle campaigned in the race for SU President. He needed two nominators in order to begin his campaign and one of these nominators was a man called Michael McHugh. Niall Farrell, former editor of the College View in DCU, stated that McHugh had been sitting on the college’s SPC (Society and Publications Committee) for two years. McHugh had also nominated DCU’s current VP Campaigns Officer, Colin Oliver. It had come to light that McHugh, despite sitting on a college committee, was not a student in DCU, and hadn’t been a student for two years. For a student union to overlook an issue as important asMcHugh’s registration as an actual student in DCU is cretinous, and is a clear indication of the preferential ‘friends first’ mindset of the SU. This year one candidate - Ed Leamy - ran completely uncontested for presidantial nominations in DCU.

The Union of Students in Ireland (USI) represents the majority of third level educational facilities in the country, but there is no alternative to this clique-orientated organisation. USI states that it is the ‘sole representative body for students in Ireland’, meaning that if an educational facility votes against the joining of USI, they have no official representation bar their own independent student unions. By themselves, student unions that stand alone cannot tackle large scale issues, such as the reintroduction of third level fees. This begs the question: why hasn’t an alternative to USI been established to give students a choice in who they wish to represent them? Having only one national student union and no alternative union has given rise to autocracy and bureaucracy. Students in the universities around the country do not and cannot elect their national union president – this decision is made at the USI Annual Congress. This is the example set out by the “sole representative body for students in Ireland”.

Another factor in the failings of student unions is the issue of money and spending. The UCD Students’ Union draft budget for 2009/2010 states that €15,000 was spent on Class Rep training, which was held in Blessington, Co. Wicklow. For most other colleges in the country, Class Rep training consists of a few workshops in the college itself, or in some cases, there is no training. Another €50,000 was dished out for grants for class activities, including class parties. There is no breakdown or examples given of what kind of class activities could possibly come to the cost of €50,000. This figure is high in comparison to the derisory amount that was spent on ‘Niteline’, the SU’s only support for students struggling with depression. The most shocking figure of all is the more than €114,000 given to the USI, of which only €7,500 was spent on campaigns throughout the entire academic year. The majority of the money given to the USI was made up of affiliation fees, with €2,000 given to the USI in order to celebrate their 50th anniversary. Gary Redmond, ex-UCDSU President and current USI President, fronted the ‘Education not Immigration’ campaign for free third level education, but is gladly donating money from the students of UCD to the USI.

Another figure that shows the level of corruption in student unions is the amount that the three sabbatical officers in UCD earned, which came to €106,000. When this figure is split in three, they earned in excess of €35,000 each in one academic year, and expenses for the three sabbatical officers came to €5,000.

Luckily change is afoot, with more students opening their eyes to the issue of fees and the growth of FEE groups around the country. Currently there are two active FEE members running in the UCDSU elections, showing an alternative is emerging. One can only hope that students will begin to become more proactive in student politics and lead the way to a fairer and better experience for all. With third level education becoming an expectation for a secure future in these volatile times, hopefully more students will open their eyes to the corruption that lies within the walls of their own universities and act on it, instead of leaving it to the unprincipled.