What use is a students' union? Every university and almost every college in Ireland has one, and every student is automatically enrolled in it when they join college.
One student says that should change. His name is Samuel O’Connor, and he battled to leave UCD Students’ Union when, following a plebiscite of UCD students in 2013, 45 per cent decided that the union should have a policy of legalising abortion upon request of the woman. Another 28 per cent supported the limited moves by this Government to introduce legislation in 2013, while 19 per cent said that the union shouldn’t have a position on abortion. Just eight per cent voted for the union to adopt a position against abortion.
After the vote, O’Connor, who says he has a moral objection to abortion, did not want to be part of UCDSU anymore. He soon found out, however, that leaving was not easy. “If a member of SIPTU, for example, is unhappy with the direction of the union, they can leave. But if a student has issues with the union leadership or other factors motivating them to leave, they are not currently in a position to end their SU membership.”
O’Connor, a law graduate, has now set up the Irish Students for Freedom of Association (ISFA), which aims to help students to leave their local union. So far, it includes volunteers from UCD and Trinity as well as some recent graduates.
If students did leave their local union though, what difference would it make? Kevin O'Donoghue is president of the Union of Students in Ireland (USI), whose membership is comprised of individual local unions across the island of Ireland. He says that students' unions play a vital role. "When I was postgraduate officer in NUI Galway, I worked on a range of issues that affect students; these included mental health issues, difficulties with thesis supervisors, or financial or academic concerns. Students know that we are there to support them. But the more engagement they have with their union, the more that they are likely to get out of it. Student don't always need to know the name and birthday of the union's education officer; they just need to know that the support is there."
O’Connor says his campaign has met opposition from a number of union presidents. “SU leaderships are more concerned with political posturing and furthering their own career prospects than acting for the student body. They have been shown to be entirely ineffective on the issue of free fees, with the student contribution charge rising from €2,000 to €3,000. There is an ever-increasing body of students who strenuously object to being compelled to fund the political aspirations of their fellow students. An opt-in system would force the unions to completely re-evaluate the way they operate.”
O’Connor says this model would benefit students and the unions themselves, and that they’ve nothing to fear. O’Donoghue, however, says students already have a lot of opportunities to get involved in forming union policy, through becoming a class rep, talking to their class rep, organising a referendum, appeals and many other avenues. At national level, he says USI has had significant successes, having registered over 10,000 people to vote this month, campaigned on marriage equality, set up a student accommodation website (homes.usi.ie) and - less interesting but equally important - working on quality assurance.
But do students care about any of this? And why are they so skeptical, disinterested or disengaged from the unions that purport to represent them?
Una Power, aged 28, is co-editor of the UCD College Tribune, which has been reporting on O'Connor's campaign. She's also been an undergraduate student in both UCC and UCD. "Students are interested in the SU and SU news, but it doesn't translate into any lasting concern. There is a disconnect. We choose to cover stories about the SU, both negative and positive, in order to make them accountable. SU issues such as fees, accommodation and student health do have tangible consequences for our readers."
For the majority of students, however, it would make superficially little difference if the SU were to go, Power says. “Many students have gone through university without ever needing to refer to them. But if you were to find yourself in trouble, then you may notice the difference. To give them credit, the SU does a lot of behind-the-scenes work on individual cases, which, due to their often sensitive nature, we will never hear about. When it comes to large-scale issues such as accommodation and fees, we may not see much difference if they were gone, which is why there is such scepticism.”
Against a backdrop of ever-increasing registration fees, Power has seen union officers come and go, with little effect. “I was unaware of my SU when I started university, but what little I did know was negative: I understood SU officers to be careerists and the whole institution to be a bizarre popularity contest. Now, through being involved in campus media and being a politics student I have a better appreciation of the work they do and that many SU officers are earnest in their intentions.”
If anything, Power’s expectations of SUs have been raised. “Being older, I expect more from the SU. I expect them to actually create change on major issues. And yet, over the past 10 years, I have seen myriad SU officers, elected and paid for by students, all reiterate the same promises with the same lack of results.”
Your SU: What does it do?
Students’ unions do a lot of background work on issues such as quality assurance, education policy, and other boring stuff. They sit on college bodies and boards and represent the student voice on issues such as fees - but they are a tiny minority there and how often they’re listened to is another question.
SUs also help students on education issues while welfare officers can direct students to counselling services, help with crisis pregnancies, financial problems, accommodation and other issues. SUs organise events and nights out. And they often run subsidised shops and produce campus newspapers.