“Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low.” - Sayre’s Law
The same statement is often attributed to students' union politics, which can get bogged down in personality clashes and minor political differences. SU "scandals" are the lifeblood of student media but, behind the scenes, students' unions on campuses throughout Ireland, as well as the national student movement, the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) do important work.
Ruairí Power, the current President of UCD Students’ Union, got involved after he and a group of friends set up a pressure group to tackle the rising cost of on-campus accommodation. He went on to serve as welfare officer last year - when colleges were closed because of the pandemic - before becoming President.
“As welfare officer, I was dealing with a lot of housing and finance queries,” he says. “Students were having problems getting out of their leases and we tried to help. Broadly, the union acts as an advocate for students. The SU’s time is broken into committee work, representing student views on college boards, helping students with issues such as housing, grants, disciplinary matters and fees. We provide free period products and condoms. We always encourage students to approach us with their issues. At UCD, we also run student union shops which provide students with cheaper prices, and the student newspaper, the University Observer” (UCD also has an independent student newspaper, the College Tribune).”
Some students’ unions also act as a central body for clubs and societies. Although these run independent of the SU at UCD, the SU does have an entertainments officer to run events (as do many others).
Power says that the student movement has moved to the left in recent years, with students driven to get involved because they face some of the highest fees and rents in Europe. But he acknowledges that turnout for student union elections has historically been low.
”We need people to get involved in the SU,” says Power. “If we don’t get broad student buy-in, we struggle with results. If you want to address housing, fees, mental health supports, get involved.”
If we are to rebuild the student movement, we need to focus on how the Government has neglected student issues and how [THIRD-LEVELS]have become corporatised because of a lack of funding.”
UCD is one of the few third-levels that is not affiliated to USI, the national student movement, having voted to leave in 2013. What’s the difference between your local students’ union and the USI?
When you pay your college fees, you're automatically a member of the local students' union, but you're only a member of USI if your local students' union is a member of the national union (most are, with the University of Limerick another notable absentee).
Clare Austick is the current President of USI.
"I was drawn to the student movement as a class rep at NUI Galway, " she says. "I was a class rep, part-time equality officer, welfare officer and SU President before I became USI's welfare and then President. As class rep, I liked being able to support students with timetable issues or by organising events; as welfare officer, I saw the difficulties students could experience with accommodation as well as personal or family difficulties. I wanted to help and support them. I wanted to represent their voices, and that's what the student movement is about: representing students and bringing about change. Any student can engage with us - they don't have to be a students' union officer. They can attend our events, our protests, and contact us with any issue."
USI is highly political, representing students at national level, particularly on financial and accommodation issues.
In September 2021, USI held a demonstration outside the Dáil, highlighting the ongoing shortage of student accommodation and high rents. The protest, part of the “No Keys, No Degrees” campaign, included an overnight sleep-out and dominated the news agenda on the day. It was a tentative move back to protest, following over a year in which students couldn’t take to the streets.
“The pandemic has exacerbated the student accommodation problem,” says Austick. “We’re hearing of students who don’t have accommodation, are staying in hostels or hotels, or perhaps are couch surfing. Some can’t take their preferred college course because they can’t get a place to live, and some are dropping out.”
Student accommodation is being built - but on a for-profit model that has seen students unable to afford purpose-built student accommodation. “We’re calling for purpose-built student accommodation, built by higher education institutions, to keep the cost low. But because third-levels are so underfunded, they’re using student accommodation as an additional income source.”
USI also runs information campaigns around sexual violence and consent, student mental health and wellbeing, LGBTI+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex) rights, womens’ rights, minority rights and other issues of concern to students.
“We run Pink Training, a weekend of talks, workshops and sessions on all things LGBT+,” says Austick. “We run Women Lead, which is about supporting women into leadership positions and putting themselves forward, and we also run EMpower to support ethnic minorities putting themselves forward.”
There’s always been division within the student movement, with a short-lived breakaway group called the Federation of University Students Unions (FUSU) challenging it for supremacy around the late 1990’s - but never getting off the ground because the Government has only ever recognised one national union. That has never changed.
"We engage with TDs and ministers, we have a seat on the Higher Education Authority board and we represent students at the highest level," says Austick. "We can bring forward issues from local students' unions to senior politicians."
Power says that UCD left USI for financial reasons and to focus on local issues, but “it would be remiss for us not to recognise the advantages of being in USI. We have to work much harder for access to ministers, so there is merit in putting the question back to students, despite legitimate criticism of how USI can operate.”