Working out of a tiny corner office overlooking Dublin Port, it is hard to believe that the eight staff and 10 full-time officers of the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) run an organisation that represents 350,000 students.
True to the staple diet of any self-respecting student household, the small kitchenette is cluttered with unwashed teacups and a half-empty packet of biscuits as I am led through to meet Michael Kerrigan, the new president for the coming academic year.
In existence for more than half a century, the idea of a representative body for Irish students began to truly gain momentum in the 1950s, and the USI developed over the following decades into a body that would advocate on students’ behalf across myriad issues including access to education, healthcare and housing.
Such has been the success of the USI in propelling topics of concern to national awareness over the years that various former officers have gone on to enjoy a high profile in public life, including Liveline host Joe Duffy and former Labour Party leaders Pat Rabbitte and Eamon Gilmore.
The natural left-wing connotations of a students’ union has in the past led to accusations of an overly cosy relationship with Labour in particular, an image that is perhaps not helped by the USI’s list of notable alumni.
However, when asked about any perceived association with political parties Kerrigan is keen to affirm that it is just that – a perception.
"It's just a false perception that we tend to lean towards Labour. I think we have to be open to all opinions, and it was something that the USI was criticised for in the past, having one opinion and sticking with that. But we need to be more open to debate within USI," says the 26-year-old from Kilconly in Co Galway.
Oisín Hassan from Derry is the only current USI vice-president who hails from north of the Border, having been educated in Queen’s University Belfast. Now entering his first year as vice-president for academic affairs of the national body, he is similarly disdainful of the notion that student politics is merely a popularity contest.
“It does happen, it can happen and I’ve seen it happen in the past. But it is a lazy perception.
“There’s a lot of great student union leaders doing fantastic work across the country and those kind of perceptions don’t do them any favours. But they work hard against that and in spite of it,” he says.
Whereas Kerrigan, Hassan and their colleagues are responsible for directing policy and lobbying the political establishment on behalf the wider student body, third-level entrants will find that their main interaction will be through class reps and officers from their college’s own local student union.
These reps and officers receive training and direction from the USI so they can adequately deal with any concerns that come their way, whether it be trouble accessing grant aid, inability to find housing or healthcare issues.
Kerrigan’s own priorities for the coming year include the ongoing campaign to reduce the student contribution charge of €3,000 and increase awareness of and access to student grants, and he is ever-conscious of the spectre of a student loan scheme looming on the horizon.
“Number one is the higher education funding issue which has been around the last year since the Cassells Report [into funding of higher education] was launched, doing all we can to stop the student loan scheme coming in. That’s my absolute priority,” he says.
The USI has adopted a campaigning stance on the issue of the Eighth Amendment which concerns the equal right to life of the mother and the unborn. Its vice-president for equality and citizenship Síona Cahill will be centrally involved in the effort to get members registered and voting to repeal the constitutional passage when a referendum is called next year.
“We’re the middle ground, that’s how we see it. We think that choice is the middle ground, and anybody who’s uncomfortable with the removal of the Eighth Amendment, in conversation, would be able to see that if you strip it back it’s actually about basic access to healthcare in Ireland,” she says.
Whereas others assiduously avoid the use of the term “SU hack”, which is often deployed in a denigratory fashion to deride the club mentality of those involved in students’ union, Cahill embraces the opportunity to tackle it directly.
“Our jobs are intense and they’re very unique. Officers around the country are often the only ones who understand what the other officer is going through, and because of that you do tend to hang out more together.
“I think most SUs are working very hard to reach out more and become more inclusive.”
Inclusion can be a tricky concept in the world of student union politics, with two of the country’s largest third-level unions (namely University College Dublin and the University of Limerick) electing to remain outside the USI’s sphere of influence due to past differences.
However, Kerrigan is hopeful that a resolution can be found to bring dissidents inside the camp once again.
“We have good relationships with officers this year that may not have been there in the past. We’re looking to work with them, hopefully further down the line we could see both of them rejoining.
“Any issues I’ve ever heard of students or student unions having with USI can be resolved within USI, but it can be more difficult to resolve those issues when you’re not a member,” he says.
One of the most daunting difficulties facing students ahead of the coming term is the scramble for accommodation given the continued housing crisis across some of the big university cities in particular.
Helping to alleviate this burden for students is just one part of the brief of vice-president for welfare Niamh Murtagh, whose onerous mandate runs to 150 pages.
But in order for help to be received it must first be sought, and Terenure native Murtagh maintains that one of the best things a new student can do within their first weeks in college is to familiarise themselves with their local student union apparatus.
“They’re always going to try and get you involved, but it’s about going down and trying to see what they’re about and what they can help you with. You mightn’t think you need it right then, but further down the line you might.
“It makes your student life that little bit better just knowing someone has your back and if an issue does arise, and hopefully it won’t, that you do know that there is somewhere you can go for help.”
Michael Kerrigan – President
A native of Kilconly, Co Galway, Kerrigan initially became involved as a class rep in the students’ union of Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, where he studied business.
He quickly rose through the ranks of the college’s union to become its vice-president for welfare in 2013, and following a stint as vice-president for education he was named president in 2015.
A former USI vice-president for the Border, midlands and western region, Kerrigan was elevated to the office of president of the national body for the 2017/2018 academic year.
He has spoken of funding for higher education as being his main priority in the role, including provision of student grants and a reduction in the student contribution charge.
Síona Cahill – Deputy President and Vice-President for Equality and Citizenship
Originally from Longford, Cahill was a two-term vice-president for welfare and equality in Maynooth Students’ Union. She was an ardent Yes supporter in the 2015 Marriage Equality referendum, and is credited with inventing the #MakeGraTheLaw hashtag which was ubiquitous on social media in the run-in to the vote.
Cahill also leads the Students For Choice campaign, and is expected to be a leading voice in the referendum on the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution which is due to be held next year.
Niamh Murtagh – Vice-President for Welfare
From the Dublin suburb of Terenure, Murtagh says her first serious involvement in student politics came when she participated in a USI march at the height of the fee hikes in 2011.
She went on to become welfare officer at the Institute of Technology Tralee Students' Union where she studied, and was USI vice-president for the southern region before taking up the welfare portfolio.
Her priorities as vice-president for welfare include LGBT activism and cyberbullying.
Oisín Hassan – Vice-President for Academic Affairs
A postgraduate student at Queen’s University Belfast, Hassan hails from Co Derry. He formerly held positions as vice-president for equality and diversity and vice-president for education at Queen’s.
In addition to his role as USI vice-president for academic affairs he holds a position on the board of Quality and Qualifications Ireland.
Hassan says he wants to bring issues faced by postgraduate students to the fore alongside undergraduate concerns, and advocate for appropriate resourcing of the third-level education sector across all institutions.
Laoighseach Ní Choistealbha – Leas-Uachtarán don Ghaeilge
Ní Choistealbha holds the honour of being the first full-time Leas-Uachtarán don Ghaeilge for the USI after the office was upgraded at this year’s AGM.
She holds a BA in Irish, history and creative writing as well as an MA in Modern Irish from NUI Galway, and has taught the language at Leipzig University in Germany.
Her main objectives are to promote the Irish language among member organisations, and to protect the Irish language rights of students.
Amy Kelly – Vice-President for Campaigns
The outgoing president of Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology Students' Union, Kildare native Kelly also served two terms as the vice-president for welfare at the institute.
With a background in television, she manages USI campaigns, branding and communications.