On Monday students of UCD will vote on whether or not they want to remain affiliated with the Union of Students in Ireland (USI). As we are the largest college in Ireland our decision will have a huge impact on the future of the student movement. I want to ask everyone who reads this to please vote yes to the USI. The simple fact is that we are far stronger united than we are divided. The USI means all students have a voice in the national debate, whereas if we disaffiliate we will splinter into insignificance. A divided movement won’t be able to achieve anything. The USI certainly has flaws but disaffiliation will make things worse not better.
What has the USI ever done for us? Its main advantage (like all unions) is that it provides students all over the country with one united voice. As individual students we have little say in the affairs that affect us, yet a student’s union can represent us and make us heard where we wouldn’t otherwise have been. Likewise, as individual colleges we have little say, yet when we unite we can grab attention. There is strength in numbers. The USI holds politicians to account (watch out Fine Gael and Labour, the USI hasn’t forgotten the promises you made us. We’ll get you at the next election.) Divided we are weak, it is only through uniting that we have any hope.
It’s easy to be cynical about the USI and criticise them for being interested only in themselves. But this is overly harsh. Student politics involves a lot of time and effort and volunteering for campaigns that no one else will get involved with. Sure many of the wannabe student politicians deserve criticism, but at least they were there organising the Please Talk campaign which aims to combat suicide and self-harm. Mental health is a serious issue and it is incredibly hard to get men in particular to talk about their feelings. Or the sexual health awareness campaign run by the USI. They saw a problem that affects young people and instead of moaning on the sidelines, they did something about it. Or the campaigns they run for gender equality and LGBT (it wasn’t so long ago that these were unacceptable). Or the Don’t Be That Guy campaign to combat rape and dissuading people from taking advantage of drunk girls. So while it’s easy to take cheap shots, the USI has many benefits and does a lot of good.
Could UCDSU run these campaigns themselves? Possibly, but for a campaign to be successful it must be national where it can benefit from simple economies of scale. If it’s left to the initiative of local colleges, the campaigns can splutter out for lack of focus. Let’s be honest, given the level of apathy and how hard it is to organise anything in UCD, if we disaffiliated, it would only be a matter of time before people call for the students union to be dissolved (or mandatory membership removed which is the same thing). If we disaffiliated there would be no national campaigns and seeing how hard it is to organise anything, there would be fewer and fewer campaigns of any kind. The work load of UCDSU would rise hugely as they would have to organise everything the USI does as well as local events. Student politics would drift into meaningless irrelevance.
The main criticism is that USI costs money that could be better spent elsewhere. It is regularly claimed that the €120,000 that UCD pays to USI every year is far too much. However, while this sounds like a huge amount of money, considering that UCD has 24,000 students this works out at €5 each. Seeing as this is paid alongside fees of €2,250 and student charge of €165, it’s hard to argue that anyone even notices the €5. Should we deprive ourselves a national voice for students in exchange for the price of bus ticket to town and back?
If we are that desperate for funding for the college then why don’t we raise the student levy by €5? I would have no problem paying such a small sum if it meant better services. But let’s remember the financial state of the UCD Students Union (UCDSU). Due to gross mismanagement and ridiculous incompetence the union is €1 million in debt. Are you sure that leaving USI and relying on UCDSU is such a good idea? After all when the debt was revealed, the USI helped bail UCDSU out.
Some people have argued that individual SUs could still organise national campaigns if they wanted. They seem to not see the contradiction in disaffiliating so that we can re-affiliate. It’s foolish to think that we can leave USI and still do everything that USI does. There are simple economies of scale that comes with having one national students union, rather than 10 or 20 each running their own campaign. Apart from the logistical difficulties of uniting all the SUs, there will be differences in opinion. Last year’s preferendum shows that each college has its own view on how college should be funded. Were the USI to break up colleges would go their separate way and/or form splinter groups. Galway would argue for free fees, Trinity would argue for student loan, UCD would argue for graduate tax etc (I don’t know what each college wants so this is a guess, but we will certainly disagree). What will happen? We will be so divided and disorganised that we will get nothing and the government will be able to do whatever it wants safe in the knowledge students won’t complain.
I’m not going to deny that the USI has its faults. But the problem is that UCDSU has the same ones, so that if we disaffiliate we’ll still have all of the problems but none of the advantages. It’s true that it’s hard to know what the USI does or who runs it, but the same can be said about UCDSU. I think USI’s committee should be elected by ordinary students instead of delegates but seeing as only 3% of students vote in student union elections, apathy is a serious problem that disaffiliation won’t solve. People rightly criticise student unions for being full of wannabe student politicians who see the job as a popularity contest or something that will look good on their CV. But this is a wide problem that is just as bad in UCDSU as in USI. We can disaffiliate, but the problem will be still the same.
What would happen if UCD disaffiliates? Well as the largest students union we would deal USI a serious blow. This could severely undermine the credibility of USI and possibly lead to a domino effect of SUs disaffiliating. We would then be left with a divided student movement that would be unable to present coherent proposals to the government. What the last few years have taught me is that the groups in society that are poorly represented (unemployed, disabled, poor) are the ones that get hit hardest, while the politically powerful are protected (middle class, big business). If we split then we will be vulnerable to cuts and hits in college fees. We’ll all miss an active national union when the government thinks about hiking fees to €3,000.
The greatest problem in UCD is the lack of community spirit. UCD is just so huge that people are disconnected from each other. We sit in massive lectures with people for years yet know so few of them. Apathy is rife and despite the large numbers of students in UCD only a handful ever gets involved in societies. The Students Union tries to combat this, but is a victim of it. People are so disconnected that they become cynical and apathetic about everything. All campaigns will fail, everyone is in it for themselves, nobody does anything. I fear the USI will be a victim of this cynicism. There is no sense of community spirit, of working together or any sense that anything unites us. Instead (at least among my friends though I think it’s widespread) there is a sense that it’s everyone for themselves and many would damage the entire student movement for a fiver.
All of this doesn’t mean I love the USI. I think most of us agree that it is a great idea that has drifted from its original aim. But this means we should change it to make it better. We need a more active union, one that makes student voices heard. Too many student leaders are party hacks, who don’t want to rock the boat with government parties they’re members of. Too many are willing to go along with the consensus. Too many are afraid to challenge the government’s stance on fees. Not enough are willing to stand up for student’s especially poorer ones who cannot afford what other students take for granted. The USI needs to take a stronger stance and run a more active campaign against fees. Not a token protest, but a full scale protest. Arguing that we should disaffiliate just because some of the people running USI are bad, makes as much sense as saying we should abolish the Dáil because many of the politicians are incompetent. Both have problems, but the solution is to fix them and make them better.
Let me end with one last point. I remember two years ago, when I was a first year student, I went to my first major rally. Student from all over the country were bussed into the capital to protest against the rise in student fees. I remember marching through the street in one of the largest protests of the year with 25,000 other students. There was a brilliant feeling that we had strength in numbers. Instead of moaning alone about fees, I was part of something bigger. I wasn’t struggling alone to pay fees, but we were all in this together. So keep the student movement strong. Keep us united, because divided we won’t be able to achieve anything.
An excellent post by Rachel Barry debunks many of the No sides claims