Comment & Analysis
Feb 29, 2016

At UCD, a Referendum Three Years in the Making

Why a three year-old falling out between UCDSU and USI matters to you.

Daniel O'BrienAssistant Editor

In October 2012, in just my second month as a student at Trinity, I was asked to vote in a referendum that would disaffiliate Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) from the Union of Students in Ireland (USI). At that point I had only the haziest notion as to why that first organisation was relevant to my life. I had never heard of the second.

As the type of first-year who possessed a general eagerness to “get involved” while lacking any correlative understanding of the issues at hand, it didn’t take much to convince me that USI was dumb and TCDSU was awesome and that everyone in the country would listen to what a bunch of Trinity students have to say because we’re so smart. I voted to disaffiliate, though fortunately wiser voices prevailed.

By my third year of university, I would still have struggled mightily to tell you what exactly USI does – why it matters to anyone (let alone me), why it’s not redundant to TCDSU, and why it’s worth my handing over a few euro every year to fund their operations. I could have smugly told you what it is – a national students’ union, of course – but that knowledge is rightly not enough to convince anyone of its worth or necessity.

I’m writing today with a better understanding of how to make that case, a task that is thankfully as relevant now as it was when I entered university. As noted by the Editorial Board last night, after exiting the union in 2013 UCD students face a decision on whether to reaffiliate with USI. Their choice will matter for every third-level student in Ireland.

There are lots of internal benefits for UCDSU that would flow from USI membership, but I want to focus on the arguments for affiliation that will be most relevant to the average student, one who doesn’t care about – or perhaps actively resents – the “SU hack” culture.

“The student movement has in the past gone through phases where it has been little more than a talking shop, or a clique of self-interested individuals supported by a few dozen sycophants.”

Indeed, a resentment of that culture largely spurred the original disaffiliation movements, particularly in Trinity. A comment currently posted on the “UCD Students – YES to USI” Facebook page, while generally positive toward reaffiliation, reminds us of the feelings from three years ago: “The student movement has in the past gone through phases where it has been little more than a talking shop, or a clique of self-interested individuals supported by a few dozen sycophants.”

But it is first worth noting that UCD’s situation is truly unique. Its students’ union found itself €1.4 million in debt in 2012. A rejection of USI’s culture was at best a cover for a fundamental inability to afford membership. Today, with UCDSU on more stable financial footing, the more relevant concern is whether UCD students can afford not to have a say in national politics.

That is ultimately the decision at hand. Forget any talk of the UCD and TCD students’ unions having sway in national politics. That narrative is both untrue and undesirable. Local students’ unions know local issues and how best to solve them. At Trinity, our sabbatical officers work 9-5 (and often much longer) every day of the week just to stay on top of the crushing workload of internal concerns. A minute of their time spent thinking about or “lobbying” on national issues trades off with time spent on local issues that fall more within their expertise, although in this case TCDSU’s Lynn Ruane is the brilliant exception that proves the rule. Doing so might be justified if the results were effective, but there is little reason to believe they would be.

When local unions operate independently of any centralised structure, there is no chance that each of their voices will be given equal, or indeed any, weight by those in power.

USI has influence not because it shouts the loudest, but because of its systematic access to the decision-makers in this country. Its Welfare and Education officers sit on the advisory board to Student Universal Support Ireland (SUSI), which provides grants to over 7,000 UCD students every year. But UCDSU has no input into SUSI’s governance without access to USI. USI is a board member of the Higher Education Authority, meeting regularly with the Minister for Education. When local unions operate independently of any centralised structure, there is no chance that each of their voices will be given equal, or indeed any, weight by those in power.

Perhaps most importantly, USI has the time and resources to devote exclusively toward mobilising student political capital. The union has registered 80,000 students to vote just since the time of UCD’s departure in 2013. Driving registration and voter turnout is the most direct way to make politicians listen to students on issues ranging from fees to access to abortion. One general election has just passed, but it’s looking increasingly likely that another will be held soon. These national student issues will not lose relevance over the coming months or years.

Finally, it must be said that the need for reconciliation between UCDSU and USI is bilateral. Both sides benefit and both should be equally hopeful of a positive outcome. USI’s power comes partially from its resources – to which UCD will notably contribute – but also from its national mandate. With the backing of Ireland’s largest university, the organisation can more legitimately claim the authority to represent all third-level students in the country.

As I’ve grown to understand the importance of USI and what it does relative to local unions, I’ve realised there are very real reasons for the disconnect between the organisation and the students it serves. We rarely see its officers as they go about their day-to-day business. This is a reality, not a criticism. We also too often fail to proactively communicate with students about the relevant work being done on their behalf. This perennial issue for local unions becomes exponentially magnified when making the jump to the national stage. The University Times attempts to bridge that gap, as does USI, and both will continue to do so as long as student issues remain neglected in national politics.

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