Power and autonomy are big words. They’re terms that have come to frame the debate over abortion and the repeal of the eighth amendment. Now, the student movement has found a new use for them.
It was in these terms that Annie Hoey, President of the Union of Students in Ireland (USI), addressed the union’s annual congress in Ennis last week. “We must work towards autonomy and we absolutely must make it one of the basic principles. If we as a student movement do not defend our right to self govern, to self organise, we’ve no business being a student movement at all”, she told students.
The conference room, filled with students from across the country, applauded and cheered. It wasn’t a march to the barricades or a rallying cry for free education, but instead a demand for legal protection for what, in principle, should be theirs already: the right to determine what they and their organisations do without interference.
The demand for autonomous students’ unions isn’t a glamorous issue – it doesn’t have the same rallying-cry appeal as free education, and it is unlikely 10,000 students would march for it. And unfortunately for those students worst affected by college intrusion into their union’s autonomy, it’s a peripheral issue in a sector that has itself remained a peripheral issue throughout the worst years of a funding crisis.
It’s a problem that shouldn’t exist. Not simply because colleges shouldn’t be interfering in students’ unions autonomy, but instead because it is a battle universities and colleges are fighting for themselves
But that is not to understate its importance. To represent students, to hold their colleges to account and to allow officers and representatives to fulfil the role into which they were elected, students’ unions must be allowed to be fully autonomous from their colleges.
In many ways, it’s a problem that shouldn’t exist. Not simply because colleges shouldn’t be interfering in students’ unions autonomy, but instead because it is a battle universities and colleges are fighting for themselves. It is also a battle that both universities and students’ unions will want to win.
When I spoke to Provost Patrick Prendergast last year, he told me that the biggest issue in higher education at the minute was autonomy. Doubtless, other university leaders would agree. Again, addressing the Oireachtas Education and Skills Committee, they pressed for more freedom to conduct their affairs away from the prying eyes and audits of the Minister for Education.
In an interview this week with The University Times, the Irish Universities Association (IUA) Chief Executive, Ned Costello, said that, rather than trying to control everything, the government should “trust the institution to do the things that they need to do to deliver”.
Students’ unions would undoubtedly agree. Yet while it seems that students are not alone in arguing to remain free from interference, the litany of complaints, from student leaders and union presidents, revealed in The University Times, suggest that students’ problems will not be fixed very easily.
Students’ unions, while often relying on universities and colleges for some element of their funding, want to have their institutional autonomy respected – they want to be able to decide what they do and where they spend their money.
To put it simply, many of the same institutions that are arguing for autonomy from the state are chipping away at the foundations of autonomy in the student movement
The irony is that the same arguments and discussion currently ongoing in USI, about how to secure and protect the principle of student union autonomy, are probably familiar arguments around the table at meetings of the IUA and the Technological Higher Education Association (THEA) – more freedom from government and less regulation of university activities. Considering the high price colleges and universities place on their own autonomy, it’s strange that they aren’t able to recognise their own hypocrisy when it comes to students’ unions.
You can understand why a university would take the opportunity to limit the autonomy of their students’ unions – unions exist, in many cases, to clash with and challenge senior management. If they don’t have paper to print on or desks to work from, they can’t pose a threat. Yes, not all colleges and universities are trying to undermine their students’ unions, but it is an attitude of dismissiveness and disrespect that also marginalises these student groups from any decision-making power.
To put it simply, many of the same institutions that are arguing for autonomy from the state are chipping away at the foundations of autonomy in the student movement. Autonomy only stretches so far, and what’s good for colleges might not necessarily be good for students. It’s not just Irish universities, either, that emphasise autonomy above all else. In her Vice-Chancellor’s Oration, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford, Louise Richardson, devoted an entire part of her speech to the subject of regulation, calling on the government to “let universities get on with what universities do best”.
The legislation that USI will soon be working on will have one goal: let students’ unions get on with what students’ unions do best. For all students’ sake, it is vital they succeed.