University of Limerick Students’ Union (ULSU) has undergone a major rebrand, renaming itself University of Limerick (UL) Student Life at a cost of at least €20,000.
The move to rebrand was announced on Facebook on Monday and has seen much criticism online from current and former students, raising questions about the democratic processes of the union.
The rebrand was considered necessary after student-led surveys found low engagement between students and the union. In 2016, an external company, Frawley Neville, was hired to look at ways the union could go about improving its image among students.
Speaking to The University Times, a former Vice-President of the Postgraduate Students’ Union, Declan Mills, who was on ULSU’s executive at the time the company was hired, said that it costed €20,000-25,000 to hire Frawley Neville, “before you take into account the actual rebranding”.
An earlier version of the rebrand, Students of UL (SOUL), was presented to the union’s 2016/17 executive and was rejected.
The same proposal was brought again by members of support staff to the new 2017/18 executive. “We thought that was that. A new sabbatical team came in. A new executive team came in. And then in September or October it was brought back to them by full-time staff members”, Mills said.
Last year’s ULSU president, Jack Shelly, was very much in favour of the rebrand. Speaking on the student radio station, ULFM, in March, Shelly said that it “took a bit of discussion with student council” and that “students weren’t really happy” with the first version.
He said that union officers and staff members consulted further with the company and brought up students’ concerns. After this, a revised proposal was brought back to the executive, where it was passed. Members of the executive then spoke in favour of it at council, according to Shelly.
“When they saw we were all involved and, I suppose, in a closer conversation with 2020 and council saw that we were all happy then I think they all backed it”, Shelly said.
The name of the organisation is set out in ULSU’s constitution: “There shall be a students’ union in the name of Aontas na Mac Léinn, Ollscoil Luimnigh and in English University of Limerick Students’ Union, herein referred to as ‘the Union’.” The ULSU constitution can be changed with a college-wide referendum or a vote at the student council’s Annual General Meeting (AGM), where the quorum is 100 representatives. While the rebrand was brought up at the union’s AGM in February as a discussion item, the vote was taken at a meeting of council. Council does not have the power to approve changes to the constitution according to the ULSU constitution.
In a meeting of the council, 22 members voted in favour of the rebrand while only 3 voted against. The rebrand was first approved by the executive, made up of sabbatical officers and senior representatives. A senior permanent staff member of the union also sits on the executive in a non-voting capacity.
In a statement released on UL Student Life’s Facebook page, President Ciara Jo Hanlon said of the rebrand: “ULSU still exists in our constitution, we remain and will ALWAYS remain as a student representative organisation as required by the HEA, but our role and our identity have evolved over time and we have grown into what is now UL Student Life. We still carry out the functions of a Union but we are now so much more.”
“I personally feel that “Student Life” better describes what we do! We advocate, we represent, we fight, so students can have the BEST student life they can have during their time here in UL”, she said.
Hanlon credited the vote to rename the new student centre to the “Centre for Student Life” for the move to rebrand: “That was the foundation that started this entire campaign.”
In 2016, 79 per cent of voters in a ULSU referendum agreed to introduce a levy to pay for a new state-of-the-art student centre to replace an older building, which is colloquially referred to as the “Students’ Union” or the “SU’.
“On another note many students were confused about the wolf and although our message was encouraging them to be a UL wolf they perceived that they could only be a wolf or part of the pack if they were in a club or society. We sought some guidance and advice from professionals to help us address this, we wanted to show that we are listening to what our students are saying and to be able to respond in kind”, Hanlon said.
Speaking to The University Times, Ciaran O’Donovan, last year’s representative for politics and public administration of the union, said that the “interaction between the student body and the union isn’t great”. O’Donovan said he voted against the rebrand at council: “Their plan was to change the name but they’re not changing the structure or services.”
“They were trying to get students involved but they denied them the vote”, he said.
Mills said that the 2016/17 executive was also concerned with student engagement but that they rejected the proposal because “we didn’t think that the rebrand would do anything if people didn’t like the work. If we changed the name and didn’t change the activities, those people would consider it alienating”.
Frawley Neville, as part of its work commissioned by the union, has put together a list of recommendations for how the organisation should spend its marketing budget, Shelly said in his interview on ULFM.
The three sabbatical officers of the revamped organisation will now be known as the UL Student President, the UL Student Academic Officer and the UL Student Welfare Officer.
The rebrand followed efforts by officers to re-engage with the students, launching initiatives like “pints with the president”, where students could meet and talk to ULSU president over some pints in the pub and pop-up clinics around campus.
This isn’t the first issue that has raised questions over the democratic processes of the union this year.
Last December, the Limerick Leader reported on a dispute between the union and An Focal, UL’s student newspaper. The union decided to change the paper’s print schedule from fortnightly to monthly without consulting the then-Editor, Séamus Twomey.
A spokesperson for ULSU told the Limerick Leader that the decision was made due to “the particular experience” the union had with Twomey, citing issues of quality. The spokesperson said that the paper had “deteriorated considerably in terms of layout, spelling, grammar, use of colour and overall design”.
In an email statement to The University Times, Twomey spoke about his experience with the union’s decisions: “I was an intern running a department, a department which the [General Manager] discussed and proposed massive changes to without ever talking to me until my last two weeks. It was a matter of being told about the changes as well and I, the only staff member involved in the department, was not included in any of this discussion. It felt like they were deliberately going behind my back.”
“Over the last 10 years ULSU has cut back on a lot of its sabbatical and student positions and then reintroduced them as staff positions which go to non students who do not have their finger in the pulse. It is an [SU] for students but not by students and this is why they have been making such poor decisions”, Twomey said.
In 2012, after the union ran into financial difficulty, two sabbatical positions were cut from the union’s budget. The Vice-President for Communications and the Vice-President for Campaigns and Services positions ceased to exist. Mills said that after this, another full-time member of staff was hired to perform the roles of communication and marketing of the union. ULSU currently hires 11 permanent staff members to support the work of the union.
Last year, after advice from an external auditor, the union has been considering changing from an unincorporated body to a company limited by guarantee. This change of legal status is unorthodox for an Irish students’ union and would involve the constitution being renamed as a memorandum of articles. The rationale for this was to protect the liability of individuals working in the union should any legal action be taken against the organisation. This process was brought up in a discussion item was brought to council.
ULSU disaffiliated from the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) in 1991 and has had few dealings with the national union since then. In 2014, then-President of USI Joe O’Connor came to ULSU’s council to propose a reaffiliation referendum, which never materialised.
Mills put the decision to rebrand down to the atmosphere surrounding the union: “The culture here is quite apolitical. The union reflects that culture as much moulds it.”