Democratic regime change on the society corridor

With Universities like Maynooth and Limerick running their clubs and societies through the Students’ Union, Alice Breen considers what this would mean for UCD

The relationship between Student Unions, clubs, and societies varies across different universities. In UCD, sports clubs and societies are managed and funded by the Athletics Union Council (AUC) and the Societies Council respectively, while in other universities, such as Maynooth University, societies and clubs fall under control of the Student Union (SU). When societies and clubs are under the control of a students’ union, it can give the impression that all students have some level of democratic control over the societies and clubs within the college. This is not necessarily a good system to have.

Both the AUC and Societies Council work in the interest of student clubs and societies. They promote and develop clubs and societies, allocate university funding to them fairly, manage events, provide support for committees and members of clubs and societies, and act as a lobby group in order to ensure that clubs and societies receive all available resources, among many other things. These councils do no lack student input. The AUC is comprised of five executive officers, including a student Vice President position, as well as eleven elected student representatives from the eleven constituencies, meaning each club has some form of representation. The Societies Council is governed by the University Societies Officer and is chaired by a student or recent graduate of the university, and its membership consists of all UCD society auditors. In having student representation, both groups facilitate democratic involvement of students who engage with clubs and societies on campus.

If the Students’ Union was to gain control of clubs and societies on campus, it would be damaging to all three groups. One option would be to have the SU take control of the two organisations. As it is now, the University allocates a set amount of money annually to the AUC, the SU and the Societies Council respectively. In this scenario, the SU would become responsible for deciding the amount of money going to the SU-led campaigns, clubs, and societies. One can see where the conflict of interest lies. For example, should the SU decide to give all the sabbatical officers a raise, sourced from the money allocated by the university, societies and clubs would receive less in their annual grants than before, as the SU had determined that it needs a greater portion of the funds.

The SU could follow the example set by Maynooth University, and have a sabbatical position in charge of coordinating societies and clubs. While this may work there, it would not work in UCD. This person would find themself in charge of the workload of two organisations, which could easily lead to a drop in the standard of the quality of support. This is not an unreasonable fear as currently both organisations operate to a very high standard. This position would include being responsible for the training and development of committee members. For societies that is a much easier task, largely entailing the providing of executive officer training once at the start of the year, but for clubs it is much more than that. Sports club committees are required to have more specialised training, such as child safety and first aid. As well as providing, or at least organising, all this training, this person would be in charge of reviewing and approving grant applications and allocating funding for clubs and societies, lobbying on their behalf, organising major events such as the societies at Freshers’ Week, the Sports Expo, and club and societies awards etc. Yes, the pressures of the job could be lessened through delegation and the establishment of subcommittees and other groups, but it does not make sense to undo two organisations in order to bring clubs and societies under SU control in UCD.

Essentially, bringing clubs and societies under the control of the SU would be an unnecessary venture. It would add an unprecedented amount of work to the SU in order to maintain the current standard of clubs and societies. It would lead a rift between the three groups, if they were all to operate under the control of one of them. If this unification was to occur, while it would technically give indirect democratic control to all students over clubs and societies, it would come at the loss of the direct democratic control students who are members of clubs and societies currently have. These directly elected positions would be seen as less valuable to the entire student body than having indirect democratic power over clubs and societies, as all can vote for the SU officers. In the end students who actually participate would have less democratic say over clubs and societies.This also brings forward the point that while all students are members of the SU, not all students chose to engage with the SU. Amongst those students who do, not all of them choose to engage with clubs or societies. It makes more sense to keep the three groups separate, as it means that the students who engage with clubs and societies have more democratic control, through the committees and auditors, who then will either be representatives or choose representatives for Societies Council and the AUC.

While having clubs and societies under the control of a university Students’ Union may work for some universities, it would not work for UCD. The set up as it is, having the AUC and the Societies Council as the governing organisations for clubs and societies, seems to be the most beneficial system for the university overall. It allows for them and the SU to successfully operate without any group negatively impacting on the other.