With commercialisation and the cost of living crisis battling it out for SU attention, Adrian Kelly and Rob Fitzpatrick argue as to whether or not the SU has lost its teeth.
Universities around Ireland have been taking the piss. Increased costs for student rental accommodation, lectures not being uploaded and a severe lack of funding into mental health services leave students on the brink. Most students don't have the time to advocate for themselves, leading a busy life as a student, working a job, commuting and attempting to have a social life. It should be the role of the students union to engage and advocate on behalf of students and keep their focus on what really matters.
Some say it is necessary to engage in enterprises such as ENTs, freshers bags or social events to get people involved in the unions. However, the need for students to be able to enjoy themselves and socialise is already admirably provided by societies and sports clubs. The attraction of the union should be to have the ability to advocate for change for students, and attract the people who are most interested and most suited to advocating for students. The promise of amazing freshers bags and the events that have a larger budget than all of the societies combined is not what will keep students involved in activism. What encourages activism is visibility and leadership.
Entertainment is something that is relatively new to student unions, traditionally, when unions were most popular and most engaged with, it has been when they were fighting against a system that was not beneficial to their members. The issues that we face now may be different in name to the issues that were faced in the 70s and 80s but there is a similar fight against the university or the institution of the government for denying students a service that is required for them to thrive in their life. In the 70s this was condoms, not allowing people to live a life without fear of pregnancy or STIs, now, it is not allowing students to have a roof over their heads in order to ensure that they are best able to complete their studies, or having access to mental health services.
The work of students union officers across the country to improve relations with their respective institutions is admirable, but the image that they present of themselves does not do any justice to the work that is actually completed.
The work that is done by Welfare and Education Officers up and down the country in working on case by case issues greatly impact and improve the lives of students within every university, and certainly the amount of good that Student Unions do are often unrecognised. The help that a Welfare Officer can offer to a student who has become homeless, or the representation that is provided by Education Officers in plagiarism hearings offers support to students who often have no other access to any support. That is the work and the image that will improve engagement with students, and it is often left unhighlighted.
A quick scan of the largest universities in Ireland’s student unions’ social media reveals that a lot of social media space is dedicated exclusively to entertainment spaces, and while there are events that are dedicated to certain student concerns, there is a lack of direct communication from sabbatical officers and union members on their day-to-day tasks and workloads.
With student union engagement historically low, returning to the roots of the organisations, and what it is that they seek to change, is the best way of affecting the most change, and also how you best engage and empower your students to make those changes.
Students wish to feel connected to a union that they believe serves them, and is actively trying to do good for them. For many, accessing events, social nights and the odd protest may be the most important thing, but for the students who are struggling, the presence of a union without ties to the university would offer something that no other institution in a college can provide.
When the primary way of engaging with your members is through enticing them with free goodie bags, it lessens the importance of the more important and admirable aspects of the union. A refocus on the roots and the meaning of unions may result in more people looking to get involved, and not see their students union as a glorified society, but as a place to enact change and actively help and impact the average student's life.
The brand deals that are often secured are ones that encourage students to spend more money, with the SU used as a marketing tool for companies that overcharge and exploit students who may not have another option. Associations with fast food chains and energy drinks impact the decisions that students make, and when there is an opportunity cost between providing a helpful guide to cooking or a deal with “insert pizza company here” the latter always seems to win.
ENTs offer an escape but that escape is not enough, when the efforts and engagement on protests and affecting actual change is not there. Any distraction from the real student issues of the day has no place in a students union, and distancing themselves from brand deals distances them from those who seek to exploit students, which can only be a good thing.
The author appears to be out of touch with the activism that our unions currently engage in. How easy it is to condemn for lack of radical social change when our unions are fighting tooth and nail for Government response and reform. The unions cannot simply ‘return to their roots’ without a student body willing to protest these issues. Students would rather march alone than with their unions, and why? It’s certainly not for lack of opportunity to form a collective. Our unions were struggling with engagement long before brand deals and freshers bags and while I concede that associations with fast food and energy drinks are not promoting healthy living, the author seems to forget that students will engage in these behaviours regardless. Our unions are not intended to be our parents away from home, they are not responsible for your diet.
Our university unions should be rebranding, they should be incentivising students to engage, especially for those who don’t know activism until they are introduced to it. We all know the issues facing our student body – a housing crisis, lack of mental health funding and university costs are obvious to the majority. So why is it when our unions hold a protest only a fraction of us show up? It is true that the image of our union needs to become more welcoming and more representative, but commercialisation is not at the heart of that issue.
While commercialisation doesn’t represent our student union’s driving force, it’s impossible to call any of Ireland’s unions radical, or indeed rebellious.
It is without a doubt that student unions countrywide have been faced with a chronic lack of engagement and general detachment from the student body in recent years. This was compounded by Covid-19 which caused a further decrease in voter turnout and indeed interest in our unions as a whole. Election turnout has been nothing short of abysmal across the country with UCDSU reaching a mere 1,711 and TCDSU only slightly better with a turnout of 2,148. It was University Limerick who gained the highest turnout of 3,331 with a student body of 17,000 in their most recent elections.
With student enthusiasm at an all-time low, our unions are being forced to rebrand in order to restore some of those fundamental ideologies on which the union is intended to run. There is a long history of a clique mentality within the union, whether that be genuine favouritism or simply an air that others are not welcome. The unions need to veer as far away as possible from the trademarked ‘SU hack’, remove the inside jokes, and one could even suggest criminalising TCDSU’s #yupcouncil, which oozes desperation and acts as a repellent fuelled by second hand embarrassment.
Perhaps, by taking that step, students would begin to view the union as something for students, run by students and engagement would improve. However, despite public opinion towards unions generally being less than favourable, the student body itself must take partial blame for our lack of radical action and initiative. The question I would ask is have our students become complacent when it comes to political issues? It appears that plenty of students simply are not bothered to engage in student activism, no matter how intense it is. When UCDSU held their housing rally tagged ‘It’s not Me, It’s UCD’, it was attended by approximately 450 students. I commend our former student’s union for the time and energy they invested into that protest, and while it’s easy to turn around and argue they didn’t do enough to promote or advertise, the reality is that out of 30,000 students, 450 bothered to take a stand. That is shameful.
It's easy to look back on the fantastic and radical work unions have done in the past, but our current society is simply not the same. Credit must be given where credit is due, and our unions achieved great momentum for Marriage Equality in 2015 and Repeal the 8th in 2018. It’s possible that the scandal of condom machines in the 1970’s cannot be replicated in the same way, with students now facing issues such as homelessness (something which requires constant Government lobbying and cannot be fixed in a radical act) and more institution based problems such as a lack of mental health services.
The issues and lack of trust seem to arise where unions bend to bureaucracy. Unions across the country failed to create momentum surrounding online learning and in person exams during Covid with heat being placed on the no detriment policy the unions fought to achieve.
While many unions secured and confirmed online exams for students in the Spring Trimester of 2021, NUIG SU failed to do so, causing uproar from the student body. The bureaucracy of the union hit home when reasoning was given that the University was in line with public health advice. Regardless of fears surrounding Covid-19 in examination centres, all students had been actively engaged in online learning for a year and a half. It appears to have been a prime opportunity for NUIG SU to boost engagement and take a student centred stance. Why not take advantage of an already engaged topic and capitalise to strengthen the union? Perhaps that’s not very grassroots of me, but our unions are in a perpetual cycle of disengagement which, one way or another, has to be broken. You simply cannot win them all, but by outwardly and actively challenging the unfair circumstances students are facing, there is an appreciation for taking a hard stance.
The use of incentives from our Unions such as freshers’ bags, free stationery, and events, are a way of bringing students in for the fun, in the hopes they’ll stay for the activism. Unfortunately, our student bodies simply do not seem interested enough to engage, without such incentives. While our unions are intended to fight for student rights and behave like any other workers union, it is an uphill battle when it comes to getting students to show up. Commercialisation isn’t the right word to describe our union’s actions, as they tend to steer clear of profiting off of student struggles. Now more than ever our unions need to create an enjoyable space for students with fun events and ways of reconnecting with each other. If the best way to do that is through offering free merchandise then so be it.
It takes two to tango, and students are just not willing to dance with the SU – unless they are being given free entry to Coppers and a slice of pizza.
While a lack of interest from the student body seems to be the main avenue of attack from the opposition, their solution is to attract active members through the solutions of freshers bags and flashy events. I firstly contend that this does not attract as many people as they would like to claim, as has been evidenced by their own statistics. Secondly, the type of student that they wish to appeal to is one that is attracted to social events rather than activism. While some may make the transition into activism, it is likely that appealing to individuals through social means will result in them seeking an avenue to achieve social means, thus, over time diluting the major voices within the Union as ones more concerned with such endeavours. It is also fundamentally untrue that issues today are vastly different to the ones unions faced in the past. With issues that all students are impacted by, and are clearly vocal about online, all that is missing is the necessary focus to put these voices into decisive action. There is an opportunity cost, and specialisation is key.