Head to Head: Should UCD Students' Union reaffiliate to USI?

Ahead of tomorrow's referendum on whether UCD Students' Union should rejoin the Union of Students in Ireland (USI), Roisin Guyett-Nicholson and Gráinne Loughran argue for and against.PRO:As UCD is set to vote in the sabbatical elections this week, students are also given the option of voting to rejoin the Union of Students in Ireland (USI).The ultimate aim of USI is to represent all students in Ireland, nationally and internationally. With a new government to form in a matter of weeks, student issues like fees and accommodation will become even more pressing. As such, Irish students need a strong advocate at national discussion tables. UCD as an institution on its own has faced significant difficulty in addressing these problems. While it is the largest university in the country, it cannot compete with the opportunities offered by a national organisation that represents over 300,000 students.This is particularly prevalent given the relative instability of the current Dáil. There is every likelihood that another election could be held within the next 18 months. In this case, it provides the perfect opportunity for students to push for things that will benefit them. The current fee structure has been recognised as unsustainable and a significant overhaul is needed. Without a strong input from students, it is possible that an American style system could develop whereby people end up in debt before they have even sat their first college exams. In order for students to have an input in a new funding system, we need to have a strong national voice. Without this, students are left out of a vital discussion.However, there is a body that has experience and structures built up to campaign for student interests nationally. This union has worked with organisations, such as IFUT and SIPTU to shape the discussion on third level funding. In order for UCD students to be a part of this national discussion we need to be members of a more prominent student body, which sees significant recognition from other unions but also from the government.
"While there are some issues with USI, if you are in favour of a union surely the argument would follow that it is better to change from within."
The motto of USI is “together we are stronger” which is the same basic premise of any union. UCDSU is supposed to work to further anything of interest and for the benefit of students. By working together and grouping into an organisation the SU is supposed to further the interests of the students. By not being a member of USI, UCD students are being denied an opportunity to participate in this discussion. A union that is supposed to work for the improvement of the student experience can hardly claim to be doing this if it is absent from the main discussion tables on national issues.If UCDSU is allowed to focus mainly on campus issues, then USI can push broader student issues nationally. Unions are usually founded and work on the principle that together people are stronger and can more effectively advocate on issues affecting their members. As such, someone in favour of a union on a basic level can hardly dismiss a larger union. While there are some issues with USI, if you are in favour of a union surely the argument would follow that it is better to change from within.By remaining outside of USI, UCD students are never going to see the changes that they believe would make the larger union a better organisation. Being a non-member means that we will never have any input in how USI is organised and therefore any things that UCD students see as being a problem with the organisation can never be changed.Another issue is the publishing of USI’s accounts. While USI has not published accounts online since 2013, the organisation does make its accounts available to all member organisations at the annual national congress and quarterly national councils.The benefits that come from being a member of USI are significant, but to dismiss the possibility of membership based on structure changes and a small increase in fees is short sighted. Before UCDSU disaffiliated from USI in 2013, then President Rachel Breslin negotiated a deal before the referendum. This deal would have seen changes to some of USI’s structures. One of these changes was the election of the President of USI. UCD at the time looked for students to directly elect the President rather than send delegates that would elect officers. However, this is something that current USI President says can be altered by the individual member organisations.The only way that UCD could effect changes in USI structures, is if it is member of USI. As a part of this membership, the upcoming referendum states that each full time student would pay an extra €5, which would be added on to the student centre levy. This is the standard rate of affiliation for each individual member of USI. The previous system UCD had, whereby the union paid out the membership fees from its own budget, was something of a rarity among Irish colleges. The six digit figure that UCDSU had previously paid to USI has remained in the union budget since 2013. The student contribution charge has increased since then yet the union standard is relatively the same. RebuttalUCDSU aren’t being denied an opportunity to participate in any discussion – as a matter of fact, by not reaffiliating to USI we will keep our unique national voice, rather than becoming just one member of a larger group. Also mentioned here are the reforms that UCDSU President Rachel Breslin proposed to USI, but unfortunately not all of these have been followed through on since 2013. Paying roughly €90,000 in order to reaffiliate to a body that has “issues” as they are referred to here is not a financially sound decision. If UCDSU were to rejoin USI and pay the astronomical membership fee, the questions should surround what USI can do for UCDSU, not the other way around.usi-askconsent CON:UCD students voted to disaffiliate from USI in 2013, just three years ago. At the time, UCDSU was in financial turmoil, and a majority of students felt they weren’t seeing enough results from membership of USI to justify the expenditure during a crisis. Three years on, UCDSU is in a much better financial position; but this time, UCD voters recognise exactly what can be achieved with the money which could be spent on USI membership.The value of some of the work done by USI cannot be denied. Their voter registration drive ahead of the Marriage Equality referendum brought young people to politics in a way that little else has done in recent years. They sit at the important tables, from the HEA to SUSI. But the fact remains that whether UCD is a member or not, USI will continue to sit at those tables. By remaining disaffiliated, UCDSU can continue to follow UCD specific interests, while USI pursues national goals.The major issue, however, is that USI have done very little in way of implementing actual change in the past number of years that could justify the cost of joining. Although one of their major selling points is that they say they provide students with a national voice. In spite of their lobbying on fees and accommodation, the cost of both has continued to rise for years now. We have all seen the posters for the consent campaign run by USI plastered across Dublin this year. But what difference have campaigns such as this made to UCD students, or even USI member students? The fact is: very little. It was UCDSU’s slutwalk as part of their own separate campaign on sexual consent that got the national media involved back in November, and which began the real national conversation around consent. There can be very little point in spending a large sum of money on rejoining a largely ineffective body.
"The major issue however that USI have done very little in the way of implementing actual change in the past number of years that could justify the cost of joining."
Although we see their campaigns, we can’t even know exactly how the €90,000 that USI would potentially get from UCD membership would be spent, as their accounts have not been openly available since 2013 (USI accounts are made available to member unions only). USI have not made any public statements about any additional campaigns or work they would be able to do with the extra revenue if UCD were to reaffiliate.The INMO has been quick to defend USI in recent days regarding the work they did in securing minimum wage for nursing and midwifery students on placement. However, UCD nursing and midwifery students will benefit from this higher wage just as much as USI member universities will. USI aided in the discussions, and UCDSU also played its part, but not being a member of USI didn’t make any difference to the results of the negotiations for UCD students. There is little point in joining a union that will continue to do the same things whether we pay for it or not. There are few other initiatives by USI that UCD students or others will notice if they continue as quietly as they have done this year, and there are no signs of change on the way.The additional revenue from UCD students will likely make little difference to the campaigns that USI run. UCD’s issues are no different to those of students in other universities; those of the continuing accommodation crisis, university fees, and access to mental health treatment. USI will run campaigns on these issues whether UCD is a member or not. But UCDSU will also (hopefully) continue to run campaigns on these issues. The fact that there are at least two separate bodies campaigning for student issues (three including the SU of the University of Limerick, which hasn’t been affiliated to USI since 1991), and the fact that UCD has the largest number of students in Ireland, makes the student position stronger nationally. Membership of USI can only weaken UCD’s position, as well as that of university students in Ireland; as it is, we have the largest number of students in Ireland, and are a separate body. As a member of USI, we are reduced to merely being one Students’ Union among a multitude.USI membership can make a difference to individual cases; access to SUSI, for instance, is largely held by the USI, and it takes longer for UCD SU to gain access to them. Though it does take longer however, UCD does have access to SUSI. Faster access to SUSI and similar bodies simply is not worth an extra €90,000 per year from UCD’s students.Many of those who are in favour of rejoining USI will say that the reason they wish to reaffiliate is that UCD Students’ Union has failed to adequately represent students by themselves. But the failures or successes of each successive Students’ Union should not affect our decision. The SU team will change year in, year out; we need to look at the benefits of joining the USI as a long term decision, rather than one we will change our minds on with every successive sabbatical team. As a long term decision, UCDSU can do better by itself, with a focus on UCD-specific issues. €90,000 is too much to spend on a national voice, but especially so if that national voice isn’t being listened to. UCD SU has its own strong voice, and will continue to do so without USI. RebuttalBeing a member of USI allows our SU officers to focus on campus issues and campaigns, without having to also advocate for the university nationally. Having a union focused solely on general student issues allows each local union to offer the best possible experience to the students in that college. USI can advocate for lower fees and accommodation while the UCDSU education officer can put more effort into the individual cases they have to deal with. Instead of liaising with SUSI directly, he or she can allow USI to negotiate for all students, while then investing more into each student that approaches them.USI does some phenomenal work, such as campaigning to increase the minimum wage for student nurses and midwives. We cannot simply expect to reap the benefits of work like this without being a member. USI is funded by its member organisations and if UCD were to benefit from their campaigns, students in other universities across the country are paying for our rewards. Is an extra €5 per full time student really too much to contribute to something that all students would benefit from?While fees and accommodation have not significantly decreased in recent years, a large part of this can be put down to the ongoing economic crisis and recent government policy. The latest general election saw the last government decimated. This gives students the perfect opportunity to now push for the changes that they want and that have not been instituted in the last 5 years.