Is this year’s UCDSU rising to the challenge?

Image Credit: Laoise Tarrant

Nathan Young argues in the affirmative, and Michael Tuohy argues the No side.

YES by Nathan Young
That this is one of the most dreadful years for students in a long time is obvious, both in ways that are unique to those enrolled in third-level education and those who are not. The most blatant drawbacks among many have been the lack of in-person classes and the severely restricted access to other face-to-face supports. The library cannot facilitate casual drop-ins, almost all communication with student advisors or the Access and Lifelong Learning centre is online, and involvement in societies and sports clubs is a shell of what it once was. Completing yet another semester in these conditions (and possibly another after that) is a grim prospect.

Unless one proposes a dangerous and stupid ignoring of public health guidelines, UCDSU is not really in a position to change most of this. What can be done this year is little more than making the best of a bad situation. However, there are several issues over which students are not merely being held back by a deadly virus about which they and their elected representatives can do little, but are actively being screwed over. It is on these points that UCDSU can be judged to have or have not been effective.

Over the summer, UCD published two separate estimations as to how much in-person class time students were going to get. UCDSU, on both of these occasions, sent letters to senior management and raised attention as much as they could to the fact that these estimates seemed dangerously ambitious. Not exactly an overthrow of the University Management Team to be sure, but it aligned UCDSU with the trade unions representing the staff of the university, such as IFUT and SIPTU who shared these complaints. Without yet having the ability to email all students, it was the best way to raise awareness with the student body.

Another way students have been actively harmed is by being trapped into leases in Dublin, having signed them under the false assumption that UCD’s estimation of 30% class time minimum meant something. On a national scale, the granting of an amnesty allowing students to leave rental agreements would be a godsend to these people, although it is unlikely, with the current government voting down an eviction. If support for regular voters is so low, then support for those who have parental homes to return to must be even lower. There is one landlord who UCDSU have convinced to be lenient on students, however. UCD Residences itself are now operating on a basis whereby if a student wishes to leave, they will be charged just for the period they spent in residences, and have their deposit returned.

UCDSU claims this change in policy compared to previous years was made in no small part due to union agitation and requests on the issue. While it may be naive to take them at their word on this, the alternative is to assume UCD chose to return money out of the goodness of its heart.

Add to this UCDSU’s continued support for grassroots organising, such as the largely successful UCD No Detriment Policy campaign, whose work led to the Covid-19 Assessment guidelines and meant that a great many students struggling during the first semester of the pandemic did not have their grades unduly damaged, and the Students for Fees Compensation. UCD No Detriment Policy activists could not have been as successful as they were without UCDSU being in a position to lobby for their goals directly to higher management. It is also obviously true that UCDSU lobbying would not have been so effective if a group of several thousand students were not backing the calls.

It is arguable that UCDSU are simply capitalising on grassroots engagement, that if they were to campaign only with people already engaged with the union, that they would be unsuccessful. This is true but irrelevant. That a union are mobilising based on popular sentiment rather than the will of the executive, and are following grassroots direction, helping out to better organise and represent the popular sentiments, is what a union should do.

It is also arguable that this increase in radical sentiment among the student body is only due to the pandemic. Again, while quite probably true, this is still not a critique of UCDSU. That the Union are only successful due to popular radical sentiments caused by a global crisis means only that the Union have correctly engaged with the moment at hand.

UCDSU are far from perfect. Not all their campaigns are successful, not all debates at Council are productive, not all officers are diligent and effective. But comparing the much more radical and aggressive direction the union has been moving in since around February of 2020 and the career-focused, toothless, and mealy-mouthed, iterations of previous years, UCDSU is clearly far more effective at achieving stated goals than it has been in a while.

NO by Michael Tuohy
At the start of the year, I wrote that the UCDSU has been an ineffective mess so far, and truly not much has changed. From the beginning of this academic year, very little of substance has been done within the SU. While other colleges have had their SUs put together plans of action for the next few months and publicised them, or put together votes on what issues the SU should be campaigning on, no such communication with the student populace has been established by UCDSU. 

A new, fairly shoddily put together, logo was put out on all UCDSU’s social media pages. The fact that this logo looks like it was put together on MS Paint in five minutes really doesn’t give the aura of a professional crew that’s there to help fight for the rights of the biggest student populace in the country. It was a poor move, as the previous logo looked more than perfect, and the garish colour scheme just does not look well at all. 

There’s been a myriad of issues outside of the logo too, surrounding registration, check-in dates for UCD Residences, and Orientation Week for First Year students, and the UCDSU - one that many expected to be extremely outspoken and active in campaigning for fair treatment of students this year – has been largely quiet and ineffective so far. There have been plenty of nicely worded statements from UCDSU President Conor Anderson about these issues, generally with him just stating his disappointment over what’s happening, stating something to the tune of “this isn’t on lads, something needs to be done here”. There has been no threat of any protests from the SU over ridiculous fees that students are expected to pay this year, and in fact, the students themselves have organised protests without the help of the SU. Graduate Entry Medicine Students voted to withhold tuition fees recently, and really this is a subject that should have been put to a vote across campus by now. Instead, there has been nothing. Protests do not have to be visual. We don’t have to encourage everyone to go out on the streets with placards and march on Leinster House or Deeks’ Office. It’d be much more effective and much easier to organise a large group to withhold fees online or even to send posters round to people in on-campus accommodation encouraging a campus-wide boycott of the horrible price gouging rent they charge. There has been absolutely no encouragement of radical action that this SU seemed like it was aiming for when voted in last year. 

The SU social media pages have been largely silent on these issues themselves, choosing to instead air “worries” through the campus newspapers rather than directly. These statements have been at best, ineffective, and at worst, completely ignorable. At times they also give the very minimum of sharing articles from various newspapers across the country where they have been asked for comment. The majority of posts that the SU send out seem to be Ads for KBC or Vodafone X, which are of course important in raising funds for the SU but can’t be the main thing you see when you search for the SU online. 

One of the few constants on the SU social media has been C&E Officer Leighton Gray who must be given some credit as they seem to be putting plenty of work in on important issues, and are actively sharing this work with everyone each week. Gray’s posts seem to draw active engagement from students, and we need to see more of this from the rest of the SU leaders, as I can say that I’ve barely actually seen the faces of the likes of President Conor Anderson and Welfare Officer Ruairi Power so far. I realise that they are all busy people, but with the world as it is at the moment, students need to see the faces and hear the words of the leaders that are meant to be fighting for them. The majority are not going to seek out these words in the form of a short paragraph in an Irish Times article. 

The SU could be so much better than it currently is. I realise this is a hard time to put into action many of the plans that they may have hoped to enact when they were voted in, but they’ve also had a full summer knowing that students weren’t going to be on campus this year. They should have been better prepared and had actual plans in place to try and bring about some meaningful change. There’s plenty of time left in this year and I hope they listen to the pleas of students asking for them to do something more. The SU needs to engage more with the student populace over social media, over emails, over every platform they can. I’ve received more emails from the UCD Student Events Calendar this year than I have the SU. More needs to be done, and quickly, before students lose all confidence in their SU.


Rebuttal to For by Michael Tuohy 
While I agree with my opponent that UCDSU had done all they could to deal with this current situation we’re in, and to deal with UCD management throughout the summer, I don’t agree with the sentiment that they’ve been at their best throughout the college year so far. This support behind the grassroots movement that they go into detail on is all well and good, but UCDSU are meant to be our leaders on these matters. Placing a few good words behind these movements in public is in no way meaningful. Not once have UCDSU actively, outwardly tried to organise these movements themselves.

The student population has been more radicalised since February of 2020, so this would have been the perfect time to organise something. A rent strike, a tuition strike, anything of that ilk! Meaningful protest that would cost UCD something, rather than the meaningless get-togethers and silent protests. These protests largely don’t affect the minds of these Management figures (who it’s clear have no morality and only value the money they make out of us anyway). This SU so far this year have done nothing meaningful for UCD students that we’ve seen. Nothing we can hold up to say we’re proud of them. No-Detriment doesn’t even extend into this year, as management believes students have had “sufficient time” to get used to online learning. There’s been no reduction to rental costs on campus, no extra mental health supports or student supports, and, as revealed recently, they haven’t even got a housing officer to help students! They deserve the most minor of praise, but absolutely nothing major.

Rebuttal to Against by Nathan Young 
While there is a lot of criticism published above, much of it either focuses on trivial things, misses the point of student politics, or is outright incorrect.

That the new logo that UCDSU adopted is ugly beyond belief is not in question. If the primary focus of the organisation was the promotion of high-quality graphic design, this would be devastating. As they, in fact, exist to represent the student body, an ugly logo and website are really nothing more than minor embarrassments. 

On check-in dates for residences, UCDSU expressed concern at the pushback of the date on the same day as it was announced and subsequently announced that they had successfully achieved a situation whereby students could move in at the earlier date within days. Not only that, but the students who would move in at the earlier date were only being charged from the later date. A success, surely?

On Graduate Entry Medicine students withholding fees, UCDSU has been engaged enough with the campaign. Anderson had promised such a campaign coming without naming which colleges were involved. As with other grassroots organising, UCDSU are offering what aid they can, not leading the charge. This is appropriate. The reason this is not being carried out campus-wide is that the action is aimed at an increase in the price for this course year on year, not loss of face-to-face teaching.

Gray’s running of social media has been of a higher quality than most years, although it would be untrue to claim that other officers have not also engaged. The Sabbatical Officer updates, while not the most eye-catching content, have been useful ways for students to keep tabs on what their elected representatives are doing.

UCDSU consists of all students, so if the elected representatives are effective in backing the grassroots activism on campus, then UCDSU is having an effective, radical year.