Questions of legitimacy arise over 'threatening' claims in Student Centre levy document

Director of Student Service and Facilities Dominic O’Keeffe has apologised for the circulation of a document which has been described as a "blatant threat" to students to support the extension of the student centre levy in any potential UCDSU policy referendum. Head of Services Jason Masterson told The University Observer that the document was drafted by Student Services and the students representing a 'yes' campaign.

UCDSU Returning Officer, Michael Foley told the University Observer, that he was only consulted on over the process of calling a policy referendum and only saw the front page of the document containing the activities, programmes and facilities that will be funded under the proposed continuation of the Student Centre levy.

UCD Rowing auditor Max Murphy presented the 'Student Centre Levy Policy Referendum' document to sports club auditors at a meeting held on Monday 4th March.

Proposals to hold a UCDSU policy referendum to support the extension of the current Student Centre Levy are being backed by Student Services and were presented to sports club auditors on Monday evening by UCD Rowing auditor Max Murphy. Sports club auditors who attended the mandatory meeting, were told that it would be in relation to GDPR.

An extension to the levy, which students currently pay at the rate of €254, would be used to fund an expansion to the student centre and surrounding sports facilities, including the gym and pitches.

The document outlines proposals to construct a new sports hall, five rehearsal studios, the refurbishment of Astra Hall and current facilities and would ostensibly be funded "by the continuation of the Student Centre levy beyond its current life-cycle which ends in 2023."

It also claimed that, in the event of a no vote in the proposed levy referendum, students would no longer be allowed avail of free access to the the gym and sports clubs would be denied funds to repair or invest in team equipment. The document, which includes "threatening analogies", claims that staff would be made redundant and scholarships reduced or eliminated in areas.

In November, The University Observer reported that members of UCDSU Council expressed skepticism over the proposed expansion. Current Welfare Officer Melissa Plunkett, who was a student in UCD when student centre was originally proposed, stated that students at the time were promised free access to the pool.

At a Town Hall meeting at the end of semester one, UCDSU President Barry Murphy cautioned that the Union should consider its stance on the new levy carefully as Student Services “are putting pressure on us to support this”. He stated that “if we take a stance, it will affect other things.”

This week, Captain Max Murphy told The University Observer that the current levy-central "funding method has worked very well for students from what I can see. It has provided incredible facilities for us and support for clubs, societies and UCDSU".

Asked whether other funding models had been considered for the expansion, Captain Murphy stated that he was "not aware of any other viable funding options at present. It seems unlikely that the University has excess funds for student activities. The budgets for the Student Activities Committee [clubs, societies and the UCDSU] [have] been pretty static for a few years now."

The University Observer spoke to a sports auditor present at the meeting, who said that he was given the impression that the levy was to pay for construction and took issue with the absence of proposed cost and the fact that no timetable was supplied.

The auditor expressed concern over linking the levy to the 'operational inflation' of the project and described as "alarming" the fact that the levy could only be increased with the consent of the student representative leadership. This would require the consent of a member, or members, of the Union's sabbatical officers.

Responding to the claims made in the document, UCDSU President Barry Murphy said "that it would be unwise for a student body to delegate that authority over a decision on their initial decision, because it should be that any increase is voted on and not just handed over to elected representatives." If this condition remains, President Murphy explained that "a Student Union President who is very much in favour of building new soccer pitches and increasing the cost of the levy to fund that, is likely to say yes to an increase in the levy across the board for all students" as an example.

Captain Murphy was unable to answer how chaplaincy staff will be reduced if there is no referendum on the levy. Despite the claims made in the document, he stated "it is unclear how a 'No Levy' situation would play out, however, I's fairly likely that a charge for each individual using the gym is one of the most likely impacts of 'no Levy'...Paying for a gym membership will probably reduce the number of students using the gym and deter students from partaking in fitness classes etc." The student centre levy is currently €254, or €46 less than the charge of €300 which allegedly would apply to students seeking gym membership following a hypothetical no vote.

UCDSU President Barry Murphy met with UCD Dean of Students, Prof Jason Last, over what President Murphy described as "threatening analogies" within the document. "My opinion, on behalf of UCD Students' Union, is that we condemn the use of any threatening analogy to encourage students to support a levy...I think anyone who reads that document would be concerned over the continuation of their sports clubs or societies. In that extent, I do find it threatening."

The Dean of Students, Prof Jason Last told The University Observer that "the document 'Levy Referendum Outcome If a No Vote is Passed' does not represent the view of the University. The University does not get involved in student referenda."

Professor Last clarified that "the current levy runs to 2023. At that time the mortgage for the capital cost of the current student centre will be completed but the operations costs would face an annual deficit." Given this annual deficit, Captain Murphy believes that "many of the services mentioned above will ultimately be under review."

However, UCDSU President Barry Murphy dismissed those claims as "just guess work", stating that he believes "UCD would intervene to fund those activities" if students voted in a referendum not to extend the levy. "

"For now," President Murphy said, the claims in the document "are hearsay and speculation...There was threats or comments included in that description of what could be cut, that simply can't be affected."

"Sports scholarships for athletes are ring-fenced through the UCD Foundation and Ad Astra, so they could not be affected by the levy. The levy currently doesn't fund them. Student societies staff are civil servants and cannot be made redundant."

The Student Centre levy is a mandatory payment of €254 for students and is not covered by the SUSI grant scheme. The levy was introduced in 2006 to finance payments on a €70 million mortgage which funded the construction of the current Student Centre.

The levy also goes towards the operation and management of the student centre, event support staff, offices and maintenance for UCDSU, Societies and Health Centre and all club and society room bookings.

President Murphy raised the issue that the Union's class representatives, college officers and sabbatical officers have asked for details on what would be built first, and when; the sequencing of buildings and what percentage of the levy will fund the proposed expansion plan. "They are seeking to extend the levy for another 20 years. The levy, at the current rate, takes in about €7m a year from a student population of 28,500. €70m capital investment project plus interest on the mortgage is still not going to use all that money, so there is quite a significant amount left over. It needs to be made clear to the students that that money goes towards supporting student activities in a building that they themselves own. I don't think the window we have now, between our executive elections and the end of the semester, is long enough to explain fully."

This article was amended at 10.30am on 8th March to correct the statement that UCDSU Returning Officer was consulted on the drafting of the Student Centre levy policy referendum.