Societies left in the dark about how to proceed during Covid-19

Image Credit: Dylan O'Neill

UCD Student Society committees have been left without guidance for the duration of the summer, having not received promised training, and with some claiming to have only received vague advice on how they can proceed.

Auditors have been promised training twice this year, one of which is due to occur before the beginning of the second trimester. The other they have been told will occur after Freshers week, which has been provisionally set to begin on the 28th of September, however that date has not yet been finalised, nor has a date for the training session. With the return to campus postponed, it is unclear how it will proceed.

Many committees feel that they have been left without general training and guidance regarding both the general running of a society and how to do so under Covid-19 restrictions. Auditor training, during which auditors and treasurers learn the regulations of the society council and what is needed for the general running of the society, has not yet occurred despite society activity already returning. 

Alongside auditor training, committees were also promised a Q&A session over Zoom with the previous Chair of the Societies Council in early Summer, however this meeting has still not taken place, despite the new Chair, Cíara Dempsey, communicating that she intends to do the same. This is allegedly due to technical difficulties. Dempsey has not yet been formally introduced to the auditors since assuming the role in July.

Due in part to this lack of training, UCD Food Soc attempted to host an ‘Informal Q&A and Discussion’. In an email shown to The University Observer, the society invited all present committees to a Zoom meeting that included “a few useful guest speakers”. The original email was sent on the 16th of September, with a follow up sent two hours later cancelling the event as they were “advised that as there is significant overlap with what will be covered in official officer training”. 

The event intended to allow societies the opportunity to “learn from the experience of some former Auditors”, as well as help committees make connections outside of UCD, and to “serve as a welcome reassurance that we are all facing similar challenges; and are all trying our best to come up with solutions.”

As for Freshers Week, where societies gain the vast majority of their membership, committees have been told that it is likely to be held outside and socially distanced. However, due to the implementation of Level 3 restrictions in Dublin on the 18th of September, if this is to go ahead it will likely not be until mid-October, and not on the originally pinned date of September 28th. Societies have not been told if a non-cash payment option will be made available for sign ups, however they have been told that the Societies Council are looking into processes to facilitate it. 

Membership fees are important to UCD societies for two reasons: one being that the membership fee itself helps to pay for the day-to-day running of the society, the other being that society grants are means tested based on the size of the societies membership base. Due to this uncertainty around Freshers Week, societies are worried about the effect on membership numbers. 

A significant downturn in membership numbers can have a sizable impact on the financial stability of a society, particularly those that have high running costs due to competitions, licensing of materials, cost of performances in dramatic societies, or food and beverages for social events. Committees have been told that at this time there are no plans to change the grant process.

Since the implementation of Level 3 restrictions in Dublin, things have become even less clear for societies as to how to progress at this time. When asked how they planned to proceed, due to the strong emphasis on in-person gatherings in the society, UCD Dramsoc said that they had not yet decided how to move forward at Level 3, but were originally “working on facilitating online events and workshops both on Zoom, which we would record and post after, as well as using Instagram Live. This would make it widely accessible both during and after for members of our society”.

When questioned about their opinion on the level of guidance provided on how to move forward, UCD LGBTQ+ said  “We are concerned with the lack of information provided to us by the Societies Council regarding Freshers Week and Officer training and have found ourselves unsure how to proceed with events and materials.” They and Dramsoc have also elected to use digital membership cards this year, to minimise the potential risk of exchanging materials at Freshers stands.

Societies Officer Richard Butler was contacted for comment but has not responded at time of publication.

AMENDMENT: Many of these issues have since been addressed in an FAQ distributed to auditors. It has been confirmed that at present societies will not face any impact on their grant if membership levels decrease. Also, Cíara Dempsey began her time as Societies Chair in August, not July.

Since publication of the article, the Societies Council has responded to a request for comment, saying "Due to the wide number of internal and external stakeholders that interact with student societies, and the continuing fluctuation in guidelines and restrictions, many stakeholders are, quite reasonably, not able to provide definitive detail on the situation regarding various events and activities, which has a knock on impact on the detail that we could provide."