Student Union Update - February 2023

With the Executive Elections for the UCDSU rapidly approaching, the University Observer interviewed Molly Greenough and Robyn O’Keeffe, outgoing SU President and Campaigns & Engagement Officer, respectively.

The conversation explored the progress made by the SU on various policy issues of concern to students, and a range of upcoming events on campus, including town halls, fundraisers, and information campaigns relating to the upcoming elections. We also discussed the ongoing issue of the postgraduate workers’ struggle for legal recognition and union status, and the SU’s engagement with the newly formed PWO.

Regarding the upcoming elections, O’Keeffe explains: “The Elections Hub is on our [UCDSU] website, with information on all things Executive Elections. It is our main point of information for anybody interested in running for the election, and also for students who are interested in voting. And even though we are also having a range of different events, and workshops, and [are] out chatting to students about it, we’ve been directing anyone that has expressed interest in going to the website. [...] All the information about the elections is available on the website.”

Greenough informs us that, in an attempt to boost engagement and combat voter apathy this academic year, the SU began promoting the elections before Christmas: “We’ve run a more robust campaign this year, letting students know that nominations are open, directing people to the Elections Hub as Robyn [O’Keeffe] outlined. That is best exemplified by our new banner outside the [James Joyce] Library. The slogan we went with this year is: “Union Starts With You.” It’s a very common trade union slogan, but I don’t think it’s ever been utilised in the Irish students’ union context, because we want to make it clear to students that whether or not they’re running, these are the people that are putting themselves forward to lead the Students’ Union for the next year, so, even if they’re not running themselves, it’s their union, they should have a say in who they vote for, and hopefully that will encourage voter turnout.”

Greenough follows on: “We are delighted to be trialling hybrid voting this year for the first time ever, so hopefully that will be a good way to get more people actually voting, because, we’ve obviously been doing mostly online voting for the majority of elections since COVID. (...) So we’ll have two days of online voting opening up, primarily targeted at students who are on Erasmus or placement, but any student is welcome to vote online. And then we’ll also be having in-person ballots in voting locations across the campus the following week. We think democracy is something [that’s] important to see happening, so we’re hoping that having a hybrid approach will lead to an increase in voter turnout.”

We then asked Greenough and O’Keeffe about what advice they’d give to a student who is considering running for the elections. Greenough tells us: “To be honest, getting involved with the SU has been maybe the best decision I’ve made throughout my time in UCD. I think with any students’ group or student activity on campus, the more you put into it the more you get out of it. But, with that being said, the more time you put into it, that’s maybe when it gets difficult to balance with your other extracurricular, academic, work, and other life commitments. That’s something we always try to be very understanding of in the SU: we realise that some students [...] might only have one hour to volunteer a week, or some students might not have any time at all.

“So it’s really about meeting people where they’re at, and letting them know that [...] even if they don’t feel they have the capacity to run for elected position, the union is always there if you want to come along and volunteer at a protest or a campaign during your time at UCD. [...] We appreciate all the pressures that students are under in the best of times, let alone in the midst of a cost of living crisis, an accommodation crisis, and managing to come back from a pandemic [...] We’re always looking at ways to try and make it more accessible.” Greenough informs us that the SU runs hybrid council sessions, which facilitate the attendance of students who may not be able to physically access campus for whatever reason (e.g., illness, Erasmus, placement, etc.).

O’Keeffe tells us: “One of the best things that I ever did in college was to run for class rep and volunteer with the Union. [...] We know that [part-time officers and campaign coordinators] have other things going on, we don’t expect anyone to commit their life to the Union… not like us!” she jokes. Greenough and O’Keeffe both support making the Union more accessible to students, and say that while they appreciate the pressure that many students are facing, they both stress that the Union is there and that students are welcome to get involved in a capacity that suits their needs.

Greenough and O’Keeffe then discussed the SU’s work alongside the PWO (Postgraduate Workers’ Organisation). They shared that they hosted a panel with them during Trade Union week. Greenough explains: “They’re trying to seek formal union status, and we thought it would be a good way to start the conversation. [...] It was recently disheartening to learn that the [National Review of PhD State Supports] has been delayed. I appreciate that Minister Harris has a lot going on at the best of times, let alone when he’s trying to juggle two ministerial positions, but, in our view, the level of funding that PhD students receive has been substandard for years. [...] We will be supporting the postgraduate workers organisation with any other upcoming actions.”

Greenough continues on the topic of postgraduate workers’ rights: “one thing that we’d like to do is to really get undergraduate students involved in the campaign because, when I was in First Year and Second Year I probably didn’t realise that my tutors were exploited PhD workers, [...] if we are going to have a larger campaign, it can’t just be PhD workers it has to be undergraduate workers as well [...] they’re fighting to make academia and research a safer and better place to work in future.”

We then asked Greenough what she would say if she could meet with Minister Harris on this issue: “I suppose what I’d say would be… anyone with two eyes can see that PhDs are effectively the backbone of our Higher Education sector, and what they’re asking for really isn’t a lot, they’re asking for recognition of their worker status, to have some extra rights afforded to themselves and their loved ones, as they make a valuable contribution not only to Universities, but [...] to wider society, on an national and international level as well.”

O’Keeffe, herself a former environmental campaign coordinator, tells us more about the town hall on the climate emergency: “I think sustainability is important”, and tells us about her work promoting the issue. She says that students are welcome to come and share their perspectives, and to find out “where we go now.” The SU has organised town-hall style formatted events like this before in order to gauge student opinions on key policy concerns, including the climate emergency.