The UCDSU's request for a referendum vote on the affiliation of UCD with USI reopens earlier discussions on the effectiveness of various procedures to safeguard students' interests.
Ahead of this year's UCDSU Executive Elections, the Union council has voted to trigger two referendums. Among them is the one about rejoining the Union of Students in Ireland (USI). This means that UCD students at all levels will be asked if they support the affiliation of the SU with the USI. Such an affiliation would come with an additional sum added to the student levy, a sum paid yearly by students to maintain non-academic student-focused activities and facilities such as sports clubs and societies. An additional €5 per annum for full-time students and €2.50 per annum for part-time students would be added to whatever the levy amounts to for the next academic year.
The USI is a nationwide student movement founded in 1959 to promote and protect the rights of students in third level colleges and universities. Today it represents over 374 000 students in third level education across over forty campuses including Trinity College Dublin, University College Cork, Maynooth University and Queen’s University Belfast. Since its creation, it has contested decisions made by the Irish government and other bodies on issues related to equality and social justice and had to defend its existence. Most notably, the USI organized the national campus walkout that occurred on the 13th of October 2022, where students from various universities across the country gathered on campus with their local Student Union to protest the student accommodation crisis and ever increasing cost of college. Ahead of the vote for the Marriage Equality act, the USI made a push to have as many students register as new voters and even managed to claim 20,210 new voters. The USI also openly supports the Postgraduate workers organization (PWO) and its predecessors the PhD’s Collective Action Union and the Postgraduate Workers Alliance of Ireland (PGWA). The central issue for the union in these past few years has been to fight off the reintroduction of fees, the slowly increasing student contribution charge, and the impact of austerity on student living conditions and support. Their goal is supporting local student union’s and ensuring communication between local student union officers and the USI executive team made up of students.
This new referendum comes a decade after the resounding “YES” for UCDSU to disaffiliate from USI. With over 64.5% of students voting for the union to leave in 2012 and 76% of the student body voting to stay out of USI in 2016 , this year could be the year things change or remain the same. Among the main reasons out forward to leave USI, the cost of membership and the doubts about the organization’s efficiency to defend the rights of students were called into question and eventually led to UCD’s exit. Indeed, given the financial strain the UCDSU was under at the time, the added €100,000 needed per year to sustain UCD’s membership was a significant part of Union’s expenditure. For many, its results were not on par with the size of that investment. Most of the evidence pointed towards students wanting the SU to focus on UCD-centric issues as they felt the union was struggling to manage both issues related to UCD administration and nationwide problems.
In 2016 the University Observer published a Head to Head on whether or not UCDSU should disaffiliate from USI. David Farell, when arguing to leave the USI, pinpointed how the USI was unknown by the average student and answered mainly to the Student Union at the expense of students. This feeling is echoed a decade later by a student who wished to remain anonymous. They admit to not understanding why students need to pay for something that they’ll likely never be involved in: “I can understand the benefits of joining, but I don’t see how that’s at the top of our priority at the moment for the university.”
Speaking to the University Observer after the 2016 USI referendum, Kevin Donoghue, the acting president of USI at the time, voiced his concern about the decision for UCDSU to stay out of USI. He believed this decision would have a negative impact on UCD students in national campaigns in the long term: “You just can’t contribute to national campaigns, national conversations. It weakens the voice that they have on these issues.” Ben O’Leary Fitzpatrick, a student in his final year of Social Justice, Politics and International Relations agrees. He believes that rejoining the USI would make the SU more efficient as they would no longer be “splitting their time between national and UCD issues.” In regards to additional fees, he considers that the scrutiny on the matter masks a deeper anti-union sentiment.
Despite not having been in the USI for a decade, UCDSU has continuously mobilized students on UCD and nationwide issues such as the ongoing accommodation crisis through meetings with Minister O’Brien and the “Digs Drive” incentive, ending period poverty (free menstrual products in select UCD bathrooms) and raising funds for Ukraine (over €1000 through student-led SU shop contributions). Despite this, the USI’s weight and reputation as an intervarsity student union could allow for reconsideration. Firstly, the USI’s democratic structure is a strong argument in its favor, as is its position as the main point of contact between students, ministers and government officials. Furthemore, with nearly 38,000 students enrolled, UCD could help strengthen the numbers at USI which could potentially increase its lobbying power. However, this structure has been a source of considerable criticism for member colleges throughout the years, with many feeling that colleges are given attention based on who is in regional and national seats - a contributing factor in UCD’s decision to leave in 2012, which was due in part to frustration with the USI’s previous rules on allotted speaking time.
If UCD were to rejoin USI this year, the cost of membership would be carried by the student body, which would alleviate the pressure on the SU. Both Yes and No parties agreed that USI needed to focus more on lived student experience and proceed with a bottom-up scheme rather than rely on representation and formality. By keeping an ear to the ground and engaging with the student body at large, perhaps that might be possible.