In an interview with The University Observer, Joanna Siewierska spoke about the changing relationship between the Students’ Union and UCD management.
Since taking office in the summer of last year, the sabbatical team, led by Siewierska, appears to have grown increasingly frustrated with UCD management. In recent weeks, the proposed 12% rent hike over the next three years for on campus residence, as well as revelations that UCD have spent €5.5m on buying expensive houses on the edge of campus, have brought tensions to a boiling point.
Siewierska spoke about the approach taken by the SU when they began the year. “Rather than start by being up in arms on day one, angry and shouting, take a bit of a step back and try and understand, okay, what committees do we sit on? What’s coming up on their agendas? Where can we make progress? Okay, lets try and knock on those doors and lets try and get that done.” Representatives from the SU sit on various committees, including the Governing Authority (GA) and Finance Remuneration and Asset Management Committee (FRAMC). They sit on these boards to represent the student body and its interests.
However, it quickly became clear that only so much could be achieved through participation on committees. Given how small their presence is, they are often rendered insignificant on matters that come before these committees and boards. While some achievements were made, including getting their seat back on the University Widening Participation committee, where Siewierska raised concerns about the level of services provided to students with disabilities by the Access and Lifelong Learning centre, this method was not achieving all of what the sabbatical team had set out to do. When asked if there was a limit to what could be achieved by sitting on committees, Siewierska said “yes, because the majority of financial decisions are made on a fortnightly basis at a meeting of the University Management Team (UMT), and we have no access to that team. We can only make presentations to UMT.”
Management took the decision to increase rents on campus with zero consultation with us. Speaking on behalf of myself, I feel slapped in the face. I feel like they said to me, that they have zero respect for me, they have zero regard for the core group on this campus, which is their students
In a presentation made by UCDSU to UMT in October 2019, seen by The University Observer, the SU highlighted the intense pressure felt by students in unstable or overly expensive accomodation. Quoting statistics from a recent USI report that 50% of students in such circumstances experienced severe levels of anxiety, with 77.8% of respondents experiencing depression, the presentation highlighted how the housing crisis was making these problems worse. At the time, over 90% of students who reached out to the Welfare Officer were facing financial difficulties. They asked UMT to consider a restructuring of on-campus res in such a way that it is not a profit making entity in the university.”
In relation to the recent news of a rent hike, Siewierska said “management took the decision to increase rents on campus with zero consultation with us. Speaking on behalf of myself, I feel slapped in the face. I feel like they said to me, that they have zero respect for me, they have zero regard for the core group on this campus, which is their students”
Siewierska spoke of the difficulties she faced when dealing with certain members of UCD management, and a mindset issue when it came to dealing with the issues faced by students. In a one on one committee meeting, one member said of students in Direct Provision; “these students were not invited here, they applied.” Siewierska told the Observer that “this shows an attitude from senior management that coming here is a privilege. You made that decision, and if you are facing difficulty now, it’s on you to fix it.” In a one on one conversation with another senior figure in UCD, speaking on student homelessness, Siewierska was asked “but if you have a house in Mayo surely you can’t be homeless in Dublin?”
Siewierska spoke about the university’s failure to adequately address the needs of students in Direct Provision. Funds are made available to these students, for travel and other expenses, however the SU were made aware of “some very red flag issues with regards to students running out, or not even running out, just not having sufficient travel funds.” She went on, saying “We were not confident that when students were asking for further support [from the university] that that support was given to them.” In response, the SU ringfenced €6000 to ensure students were able to get to and from their exams.
Oh no my breaking point was in October when the first student walked through my door with a sleeping bag, and explained to me that he was sleeping rough.
When asked if this incident was a breaking point for her, she interjected - “Oh no my breaking point was in October when the first student walked through my door with a sleeping bag, and explained to me that he was sleeping rough.”
In terms of what’s next for the SU, it’s shaping up to be a more lively semester. “There's a time to be at the table, there is a time to stand up, and that time has come. If UCD is not moved by our representations internally then we will use other means.”
“It's very reasonable to show the university why the course they are taking is wrong. And underpin it by very simple arguments; you're a public institution. You have a role to deliver education, and to deliver research and development for our society. Your role is not to expand infinitely. Your role is not to extract maximum income out of students and invest it in this expansion. If you can't deliver for the number of students you currently have, you have to focus on delivering services for your student population and your incoming students. Not on expanding to make more money. This is not a money venture, this is a public institution.”