Surveying the Crowd

Following the moratorium on new societies, Jason Quigley takes to the concourse to gauge student participation.In order to determine the levels of student participation in UCD’s extra-curricular activities, the University Observer conducted a survey of UCD students. Students were also offered the chance to make other comments. These comments ranged from the positive, such as “They offer you something different from the academic side, and the chance to meet and engage with people,” by Michael O’Flanagan from second year Politics, to the negative, such as Shannon Comiskey from second year Economics who felt that “The University can be very grey and anonymous.”UCD is home to many different extra-curricular activities, which are in place in order to create a fun and vibrant campus. Extra-curricular involvement can help students gain valuable skills they would not gain through academics alone. Furthermore, a study commissioned by the University itself in 2007, authored by Student Advisor Colleen Doyle, found that three of the leading reasons stated by UCD students for leaving the university were “Poor Sense of Community”, “Unfriendly Environment” and “Didn’t know anyone/Difficulty making friends”, each given by roughly 20% of their respondents. Clearly extra-curricular societies can play a key role in treating those concerns. No student can prosper in university without a healthy social life. Student societies and clubs may ostensibly be for fun, but they also serve a valuable purpose in student life.The Survey results show that 71% of Students joined a society, but that only 53% of respondents have actually attended an event this year. Furthermore, only 27% had done so in the previous two weeks. The same questions were also asked with regards to sports clubs, where it was found that 39% of respondents had joined a sports club, 35% had attended at least one event and 22% had participated in the previous two weeks. The figures for active participation were similar to societies, but considerably fewer students joined a club at the outset.This ‘two week’ figure is likely to be the closest to the number of students who consistently participate in student societies. Combined with the society statistic, 58% of students took part in neither a society nor a sports club in the last two weeks, and 7% had done both, showing only a small overlap between the two. Of course, as with any randomised sample of two weeks there is scope for error. However, when combined with the fact that only half of respondents had attended any society event this year, it would suggest that many UCD students draw limited benefit from the society and sports club system.Participation in other activities was also measured as a comparison. When asked whether they had attended, or planned to attend a Student Union organised event in the current year, 65% said yes, though this number may have been inflated by the inclusion of protests as “an event”, due to the SU protest that had occurred in the same week. 80% of students said they had read a student newspaper in the last month and 27% said they had participated in a class rep event in the previous two weeks. The class rep statistic deserves some special note, as for most of the faculties we surveyed the figure was in the 30%-50% range, but the Arts faculty was unusually low, with only 9% of those surveyed responding yes. One first year Science Class Rep, Niall Clarke, commented that “As a class rep it’s hard to communicate with the entire class, particularly when it’s large.” Given that Arts has many large classes and a low number of class reps to deal with them, this may explain the numerical disparity and this would appear to support plans by the constitutional review committee to expand the number of Arts class reps.It was found that alcohol was not a decisive factor for the majority of students in attending extra-curricular activities. When asked about whether alcohol would make them more likely to attend a particular event, 37% replied it they would be more likely to attend, 7% replied that they would be less likely to attend and 57% expressed no preference.  This is interesting given the perception of students often being ‘binge drinkers’ or highly influenced by alcohol.When asked whether they perceived student societies to be “exclusive or cliquish” the result was high, at 44%. In addition, students who had participated in a society in the previous two weeks were as likely to feel societies were cliquish as the general population of students. One Commerce student commented that “Some of the larger societies can be quite cliquish, and I know many people who left to join smaller societies as a result.” Another student, Richard Blanc of 3rd year History, felt new members can often be ignored by older members and given little to do, commenting that “For many of the societies you have to be there for several years before you get anywhere, before that, you’re just a number.”When asked if they “had interests or hobbies not served by a currently existing society”, the student response was relatively low, with 16% of students responding positively to this question. Suggestions for new societies ranged from Arts and Crafts, to Zoology, to Cars.When the data was analysed further, it was found that two-week participation in societies and sports clubs varied little with regards to the student’s year of study. However, the probability of joining or attending any society fell the longer students were in college, as shown in FIG A. Another trend was that the percentage perceiving societies as “cliquish or exclusive” was 55% for most years, except first years, where only 26% believed it was an issue. A similar analysis was performed regarding faculties and found no meaningful variation.In contrast, gender did appear to have a slight affect on responses. Female respondents were less likely to take part in societies than male respondents, while being more likely to perceive societies as exclusive or cliquish. However, less female students felt they had unserved interests or hobbies, and female students did not believe alcohol was as influential in choosing an event to attend as their male counterparts. The breakdown of results can be seen in fig B. This is an interesting result with no immediately clear explanation, and perhaps warrants further investigation.In comments collected from individual students, other concerns were voiced that were not specifically addressed in the survey, and may have given a significant response if they had been. One of these was commuting, with sixteen students independently answering that their commute prevented them from taking part in extra-curricular activities in UCD, and many saying that events earlier in the day would make it substantially easier for them to take part.The other main issue brought up by numerous students was publicity. Many commented that they encountered various problems keeping them from knowing how to get involved. Orla Ward, a second year Actuarial studies student, felt societies “don’t have good enough contact via email after the first two weeks, they’ve got your money and that’s it.” Likewise, Leanne Ryan of third year English believed that “societies give too little information about how to get involved, or even what they’re doing”.Some made practical suggestions of their own of how to ameliorate pre-existing issues, like Lauren McDunphy of fourth year Nursing. “I’d like it if there was an easier way to join societies after fresher’s week, for instance online, because during fresher’s week, as a fourth year student I was very busy getting organised.” Some students also felt similarly about student newspapers and responded that while they enjoyed reading it, many had little idea of how to actually get involved and write.The University Observer contacted Stephen Whelan, chairman of the Society Council, for comment on the results. “Firstly, it is to be expected that the numbers attending society events this late in the semester is lower than usual. Assignments and exams take precedence at this stage, so it is a bad time to examine attendance in a general sense. This has been the general trend since the introduction of semesterisation a number of years ago.” Furthermore, he stated that many society events were not always obviously run by a society, for example faculty days. Whelan also thought that “people are too quick to use the word clique. Your survey suggests that over 70% of students joined a society this year, I think this is positive. First year students are always more willing to be involved, or try new things, than other years. As people progress in college they tend to specialise. So instead of joining ten societies, they join one or two,” and “Societies want people to be involved. At any stage during the year you can join a society, and they'll be happy to have you. I think the 'clique' label used is not helpful, and for the most part, ill-considered.” He concluded that, “With over eighty active societies here on campus we have a great deal of diversity ... Obviously, it would be foolish to be complacent. The Societies Council will continue to encourage participation and promote society life here on campus.”This survey shows that there is a significant number of students that are not taking part in extra-curricular activities. It should be stressed, however, that most of the student respondents were positive about student societies and felt they were an important part of the university. The main issues we found students expressing that kept them from participating were not related to a lack of resources on the part of the university, but due to poor infrastructure and communication. Students were not taking part due to events being too late, not being informed of any events, or simply not knowing how to volunteer.Perhaps there are more problems to be solved, however the survey is already beneficial insofar as it highlights that even an improvement in the frequency and timing of email communication would create a greater connection between societies and students and invite greater participation.