With the annual SHAG and Rainbow weeks rolled into one event, the traditional lack of engagement makes Brian Lynch wonder whether the Union can get anything right.
The multiple failures of the Student’s Union in organising events that it had promised is something that has been previously reported on by both The University Observer and The College Tribune, most notably the promised debate between the candidates of last October’s national Presidential elections. This represents but one of the failings the Union has made in recent times, which appear to affect every area of its remit. A call for a referendum on the proposed amendments to its constitution was deferred by a week over confusion on the time given to discuss the amendments, as well as grammatical errors within the amended document. Perhaps most egregious of these was the Union’s mishandling of the annual Shag and Rainbow week events, which for some reason were compressed into the same week; indeed, Rainbow ‘week’, despite the name, only lasted a mere two days.
While it makes sense on one level to amalgamate Shag Week and Rainbow week, given that they both deal with sexuality, it is ultimately massively unhelpful to those in the LGBTQ+ community. The brevity of the event will do little to foster a sense of inclusion and is also in a sense a squandered opportunity to create an awareness of LGBTQ+ issues amongst cisgender and straight students.
As it was, the Shag Week events buried those of Rainbow Week, but even here there were issues surrounding the quality of the events. A line-up of games such as ‘bra-pong’, ‘pin the genitals’ and ‘willy toss’ were seemingly chosen based on their supposed humorous qualities, rather than their capacity to educate. Indeed, the only explicitly ‘educational’ event held was a screening of the Netflix series Sex Education. This failure lies squarely at the feet of the SU leadership.
Indeed, the current sabbatical officers are a fairly standard representation of the calibre of candidates that occupy the Union’s offices. It is a truth told more in jest than in sincerity that Union politics rewards cliques and popularity rather than skill, drive or capacity; however, it is a truth, nevertheless. Look at Agriculture, Food Science and Vet College Officer Amy Mulchrone, who failed to attend even one Council meeting during her tenure and was forced to vacate her position as a result, leaving the faculty’s students without representation. Was she really the best candidate for the job?
The Union Council’s priorities, as shown during the Rainbow and Shag debacle, are reflective of the insular and clique-y nature of the Union. Why else, at a time when students are facing exorbitant costs in both housing and living generally, and the university management is generating significant controversy with its development plans, such as the ill-famed University Club, is the Union attempting to re-establish the position of events officer? Why does the Union believe it should use its resources to organise entertainment, when that is the purpose of the societies? Students do not need to have their dues spent on follies that the majority of the student body will likely never attend. Frankly, it is astonishing to witness the Union act so blindly.
But why is this the case? The most immediate culprit, and one to which the executive will point, is the lack of engagement from students in university politics. Turnout is almost always low in elections and relatively few candidates put themselves forward as class reps in the last election (the least time intensive positions), over one hundred seats were left vacant after the first round of elections. But why should students be expected to care about a Union that offers them relatively little, as far as they can see? Why should LGBTQ+ students support a Union that appears not to hold their needs in the same esteem as those of their straight peers? It is not only that community that has cause to feel marginalised by the Union’s behaviour; the utterly contemptible way a disabled representative was treated during a ‘bonding session’, having to be carried around due to a lack of wheelchair accessibility, shows the Union’s appalling capacity for ignorance. This is a genuine tragedy.
Despite these failings, the Union is needed and plays a critical role in protecting students, for instance, of considerable practical value is the Accommodation Officer, whose role is exactly what students need in these costly times and which is currently not filled by a member of staff or an elected representative. Young Fine Gael is wrong to suggest, as they have for a long time, that membership should be non-compulsory; such a move would serve to split the student body and financially cripple the Union. But if these failings continue, their argument will become more attractive to students, the reappearance of the group Freedom of Choice Coalition UCD may be on the horizon. The executive must remember who elected them in the first place.
So how do you solve a problem like UCDSU? Reforms that tackle problems of transparency, communication and efficiency must be made. Having the Council sit more often than the minimum 3 weeks since the start of the second semester is a start, but removing the attendance quorum for minutes would also be advised. Even something as simple as regularly updating their website, which at the time of writing has not been touched since the last academic year, would go a long way to improving their relations with students. Regarding the Shag/Rainbow Weeks and bonding session debacle, the Equality and Inclusion officer as outlined in the proposed constitution, could pose to help the Union, but with the role only being a part-time position, there are still doubts over how it will be implemented.
Perhaps moving away from the ‘Union’ model altogether and replace it with a Student Parliament system, like those present in Norway’s universities, would help break the overly cosy culture that pervades student politics and make affairs more transparent by allowing more people into the decision-making process and delegate responsibility (such as communication and advertisement for events) more efficiently. With the resulting diversity of opinion, perhaps we can avoid a repeat of the Shag/Rainbow Week embarrassment. All options must be considered.It’s time to have a conversation about student representation. Until we do, President Deeks can sleep soundly, safe in the knowledge that the best guarantor of student’s rights is feeble, self-indulgent and incompetent.