UCDSU Election 2021: Presidential race analysis

Three candidates have presented three campaigns touching on similar issues for this year’s Presidential election, but each plans to approach the role in a very different manner.

Improving student engagement appears to be a priority for the candidates and Liam Coyle, Edward Leonard and Ruairí Power are all largely concerned with financial support and accommodation affordability, student mental health and the Students' Union’s relationship with both the university and the student. 

Leonard probably summed it up the best when he referred to the three Presidential candidates as ‘SU hacks’, although he used the term somewhat reluctantly. Each of the candidates has occupied a variety of positions within their respective colleges and the SU, and as such are familiar faces on the SU political scene. Leonard, who is a current member of the Academic Council and a former member of the University and Law Programme Boards, has occupied many roles within the SU. His knowledge of SU structures are broad and couples well with his role as an Access Leader and engagements outside the SU with groups such as SpunOut.

Coyle brings his time as Business College Officer and Class Representative to the table, along with work as an Access Leader and skills developed through his college studies. His record as a College Officer was damaged, however, when he used his SU email to promote his own candidacy for SU president, a breach of campaign rules that ultimately lead to a two-week ban on campaigning. He has since apologised for what he calls “an honest mistake”, but has also admitted that he was present at a meeting of the Union Council in which the Returning Officer laid out the rules for candidates.

Power holds the distinct advantage of being the only candidate with experience as a sabbatical officer, currently occupying the position of Welfare Officer within the SU. This also means Power will be a familiar name to students voting in the election who pay less attention to SU politics. Power has worked closely with the current SU president and would have good insight into the everyday responsibilities of the President and the dynamics within the SU.

In terms of budgeting for manifesto promises, Power had the most concrete idea of the funds that would be available to the President of the SU, while Leonard had clearly consulted sabbatical officers about the scale of the budget and sought assurances about the feasibility of his promises. Leonard had also spoken with Zipp Mobility (a company based in NovaUCD) about his plans to introduce e-scooters to UCD. Coyle admits that he is “not fully in the loop” about the amount of money that would be available to him were he to be elected, but is nonetheless confident in his ability to “definitely put [the funds] to brilliant use”

Looking at UCD’s finances at large, both Power and Leonard were familiar with FRAMC (Finance, Remuneration and Asset Management Committee), the committee which oversees UCD’s finances and on which the president of the SU sits. Coyle was unaware of what FRAMC stands for or its purpose when asked by the University Observer.

Coyle places a lot of stock in his negotiating ability and business training in the hopes of securing financial support for students. He hopes to work on developing relationships with the UCD administration and the government to alleviate some of the financial burden on students, and that by engaging in constructive dialogue with UCD and other groups that there will be many potential avenues open to the SU for negotiating on behalf of students.

Leonard believes he brings a unique perspective to the topic and a keen awareness of the necessity of good supports, with a focus on both on- and off-campus accommodation accessibility and affordability high on the priority list for his campaign. “Quality of life” for students, resit/repeat fees and accessible course materials are mentioned, as well as being “vocal in campaigning for reduced fees… not just for undergraduates, but also for post-graduates and international students. They cannot be used as gateways for UCD to make large amounts of money”. Power disagrees with the student-loan scheme approach that UCD President Deeks has previously spoken favourably of, and is an advocate of a publicly funded model for higher education. He also proposes measures such as withholding of the Student Levy as a leverage tool and earmarks rent prices, course materials, and resit/repeat fees as areas for change. He is the most militant candidate on these issues, stating that while he may work with UCD on areas of shared interest, he is prepared to campaign on funding issues without UCD, should UCD management not endorse publicly-funded higher education.

On mental health, all three candidates have relatively solid manifesto points and relevant experience. A university-wide outreach programme is a key segment of Coyle’s manifesto, which he sees as a scaled-up version of one he ran during his time as Business College Officer. He also advocates working with groups such as Healthy UCD and Access & Lifelong Learning, UCD counselling services and Student Advisors to provide support in this area. Power sought to stop the outsourcing of counselling services and reduce the wait times within UCD as Welfare Officer and plans to build on the mental health forum, working closely with the new Welfare Officer if elected President. Leonard aims to improve mental health supports and provide potential ways of addressing financial and academic stresses faced by students to help in this capacity. 

All candidates agreed that student involvement with the SU was very low. Power was of the opinion that last year’s sabbatical team achieved success with ‘Town Halls’, particularly with tackling specific issues and plans to organise more of these if elected. He also proposes statistical reports to increase accountability amongst sabbatical officers. Leonard’s approach to improving involvement centres on accessibility. He outlines clear steps to make the website more accessible, providing different, easier to read options, such as greyscale and larger font size. Coyle singles out 1st and 2nd years in his ‘Making up for the Lost Year’ campaign, and hopes that by improving transparency and trust in the SU that engagement will improve.

The issue that the candidates differ on most greatly is what the relationship between UCD and the SU should be. Leonard thinks that “SU lobbying efforts would be hampered if the SU and the administration were at odds with each other” and would look to have a “working relationship” with President Deeks but claims that he “wouldn’t be afraid to tell someone that [he] disagrees with them”. Coyle’s campaign centres on creating the space for dialogue and negotiations, and as such heavily depends on developing a strong relationship with the administration. Coyle makes it clear that protesting is a "last resort" and prefers a more diplomatic approach, citing his training in business and communication skills. Power claims that the SU “can’t negotiate with dysfunction” and claims there is a “huge gap between what is in the best interest of the students and the agenda the management is pushing”. He proposes looking for common ground and aligned interests, but in the absence of this providing a clear alternative to proposals from the management.

Ultimately, this election will serve as a referendum on the militant SU of the past year. There are several other questions that voters will be asking, on issues such as whether Coyle has convincingly demonstrated he understands the role of the SU president in UCD, despite not knowing the committees he will be representing students on, and why it is that both Leonard and Coyle chose not to use their positions in Union Council to voice their criticisms of militancy. However, the largest issue for voters is likely to be: has Power convincingly shown that the militant union he was a Sabbatical Officer of, and wishes to continue, has been the best approach to representing students? Both of the other candidates have to show that this approach has failed to bring about change. They may have a point too, as UCD management has been largely disinterested with SU demands, or even replying to emails from Sabbatical Officers.