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A New Constitution, a New SU?

hospital serif;”>If ratified, the new UCD Students’ Union constitution will radically change the form and structure of the SU. It has been proposed at a time when the Union is already undergoing significant changes, including its incorporation into a limited company. Donie O’Sullivan takes a first look at the proposed constitution and hears from those who are for and those who are against its implementation.

After months of deliberation the nine member Constitutional Review Group published the final draft of the proposed new constitution last Thursday night. The group consisted of all of the current sabbatical officers, apart from Entertainment Officer Stephen Darcy, along with some other notable students such as former UCDSU and current USI President Gary Redmond and one of last year’s SU Presidential candidates Brendan Lannoye.

Official “Vote Yes” and Vote No” campaigns will be launched in the coming days with the side opposing the implementation of the new constitution claiming that the “new constitution is not in the interests of students.”

Second and third year students Jamie Rath and Mark Stokes who oppose the proposed constitution claim, “this constitution was designed behind closed doors with minimal input from students. It was designed by and for ‘The Clique,’ the insiders in the SU.

Despite this the proposed constitution does appear to attempt to address some of the shortfalls and weaknesses in the structure and organization of the Students’ Union that have become more pronounced recently.

Fiscal Responsibility

In the past number of months it has emerged that the Students’ Union is in debt of up to €1 million. The revelation only became public after months of investigation by external auditors hired by the SU. Staff who were responsible for SU accounts in the past certainly have a lot of questions to answer, as do previous SU Presidents as to why they didn’t realise the Union was so badly in debt.

While the current constitution only mentions the word “finance” once, the proposed new constitution mentions the word almost thirty times, and several articles are dedicated to laying down rules that seek to ensure fiscal responsibility and stability.

Speaking to the College Tribune Pat de Brún, UCDSU President acknowledged that there is not enough emphasis on finances and fiscal responsibility in the current constitution but pointed out, “I don’t think the drafters of that constitution could have foreseen what was to come with regard to the finances.”

Under the current constitution a person is appointed as “Union Administrative Officer.” However De Brún explained “The proposed new constitution removes any reference to the ‘Union Administrative Officer’ so I do not imagine that this would continue. The Union is hiring internally to make up for this loss.” This is significant as the Union Administrative Officer played an important role in SU finances in the past.

An interesting addition to the proposed constitution is an article that states “any person holding an elected position shall not use that position for personal or financial gain.” Asked why they found the need to insert this in the proposed constitution De Brún said, “We felt that it was prudent to put this in. I have no specific evidence that his has happened in the past but I believe that there could be scope for it to happen.” The article would likely lead to tighter regulation on the relationship between elected Union officials and private companies, particularly nightclubs and nightclub promotion companies.

Ents

Undoubtedly one of the areas that will cause most friction between the “Vote Yes” and “Vote No” campaigns will be the proposed removal of the Entertainment Officer sabbatical position. UCD Ents has been criticized in the past for incurring losses. De Brún said, “Of all the Students’ Unions in the UK & Ireland, Trinity & UCD are the only ones who retain a full-time elected Ents Officer. There has been a trend to professionalise the position by replacing the elected officer with a hired professional. The main reason behind this is that people generally believe that there is too much financial risk being put in to the hands of an elected student. The hope is that UCD Ents can run at a profit as opposed to a loss.”

Problems with Ents have been highlighted in the past twelve months with the postponement of last year’s UCD Ball, and since September two high profile gigs in the student bar have not run as planned as the acts scheduled to play did not show up. But some would argue that mishaps like these are unavoidable and would occur even if a professional was appointed to run Ents.

“No” campaigners Rath and Stokes see the removal of the Ents Officer as a major issue telling the College Tribune “[the Entertainment Officer is] the biggest connection that most students have to the SU, and removing it as planned will make the SU even more distant from the majority of the students they’re supposed to be representing.”

The proposed constitution would set up an “Entertainments Forum” with specific responsibilities delegated to elected members, the SU President would chair this forum and “may invite any Union staff member that they deem appropriate to be a member of the Entertainments Forum.” This effectively allows for the hiring of a professional Entertainment Manager. However the “Yes” campaign may be challenged on this as the new constitution does not outline specifically how such a person would be selected and how they could be dismissed if Union Council members were unhappy with the job they were doing. De Brún points out, “No constitution would ever stipulate the terms and conditions of employment of a staff member. It isn’t the correct place for such details.” But by failing to outline specific guidelines in the constitution on how an Entertainment manager would be appointed and dismissed the SU could leave itself open to allegations of cronyism in the future.

Representation

Another interesting element of the proposed constitution is how it effectively creates another layer of student representation within the Union with the suggested establishment of College Councils. The “No” camp maintains that the proposal is “hugely bureaucratic” and “wholly unnecessary.” Each college in the university will have a College Council of its own, seven in total. PROs will become “Conveners,” and will be given many more responsibilities including chairing their respective College Council. All reps will be expected to attend their respective College Council but only Union Council Reps will be expected to attend and vote at Union Council.

Union Council Reps, or “Super Class Reps” would be elected in a manner broadly similar to the current class rep elections but class reps who only attend College Council will be elected in a less formal manner – “We wanted to deformalise this process in order to involve as many people as possible without getting tied up in the bureaucracy of strict quotas etc.,” explained De Brún.

“The proposed system is one which recognises that he class rep who likes organising parties may be a very different animal from the rep who enjoys matters of Union policy,” he added.

One proposal that is sure to be quite contentious is the possibility that the new College Conveners could be paid on a part time basis (10 hours per week max.). The idea of the SU taking seven more people onto its pay role while making cuts elsewhere may anger some, Rath and Stokes say it’s “disgraceful” and believe Conveners “should be doing it because they want to change things in their faculty and help other students, not because they can get €100 per week.”

However De Brún defended the suggestion, “It might be contentious I suppose. I would remind people however that huge savings are being made throughout the constitution, for example professionalisation of Ents, Belfield FM, less sabbatical officers etc. The total maximum cost of paying the conveners collectively would be less than the cost of a sabbatical officer’s wages. The CRG felt that it was very difficult to hold people to account and to demand a certain level of work when there are no wages involved.”

If ratified the sabbatical officers will assume new titles and responsibilities, the President will be responsible for Ents, the Welfare Officer will become the Welfare and Equality Officer, incorporating campaigns into their brief they will chair the new “Campaigns Forum,” there will be an “Undergraduate Education Officer” and a “Graduate Education Officer” elected by final year and postgraduate students who will be responsible for organizing an annual careers and graduate education fair and be expected to maintain officer hours on the Blackrock Campus at least one day every week.

USI

If ratified the a referendum on USI affiliation would be required every four years. Asked by the Tribune if that would make a referendum necessary next year if the constitution were passed, as a referendum on USI membership has not been held in the past four years De Brún said he did not believe the proposed constitution would necessarily have to be interpreted in such a way. “I believe that there will be no obligation for the referendum to occur next year but I still think it would be prudent to do so there is a noticeable appetite for it amongst students.

The Debate

The proposed constitution appears to lay a good foundation for a better Union. It seeks to address some of the many problems that exist in the SU. In the coming weeks the “Yes” campaign will tell students that the constitution should be implemented to achieve a better Union, “No” campaigners will no doubt lament the proposed removal of the Ents Officer, the introduction of pay for College Conveners and claim the increased workload for sabbatical officers will impact on students negatively, no doubt pointing out that the Welfare Officer will have too much work to deal with personal cases. However it is up to each student to decide for themselves whether they think the proposed document should become the fundamental principles of UCDSU for the years to come. It is important to realise that no student will ever agree with every article in any constitution, each student must weigh up all the proposals and ask themselves whether the good outweigh the bad and if this constitution will improve or damage their Union overall.

Read Pat de Brún’s interview on why students should vote yes >>

Read Mark Stokes and Jamie Rath’s interview on why students should vote No >>

 

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Donie O’Sullivan

donie@collegetribune.ie

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