Student Elections – A Guide
With his tongue firmly placed in his cheek Donie O’Sullivan takes a look at what we can expect in the upcoming Students’ Union election
It’s that time of year again, election season in UCD. A time for “prominent” class reps to shine and to sell themselves and their ideas to the minute percentage of students in this university who actually give a damn.
Over the next month we will see a dozen or so candidates compete for the five €400 a week sabbatical positions in our Students’ Union. No doubt some of them will tell us they want to “make the SU more relevant to the regular students of UCD,” to get “more students involved in the Union” they will pledge to “work with USI” to “fight fees”, to “visit every house on ‘res’”, deliver better “campaign weeks”, to further “utilize social media to interact with students”, to “stand up for students”, to “organise inter-school soccer tournaments,” and who knows someone might be really original and promise an “even bigger and better UCD Ball” and while they are at it deliver “cheaper drinks in the bar.”
Most will have planned their campaigns months in advance but make it appear that they were encouraged to run last minute – all of a sudden motivated into action when they witnessed their “friends and relatives having to emigrate.” Many will boast of the amount of balls, campaigns and fundraisers they have run – few will tell you how many modules they have failed and how many times they have repeated first year.
Of course some candidates are genuine, they want to improve the SU, they believe they can bring something to the “fight against fees” and they may very well have a brother or sister who was forced to emigrate. But for many others a sabbatical position is just one rung on the ladder to becoming a fully fledged politician – just as being a student newspaper hack can be a stepping stone to becoming a full-time journalist for some.
Many promises are made in good faith but many are poorly researched and are ultimately unrealistic goals, unachievable due to a combination of any number of factors including funding, safety issues and in many cases due to the highly bureaucratic nature of UCD. Far from being overly cynical this is a valid point, one need only look back at previous candidates’ manifestos down through the years.
When one reads a manifesto it is important to distinguish between what a candidate says they will “campaign for/against” and what tangible promises they make– there is a big difference between a candidate who says they will “campaign for cheaper sandwiches in SU shops” and a candidate who pledges to “ensure there are cheaper sandwiches in SU shops.” One can be held directly accountable, the other cannot.
Familiar axioms will be declared by candidates but between all the chatter of “inclusivity” candidates will sometimes inadvertently revert to dividing the student population in their rhetoric between “us” and “them.” “Us” (the SU) who have to make the Union more relevant to “them” (the regular students).
The problem of the perception that the “SU” is a “clique” stems from the fact that membership of the Union is forced, even for students who don’t think the SU is relevant or of any use to them. We have to be members of the Union for our own good– because unlike students in other countries, we are not capable of deciding whether we want to be a member of a Union or not. The luxury of freedom of association, or disassociation for that matter, does not appear to extend to the third level students in Ireland. A “Union” with forced membership is oxymoronic.
Last year saw some of the most imaginative campaigns with each candidate spending hundreds of Euro, accumulating dozens of volunteers and working around the clock in the weeks leading up to the election. But what is all the commotion about? A first year student may ask. Does it even matter?
Well it does, if for no other reason than it is your money which ultimately funds the holding of these elections and will be used to pay the students elected.
Last year only about 20% of students in UCD voted in their SU election, this is even less than the percentage of students who turn out to vote in a General Election. A significant amount of these students were effectively forced into voting by eager campaigners who plague, cajole and in some cases effectively bully students into voting – effectively forcing a student into voting, when they may prefer to abstain is in itself undemocratic. The percentage of students who vote in SU elections is an indication of how many students believe the SU is relevant or is of any use to them – annoying students until they vote bolsters participation figures and leads to a misrepresentation of the amount of students who are actually engaged.
Ironically UCD SU spend almost €40,000 a year on holding democratic elections of student representatives – or at least that is the figure their most recent budget states. Aggressive campaigning so close to polling stations, banned in most democracies, should hopefully be addressed in the new SU Constitution.
Despite all this, election season does create a great atmosphere on campus, gives student newspapers something to write about, gives SU hacks something to talk about and gives the rest of students something to give out about. There will be lively debates, bitching and backstabbing, teary eyed acceptance speeches and the occasional shouting match outside dtwos. There is nearly always a candidate from the left, who not only wants to transform the SU but hopes to transform the global political system whilst there is almost always a candidate who can’t tell the difference between right and left, and whose ideology is based on “better nights out” – the latter more in tune with the needs of students.
When all the manifestos are printed, campaign videos recorded and when all is said and done, most would still give their vote to the candidate who goes swimming naked in the lake.
- The New Constitution: Where different candidates stand on the new constitution, which includes some conscientious elements, will be important in not only indicating their vision for the future of the SU but will also play an important role in the referendum itself as ultimately many of the candidate’s supporters will vote Yes or No on the new constitution based on their candidate’s views.
- USI Membership: UCDSU has traditionally been very close to USI, perhaps more so than any other SU in the country. With the TCD Students’ Union President calling for a referendum on USI disaffiliation and the failure of last year’s “Stop Fees” campaign it will be interesting to see how different candidates view the USI and the €100,000 UCDSU spend every year to remain within it.
- SU Finances: Of course all candidates will promise to make the SU finances more “transparent.” But how frank a candidate is willing to be about the failure of previous SU administrations to keep the accounts in check will be a good indication of their own willingness to be wholly transparent if elected.
- An “Ents Calendar”: Every Ents candidate to date has promised to deliver one but this seemingly intricate feat of engineering has yet to come to fruition. Will 2012 be the year when the impossible is achieved?