Editorial: Rebuilding a Truly Political Students’ Union
Last week the campus referendum on the abortion stance of the Students’ Union saw one of the largest voter turnouts in recent years. Nearly 20% of the student body got out and voted, in favour of retaining the SU’s pro-choice stance. From a steadily declining string of turnouts that petered around the two and a half thousand mark for some years, to see over four and a half students get out to vote is fantastic for campus politics.
UCD relative to its size has in the last few years been undoubtedly one of the most disinterested and apathetic university campuses when it comes to student politics. Last year only one of the SU sabbatical positions was even contested, with all other posts including the President having just one candidate. In the student march protesting fees and fighting against a loan scheme last month, colleges like IT Carlow even outnumbered UCD in terms of the amount who showed up to march.
In what has been a steady decline of active student politics in UCD the abortion referendum offers an opportunity for the Students’ Union to reawaken some of the dissipated political spirit among Belfield students. When I say active politics, I don’t mean political party societies, or groups on campus like UCD Amnesty or the campaign group UCD for Choice. I mean rediscovering the real political fight on campus.
This university nearly spends as much money on advertising and promoting its image than it does on purchasing books for the Library. Last year €3,030,000 (3 million) was spent between its communications department and on advertising, compared to €3,101,000 spent on new books and journals. The university has sought to raise on-campus accommodation rents by 20% over the last two years, despite registering a €10 million profit for 2015 as reported in our lead piece. Yet political opposition to what is an administration operating almost in entirely the opposite interests of students has been absent from UCD for years.
In the past five years the politics has been sucked out of our SU. Sabbatical elections are no longer fought on any kind of wider political left/right policy spectrum or divide. Elections are won by markedly apolitical candidates who aren’t affiliated to any political party. Some might argue that’s a good thing that party politics has left the SU. But it means candidates and officers often lack a defined conception of politics upon taking office, other than to act in vague notions of the ‘interest of students’ or on specific issues such as repealing the 8th.
UCD management have a very slick and defined political strategy. The university has been re-orientated to run along a corporate model, as have many colleges in the US and UK in previous years. The result of this new business-model mechanics of the college’s administration is primarily that costs, such as services and wages are stripped down, and additional revenue streams are increased as far as possible. Out of the seven universities in Ireland, UCD now actually relies the least on funding from the state. This doesn’t mean we’re the most efficient at spending money, but that UCD management is the most effective are drawing down and tapping streams of funding outside of state grants. They have completed this ‘corporatisation’ trend, while at the same time minimising opposition from the students. For example, in 2013 they announced their initial 13% rise in rents in May when the student body was studying for and sitting exams, and would then be off for the summer. To negotiate and articulate our interests effectively against such a well-defined and effective game plan espoused by the university – we need an active student body politic.
Our Students’ Union officers and Council need to redevelop and begin to create an opposing narrative of management. One which places both academic and support services for students and staff at the heart rather than the periphery of UCD. The abortion referendum represents a rare spike in interest for campus politics. The next step of building a coalition of students interested and engaged in campaigning for issues like accommodation, academic and welfare services would undoubtedly be more difficult. But failure to do so will mean the university management will continue to make decisions as it does, and students interests will continue to be sidelined.