As the year officially comes to an end for this year’s team of Executive Officers in University College Dublin’s (UCD) Students’ Union (SU), The College Tribune has interviewed outgoing President Joanna Siewierska on the highs, the lows and her legacy in this small Belfield-based town we’ve got going on.
Siewierska says housing and health are the most pressing issues facing students today. She says there is “a wider issue of equality of access to education” that needs to be addressed. She thinks it’s still unclear on what student life will look like next year, saying “we still don’t know if [student] societies will be able to host events in person,” and what sports at UCD will look like.
Siewierska says in the SU’s talks with the university regarding accommodation next Trimester, the position remains “it’s too early to say yes or no,” but in her view “that’s not really an answer.” Siewierska says: “The rent increase in UCD seems to be going ahead, they’re not talking about it so I’m assuming they’re just pushing on.” She says the question for students will be whether they will need to be on campus and if it will be safe to do so. The outgoing President also cites the unaffordability of the creche on campus and students in Direct Provision as huge issues at the moment.
The Good Bits
When asked about her highlights as President this year, Siewierska says she enjoyed the General Election campaign and the “buzz” at the start of term, saying although she was working 16-hour days during orientation week, “it was lovely to be around people so much.”
She says the rent protests were “good craic” and commented on the national media attention it garnered: “UCD has such an organic media audience. We don’t even need to be doing an awful lot to attract media because we have so many students, their families, alumni; people just take an interest on what’s happening in UCD. So, if I wanted to say something, the national platform was just waiting to report on it. And we had a good story to tell.”
She says that being on her own during the recent lockdown has been “really hard” and sometimes “anxiety inducing”, but when students mobilised around the No-Detriment campaign, Siewierska saw this as a people “trusting the Union” to engage with the university on this matter. She says this “empowered” their team to push for students and it felt “really democratic”. Although the campaign is over and the policies have been implemented, Siewierska doesn’t believe it’s quite been sorted: “Let’s see when provisional results come out how that story unfolds.”
The Tough Bits
When asked about the toughest parts of the job, Siewierska joked and repeated: “housing and health!”
“When you come across students with extreme difficulties,” she began to speak about dealing with student cases, “we do our best to help them but there’s only so much you can do.” Siewierska said the SU is “not designed as a support service for students” but rather a “partner in making decisions with the university.”
She tells that during the period of the rent protest, back when the coronavirus was a faraway thing in China, she spent a few days abroad. “That was my opportunity to fucking have a wild weekend in Madrid and I slept through it. I was so tired! […] As much as I enjoyed the rent protests, they were really tiring as well.”
She says that it was a stressful time too, saying that “clashing” with UCD President Andrew Deeks was a “challenge”. Siewierska says facing an “insurmountable” issue like this can be “really unfortunate” and can be “really hard to compromise”.
“Considering the cards we were given and the opportunities we had this year, I think we did well. Could we have done things better? I’m sure we could’ve, but I don’t think there’s anything I regret.”
Why The Change In Tactics?
The first Trimester of the year was significantly quieter for the SU, with a definitive change in direction during Trimester 2 towards vocal protest. Siewierska says the SU was “hitting brick walls” before Christmas. She says they planned to get vocal anyway, alongside the General Election, but when the rent increase was revealed, the time of campaigning “aligned” and they “rolled the plan out” with a revised goal of opposing the prospective rent increases. “When one tactic doesn’t work – you do something else.”
Earlier this year, in an interview with The Irish Times, UCD President Andrew Deeks said that students had reacted “quite emotionally” to the recent decision to increase the cost of on-campus accommodation, following a number of protests on campus. In an internal report, Siewierska encouraged next year’s team to “question the patronising and sexist undertones” of the Presidents’ comments under her leadership. She said President Deeks’ “attitude to the voice of students is tokenistic at best, and patronising and quite sexist at worst.”
When asked in this interview if she believes the UCD President is a sexist, Siewierska responds: “I don’t want to make a wide comment about the man and everything he does, you know? But I do think the use of language is incredibly inappropriate for anybody, never mind someone in his position. It was a very clear play on my gender and my age to belittle what I was saying …”
In a statement to The College Tribune, the university did not directly address Siewierska’s remarks about the President, but they did highlight the current administration’s efforts to reach gender equality at UCD and improve the representation of women on boards. On foot of this, Siewierska says: “I think deflecting to progressing equality on boards – that’s brilliant, that’s really positive, we need to have equality of opportunity across the board – but it’s not OK. […] Completely unprompted, Andrew Deeks called [former UCDSU President] Katie Ascough quite sensitive. Again, there’s a gender dynamic to using these terms to describe young women. That’s inappropriate. There’s a pattern there.”
“I think it’s just spinning the story to make us look like – I don’t know, like I got a bit hysterical this year. No I didn’t.” She argues the SU’s reaction to the 12% increase in on campus accommodation over the next three years was proportionate and not emotional. “I think in any leadership role […] of course emotion plays a part, and that shouldn’t be used to belittle arguments. That’s my take on the narrative that was pushed.”
New Year, New Me
The incoming SU President, Conor Anderson, was this year’s Graduate Officer, and will take the reigns this month from Siewierska. She thinks the most pressing issues for his Presidency will be healthcare, housing, environmentalism and sustainability.
“We’re in the process of doing the strategy for the Students’ Union and being more environmentally friendly and mobilising around climate issues is a big one.” Siewierska believes that students are the key to climate action and sees meeting the sustainable development goals in UCD as one of the big issues next year.
Coming into the role, Siewierska wanted to “leave the Union stronger than I got it” and “improve our trust and our reputation with students”. She says the SU’s reputation on campus has been “patchy” from time to time, and she wanted to increase the awareness of the SU and it’s goals. “I do think it’s a bit early to reflect on what an organisation like ours achieves,” Siewierska explains, saying that in a few years from now, it will be evident what long lasting impact this year’s team has achieved.
In the future, she wants to go from hundreds attending protests, to thousands rallying alongside the SU to amplify the student voice and cause tangible change within the university – an ambitious dream for the Students’ Union, but not one that Anderson won’t strive towards.
Siewierska will be attending university in Amsterdam next year and the new SU President Conor Anderson will take the reigns as President and CEO of the Union from today.