Over the course of their studies, students’ levels of contact with their union vary wildly. The union may be encountered by a student only once in their college careerwhen they find themselves in need of its assistance. Others may find themselves actively involved with the union, participating in its campaigns and events. And then there are some who may never have need of nor interest in the union, being aware of its existence merely through posters and pamphlets strewn across campus.
Whatever their experience of the union, all students do have one thing in common: they are paid-up members of the union as a matter of course.
Once a student registers with UCD, or any other university, they automatically join the union. This circumstance has prompted recent graduate of law at this university, Samuel O’Connor, to take action.
This week O’Connor launches Irish Students For Free Association, a lobby group which is campaigning for the abolition of compulsory membership of student unions, under the constitutional right to freedom of association. O’Connor contends that students should be “asked expressly” whether or not they want to join the union, and that if they desire to leave the union for any reason, this should be facilitated through proper mechanisms.
O’Connor has first-hand experience of the difficulties of leaving a student union, which he was no longer happy to have represent him.
In 2013 UCDSU held a preferendum on what stance the union should take on abortion. 45% of the 2527 students who voted, did so in favour of a stance supporting abortion on request of the woman. This was subsequently adopted into the constitution of the union.
O’Connor, who was in third year at the time, holds “a moral objection to abortion” and so felt uncomfortable being a member of a union which would take on such a position.
In the wake of the preferendum results, O’Connor sought to disaffiliate from the student union. In doing so he was met with great difficulty.
“The decision to leave was easily made”, O’Connor told the College Tribune this week, “However the mechanisms required to facilitate an easy disassociation procedure simply weren’t in place.”
O’Connor’s request to leave the SU was initially denied by the then President of the Union, Mícheál Gallagher, and by the SU executive. It was only upon referral to their legal team that O’Connor’s request was allowed.
“That’s simply not good enough.” says O’Connor, “It’s not up to any student to qualify their resignation; it should simply be accepted. That’s what the right to freedom of association means”.
According to O’Connor he was initially content to leave his situation as it was, following the vindication of his request. But since his high profile departure from the union O’Connor has been approached by a number of students who wanted his help regarding leaving their unions.
These students, stresses O’Connor, desire to disassociate from their unions for a myriad of reasons other than his own, ranging from dissatisfaction with their treatment at the hands of union officers, to strong unease with the actions of individual elected representatives.
On the back of this O’Connor felt that it was evident that students, from all over the country, were crying out for help in these matters. Irish Students for Free Association (ISFA) has been set up to advocate for students such as these, across all third level institutions, and ensure them ease of disaffiliation from their unions.
The group’s website, www.leaveyoursu.com, presents students with the legal argument for the right to freedom of association; a right, O’Connor argues, that student unions have been remiss in publicising to those they represent. The website also provides an application form for those seeking to disaffiliate from their unions. By filling it out with their name, number and a registered university email address and submitting it, the student involved will be contacted by an ISFA representative who will help them with the disaffiliation process. The representative will send the disaffiliation request to the university on behalf of that student, along with any other requests from students belonging to the same university.
But the long term and main objective of the ISFA campaign is to abolish mandatory membership of student unions, instead making it something that students sign up to by express choice. O’Connor envisages this as being a process akin to joining a college society. He feels that student unions should set up a stall at Freshers’ Week, where students would go to sign up voluntarily.
O’Connor is of the opinion that this will be “hugely beneficial to student unions. It will provide them with an impetus, which they have thus far lacked, to actually act in the best interest of students. It will provide them with an incentive to take action, which is actually representative of the student body, it will make them more efficient, and hopefully it will encourage them to provide a better service to students.”
As for the possibility of students choosing not to join their union in order to avoid payment, O’Connor believes “a good union has nothing to fear from freedom of association”, that if the services provided are of a high standard and in the students’ interests, then students will be inclined to join. //
Words by Una Power, Editor