“That’s the way it is”… allegedly
Donie O’Sullivan looks back at three years in UCD, two years writing for the College Tribune, and discusses the importance of student media.
“Don’t be putting that in the paper now,” an expression I have heard almost every day in the past two years writing for the College Tribune newspaper. I mostly hear it from self-important hacks who think that I, and the rest of the student population, care about what they had for breakfast.
Walking in the Clonskeagh gate of campus, as I have done every morning for the past two years, I come across two signs hanging on the fence surrounding the new student centre. One reads: “we apologise for any inconvenience caused during construction work,” the other: “No Access”. In many ways, the two signs characterise the student experience in UCD for the class of 2012, and more aptly, summate my experience as a writer for the College Tribune.
Firstly, I am sure many of the class of 2012 won’t be able to help feeling somewhat hard done by, graduating only months before the opening of a fantastic new student centre. During all of my three years here, UCD seemed as much a construction site as it did a university campus. One cannot dispute that construction on campus is, on a whole, a positive – it will make a better university for future students and development is an important part of any thriving university.
However, does UCD have its priorities right? Logging onto the UCD website, one will notice on the left hand side of the screen a panel that reads: Prospective Students, International Students, Current Students. This is the same format as almost any university website in the world, but for UCD, the list (read in that order), reflects a ranking of importance.
In between opening campuses at the other side of the world, entering deals with former Goldman Sachs chairmen, and filming slick television adverts, UCD has forgotten about its own students. Students are not the number one priority in UCD. There are more vice-presidents in UCD than I can name, but every year the same problems reoccur: chaos for module registration, confusion surrounding campus accommodation allocation, and longer queues at the student desk because UCD have shortened the desk’s opening hours.
Don’t get me wrong, almost every member of the academic, library and office staff I have encountered has been nothing but helpful and outstanding at their jobs, but there certainly appears to be a disconnect between the senior, highly paid management of the university and the student body. The sudden closure of the athletics track last winter is perhaps the best example of this.
Deals with Kylemore, Britvic and others may not offer students the best value. Deals such as these are lucrative and must generate substantial revenue for the university – but where is this money going? Lecturers constantly tell their students the university does not have enough money to buy new books.
UCD is becoming increasingly commercialised with very little student input. The irony is not lost on me that I lament the increasing commercialisation of UCD in a paper that the university essentially allows to exist. The College Tribune is a uniquely independent paper in the sense that it relies entirely on revenue generated from advertising -the paper receives no formal funding. However, the university facilitates the production of the paper by providing it with an office (and in Dublin 4 rent isn’t cheap), a telephone, light and heat. The Tribune is an anomaly in UCD as it does not come under an umbrella, like literally everything else in the university.
Unlike the claims of some former and current Tribune writers, I do not believe the paper could survive without its Belfield office. A base is important for many reasons: for writers to meet up, for people to drop in with stories, and for somewhere to go in between class.
I would hope that the university allowing the paper to continue, despite it being a thorn in their backside, is down to someone, somewhere in the university realising the important role a paper independent of students’ union or university funding can play – either that or they have just forgotten we are here!
The second sign hanging from the fencing surrounding the new student centre construction site reads: “No Access.”
I cannot help but feel if the students’ union may have been more open in their affairs the €1.4 million debt may never have accumulated.
When I began writing for the College Tribune one of my first assignments was covering the release of the then SU president Paul Lynam’s projected operating budget to SU council. As a complete newbie, I looked at the budget in shock, surprised at how much detail it lacked. The whole thing covered less than two sides of an A4 page.
I interviewed Lynam, my first ever interview, and asked was there a more detailed budget. He explained to me that the A4 sheet was only a projected budget. He said that more accurate end of year accounts are prepared. I asked for these several times. They never came.
The students’ union debt is not only a failure on the part of the SU, and some would say the university, but also the campus’s media. The Observer costs enough money and the Tribune makes enough noise, that between the two of us, we should have demanded to see full accounts at least once in the past four years – and a campaign should have been launched until they were released.
Then again, hindsight is 20/20 and things are easier said than done; particularly with UCDSU which, in my experience, has never been very open to those with opinions which radically challenge the status quo.
Karl Gill, a second year student, organised a campaign against the SU and its decision to close its print bureau and make long term staff members redundant. Karl organised the collection of several thousand signatures, enough to hold a Union General Meeting, as per the SU constitution.
Some in the SU criticised Karl for wasting Union money on holding the meeting when it failed to reach quorum. To see elected student representatives criticise a student for correctly utilising a democratic process within the union’s own constitution was disappointing – the union were not as critical of themselves last week when their own “preferendum” failed to reach quorum.
Campus papers, the College Tribune in particular, are often cited as being overly critical by some in the SU. Critics of the paper will often say it is “easier to sit on the sidelines and criticise than it is to get involved.” What these people do not realise is that by working in a college paper we are getting involved.
The media plays a fundamental role in any democracy, and I would argue in the world of student politics, particularly UCDSU which lacks an effective internal opposition and where accountability is poor (as evidenced by no SU accounts in over four years), student newspapers play an even more important role.
The new SU constitution includes a lot of measures to ensure proper accountability, increase deliberation and encourage debate – and this can only be welcomed. But these new measures will only be effective if attitudes changes with them – a student, like Karl, should never be criticised for properly utilising a process the union itself sets out.
There are some fantastically devoted people involved in the students’ union; the current president and the president-elect are only two examples. College newspapers do not try to take away from the good work done by the union – but those who lead must, and generally do, realise the importance of fair criticism. If student media does its job it puts more pressure on student representatives to do their job – there shouldn’t be a stigma attached to involvement in either. Both groups (should) have the best intentions and are what make any university great.
Writing for the College Tribune, “the College Rag,” or “there’s a paper in this university?” (as most students would ask), has been a privilege. UCD is a great place for any aspiring journalist to cut their teeth because, put simply, so much crazy stuff goes on. Whether it be trying to calculate Hugh Brady’s astronomical salary, guessing what Law Soc are going to do next or figuring out how to get a straight answer out of a up and coming politician – there is always so much going on.
Vincent Brown, the now famous (or notorious) journalist, set up this great newspaper over twenty years ago, and recently wrote of it: “The surest way of knowing whether the College Tribune was doing its job was how much the college ‘authorities’ disliked it, deemed it ‘irresponsible,’ and wanted to shut it down.
That’s the test.
Go to it.”
I hope we have.