This article is an opinion-based piece and has been written by Trinity student, László Molnarfí. The College Tribune does not condone the views stated in this article in the interest of objective journalism. If you wish to respond to this article for debate on the topic of UCD rejoining USI, please email your piece to Co-Editors Manny Choudhry and Conor Paterson at [email protected]
The USI (Union of Students Ireland) is a bureaucratic, toxic and weak organisation. It is entirely out of touch with the student body. Recently, I brought to light a series of incidents that took place at USI meetings on Twitter, which received much attention. Such events are not one-off, and indeed I would argue that the whole system is broken, and in need of serious reform before UCDSU re-affiliates.
The toxic culture at USI arises not merely from individuals but is a deeply-rooted systemic issue. It comes from a dysfunctional bureaucracy and a fundamentally exclusionary ideological stance. The idea that our national student union should deliver change for the students in committees but not with the students on the streets has led to a model of engagement which does not seek the input of the ordinary student. Our national union, the USI, is the clique of a select few who do not listen to their constituents, and for whom little to no accountability structures exist. Inviting the masses of students into this club, making it much more representative, would mean that well-established networks of power are disturbed and ways of making change are uprooted. It is this way of thinking that results in abuse and harassment being hurled at anyone with a critical eye.
This is based on my experience running campaigns as a grassroots activist but also having attended Congress and two National Councils.
Attending Congress as a delegate of the TCDSU, I was shocked at how the organisation was run. The event felt like a mix between a support group, public speaking competition and a circle jerk, where bureaucracy but also social norms made sure that no broader ideological questions could be posed. The lack of a mass basis, democratic deficit and the increasing co-optation by the government are all perfectly valid issues of our national union, a classic example being how they are trying to work with the state on the new HEA Bill 2022 by making amendments in select committees, rather than opposing it on the ideological grounds that it will lead to a government takeover of academia, or indeed their timid plea of asking Minister Harris over tea to implement adequate mitigation measures at the time while grassroots activist were running the 5000-strong #noinpersonexams campaign. Yet, procedural motions sought to block such debates. Out of 30 questions when it came to officer reports, 29 were thanking members of the executive, and only one was an actual question. The message is clear. Do not upset the apple cart. If you do, there will be personal and professional consequences. Those with a critical eye are glared at, or signed at, made faces at and bureaucratic procedures are used to make it difficult to hold the USI accountable.
On the 17th of June 2022, I attended the National Council, where I attempted to raise issues concerning the HEA Bill 2022, which is a state takeover of academia. In essence, I was proposing a stronger and more public opposition to this bill. Rather than having a principled debate, myself and other delegates were met with the utmost toxicity. I was not allowed to speak at times, and when I did, I was told that I was being disrespectful to the work of the executive. There was also an intervention by a member of the executive espousing xenophobic sentiments relating to Hungary, my home country, and another intervention later on that made one of the delegates present cry to which they were offered no support. It seems that democratic debate is only acceptable insofar as it does not challenge those in charge of the USI. For all the union talks about student engagement, it is clear that students are not welcome to share their thoughts freely. I would never wish it upon any student what we experienced there. It is no wonder that students do not engage with our national union – it is clique-y, toxic and bureaucratic. Rather than answering and engaging with students, they shut us down. Some delegates walked out in the middle of the meeting as well, due to this atmosphere.
Singling out individual students from a position of power, and hurling abusive comments and creating an atmosphere where bullying is accepted, is undemocratic and contrary to the aims of the USI. As a Hungarian student, I felt very uncomfortable, misrepresented and humiliated by the behaviour of the USI executive. I am what the USI call “an ordinary student”, and I attend these meetings so that I can engage in the decision-making processes of my national union. I did not feel welcome. This behaviour seems to suggest that there are a few people who are in the ‘know’ and should be leading discussions, whereas I, as an ‘outsider’ should not interfere.
At a time when mental health services are under enormous strain nationally, and when we are already facing a mental health crisis, the USI executive should take care about the effects that their behaviour has on students. Appointments for counselling are not readily available in our universities. There is a stated need of 28 million euros for mental health supports, in response to which the government only gave 5 million euros. Demand for Trinity College Dublin’s counselling services, for example, grew massively during the academic year 2021–22, with more than 2,500 students using the services between July and 23 March. Students experienced wait times of months, leading them to protest for more funding, in an attempt to alleviate the crisis.
The utter disdain for the voices of everyday students has left me disenchanted and leaning more towards #Trexit. UCDSU left in 2013, after the USI failed to implement reforms they asked for, an example we may be better off following. I wonder now how much better those 90,000 or so euros at the TCDSU could be spent, such as on paying our part-time officer or running more and stronger campaigns locally and nationally, as currently that is the amount we are paying to the USI for little to no value for money. All unions should re-evauluate their affiliaton to the USI, and at least demand universal suffrage for elections to the USI executive in order to usher in a culture of mass democracy and proper accountability. I think the USI is salvageable with a lot of struggle against the current culture and through running radical candidates, but then again, I would never want to put any student through the toxicity that we experience at each USI meeting.
There are also elements of careerism, with the famous USI to public office pipeline, which establish power structures that are resistant to change. What strikes me the most, however, is that when reading articles from 2013, at the time of UCDSU’s disaffiliation, the experience is exactly the same. It seems to be, literally, an organisation incapable of change. I still maintain that the root of these issues stems in large part from their co-optation into the government. They are extremely malleable to Minister Harris’ office. This poses a chronic issue for engagement.
This is reflected in their communications, which has seen a change to facing the government rather than facing the student body. Their protests look more like photo-ops rather than any real affinity with political action. For supposedly representing the 374,000 students of Ireland, they can barely mobilise ~300 like for the F*ck the Fees protests, and sometimes just send a person with a flag down, like at Trinity’s protest against the closure of the Science Gallery. Meanwhile, their social media is full of cooperative partnerships like NsTep, photoshoots with Minister Harris, corporate initiatives like StudentSurvey.ie. It is boring, sterile and professionalised, lacking the feisty characteristic of a real student movement, depoliticized and unable to challenge our right-wing government publicly.
From May 9th to June 12th, they had 100k impressions on Twitter, with a follower count of 18k. They had a total engagement rate of 2%, putting them at around 2,200 engagements. In comparison, I have a mere 800 followers, in that same time period, I had 45k impressions with an engagement rate of 7% which puts me at around 3,200 impressions. This is simply put, a joke, especially considering that my content is 95% political. The USI is so out of touch with their communication that even an individual political student activist can have a better engagement rate than them, and this, to me, is unacceptable. While student unions across the country are already facing the crisis of low engagement, UCDSU re-joining the USI in its current form would stretch our resources, deplete our finances and subject our student delegates to a dysfunctional organisation.
László Molnarfí – Contributor