The Union of Students in Ireland (USI) today held its Congress involving the election of the 2020-2021 Executive Team. The Union’s incumbent President, Lorna Fitzpatrick, was re-elected for the first time in a decade. USI represents the 374,000 third level students in Ireland, partnering with other organisations to help fulfil its mandate. University College Dublin (UCD) is not a member of the USI, however the outcomes of its campaigns inevitably influence all third-level students.
The Union’s Congress was held remotely, via Zoom, in line with current public health advice. Over 200 delegates voted online for the incoming Executive Team, as well as on other policies and motions.
The Executive Team, which includes five new members – Clare Austick, Adam Clarke, Ciara Kealy, Megan O’Neill and Gary Tobin – will take office on July 1st. They face an extraordinarily challenging year ahead in light of the COVID-19 health crisis.
Speaking about the effects of the current pandemic on university education, Lorna Fitzpatrick said: “Breaking the barriers to accessing education has never been so important. The need for financial support for our members is clear. The uncertainty about the new year’s format is a major concern, but the executive team will ensure we do our all to represent students.”
The ambiguity faced by both incoming and current university students in Ireland is already becoming apparent. USI this morning joined forces with national housing charity, Threshold, to warn students against committing to accommodation in the absence of clarity on the question of college attendance next term.
President Fitzpatrick expressed during the Congress that the USI’s main objective is to ensure that policy makers prioritise students in their decision making when dealing with the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis.
“We have a lot of work to do now”, she said, “Some of the hardest work is not done behind a megaphone, it is done by having conversations with people – changing the hearts and minds of parents, friends, partners and so many others.”
Reflecting on the USI’s past achievements, she acknowledged the huge importance of the Irish student movement in effecting societal change. “We don’t just reflect internally, we recognise the role we have, and we demand a better future for everyone. Education should never be the barrier, it should always be the equaliser.”
It is now more important than ever for third-level students to be given sufficient union representation. According to an unpublished report from the Higher Education Authority, it is predicted that most Leaving Cert students will defer their college places this year. Disruption to travel will also see an 80% drop in new international students to Irish universities. Such unprecedented events will inevitably cause huge financial strain to colleges, likely affecting students’ third-level experience. Giving students a voice during these exceptional times is a daunting, yet crucial, task for Lorna Fitzpatrick and the USI’s 2020-2021 Executive Team.
Blathnaid Corless – Reporter