A recurring theme of the current UCD SU election is the ‘legitimacy crisis’ facing the Union. No doubt this is a problem, but the issue goes somewhat deeper, and is not solely an SU challenge. Student Life at the University has, for some years now, been facing a silent but accelerating engagement crisis, which is eroding the sense of Community in UCD.
This is epitomised by the mere 4% of students that registered to vote in last year’s SU elections, but is visible also in a declining interest in many Society events. We hear of disengagement, Societies struggling to find candidates for committees, we see 4 of 5 SU sabbatical positions uncontested; and overall we feel a declining buy-in to the UCD Community.
But it was not always this way, and it is at this vital corner that a proper overhaul of Student Life be undertaken. From my experience as Co-Auditor of Foodsoc, in which time we have won Society of the Year, Society Social Media Presence of the Year, and have grown our membership by over 50% to become the biggest Society in the University, I can say first hand that the demand for a vibrant Student Life has not gone away. The first step in rebuilding to fulfil this demand is identifying the causes of the engagement crisis.
The most obvious cause is the growth of external competition. Every night club has a student night, many restaurants have student deals, and, although it may be hard to imagine now from our 5kms, there is a growing array of external activities successfully attracting students. Students look for good value, high quality events that embrace the freedoms that come with adulthood, and they are finding this beyond Belfield, despite well-documented problems with night life in Ireland. Student Life in UCD is not going to beat these competitors, but it can learn from them.
‘Puritanistic’ events are patronising, and we need to trust and respect students enough to know their limits and behave responsibly. The more Student Life preaches to students the less students are inclined to listen. Society and SU events need to be about building communities, sharing interests, and having fun – helping students to build friendships and to feel welcome and heard. Not every event needs to be alcohol-free, health-focused or political: sometimes students just want to have fun!
Stagnation of this form can be a self-fulfilling prophecy: poor engagement leads to poor interest in taking up key positions. Declining engagement leads to declining resources. But Covid has broken that cycle. Never before has the student population been so keen for campus life. We have first years now who have never set foot there, and experienced students longing for the buzz and energy that should charcaterise Belfield. This year’s SU and Society leaders have a huge opportunity to rebuild engagement and must do so aggressively – big, ‘spectacle’ events need to happen early. Events that get people talking and generate a buzz are the only way to create engagement from a void. Foodsoc was facing an engagement crisis in 2019. Our Guest Restaurant Series and Domino’s Ball were what attracted people back, and it was these people that became a real community at more intimate events. High profile events let students engage in a less intimidating way.
But there is no point in a big event that nobody knows about. Student Life needs to up its game massively when it comes to promotion. On-campus promotion is hindered by arbitrary, onerous postering rules that require very early morning starts, and leads to bare notice pillars. Uptake of the events calendar is a fantastic start. Full integration to that calendar, and more prominent accessibility thereof through SISWeb is the next step. Social Media is a key tool in promotion, but is squandered by lack of structure, activity and clarity. Social Media training should be provided to Student Life actors, and centralised accounts must be developed to streamline information.
Also important is the need to move away from ‘filler’ events. Having no event is better than a bad event that will just put people off. Students give Societies and the SU a chance every year, but they won’t return if they have a dull experience.
It is encouraging to see SU candidates recognising the crisis at play, but proposals to remedy the situation need to focus on engagement, rather than the appearance of legitimacy through accountability or direct communication. Who will attend town halls if nobody is engaged with Student Life? Will coffee mornings really solve the crisis? Working with Societies is all well and good, but without student engagement what does the SU have to offer Societies?
Integrating students to the UCD Community is the role of both the SU and Societies. A lacklustre, underwhelming Student Life when we return could do irreparable damage to the social side of college and student satisfaction. A vibrant, exciting Student Life, full of spectacle and interesting events will be met with a demand that has never before been so intense. Solving the engagement crisis will solve the legitimacy crisis, and bind students into a much more influential force in UCD. Let’s not just return to Student Life, let’s embrace a more fulfilling Student Life that will make the campus we return to a hub of activity, energy, and community.
Joseph Aherne – FoodSoc Co-Auditor