The next President of University College Dublin’s (UCD) Students’ Union (SU) will be a familiar face to some. As this year’s Graduate Officer for the SU, Conor Anderson championed a reported revitalisation amongst graduates for the organisation. In February this year, the SU changed course in favour of a sort of ‘protest first-ask nicely second’, which reversed their earlier practices. The SU faced an impasse with the university on a number of issues, most notably were the controversial rent increases on campus. Anderson says one of his biggest regrets from this year was that it took so long for him to “cop on” that their tactics weren’t working, and university management weren’t playing ball with their demands.
If there’s one thing for sure, it’s that there’ll be no faffing about this year. No messing around for the SU. The new team of supposed ‘radicals’ aim to make plenty of noise at UCD, time will tell how effective their plan will be.
The Highs and Lows
Anderson remembers the SU’s “radical turn” in February as one of his highlights; also mentioning “delivering two petitions to UMT [University Management Team] while we had a protest going outside,” as a highlight for him. He remarks how this protest brought three organisations together: UCD Students’ Union, Fix Our Education UCD and Anti-Casualisation UCD. “If I had to pick a moment, that would be the highlight.”
Speaking on the toughest parts of his job as Graduate Officer, Anderson talks about the student cases he dealt with as a Union representative for students.
“Dealing with the culture of retaliation that exists at UCD,” Anderson says was tough. He explains students would come to him with serious issues, being “forced out” of programmes, “denied reasonable accommodation that they need” or being “sold on their academic progress by hostile staff. […] Every single student who came to me was afraid that they would be retaliated against, either by a supervisor, staff members or the school. All of them. 100%. Every student who came to me. Often times, the issue that the student was coming to me, […] when I dug into the student’s history, it was revealed that a semester ago or a year ago they had stood up for themselves.” He explains that students may fight their school on a number of academic issues and in “many of the cases” the student receives some sort of “retaliation” down the line.
Speaking on the SU’s change in tactics earlier this year (from pushing for institutional change on boards, to demanding for change through protest), Anderson admits: “I regret that it took so long for me to take that radical turn.” He says the team “needed that first semester to learn, to really have it hammered in how ineffective boards are, how little ability we have to implement change within the structures of the university.”
He laments how much effort the SU put into various presentations to the UMT, concluding “my regret is that it took me so long to cop on.”
Engaging the Oldies
SU engagement amongst graduates has been historically low, with Anderson being attributed with reinvigorating students this year in the Smurfit campus. When asked why these engagement levels are lower compared to the rest of UCD, he responds: “I think there is a structural issue, in that this is not the first time for graduate students in a college setting.”
“When a first year is coming into college it’s very much ‘This is new! I need to reinvent myself. I need to make a bunch of friends and join a bunch of groups’, and graduate students tend to not have that [feeling].”
Anderson also thinks the low SU engagement is impacted by the high workloads amongst graduate students. He sees students that pursue graduate studies are “often more purpose driven than undergrads.” Anderson explains, “if students are coming back for a one-year Masters in Business, they’re not there to make friends, they’re there to improve their job prospects.” He makes similar points about the workload and drive amongst PhD students, concluding that “the idea of a Students’ Union is just more appealing to undergrad students.”
Earlier this year, in an interview with The Irish Times, UCD President Andrew Deeks said that students had reacted “quite emotionally” to the recent decision to increase the cost of on-campus accommodation, following a number of protests on campus. In an internal report, outgoing SU President Joanna Siewierska encouraged next year’s team to “question the patronising and sexist undertones” of the Presidents’ comments under her leadership. She said President Deeks’ “attitude to the voice of students is tokenistic at best, and patronising and quite sexist at worst.”
In a statement to The College Tribune earlier this year, the university did not directly address Siewierska’s remarks about the President, but they did highlight the current administration’s efforts to reach gender equality at UCD and improve the representation of women on boards.
When Anderson is asked in this interview if he believes the UCD President is a sexist, he responds:
“I don’t care whether or not Deeks is sexist. I don’t care whether he’s a nice man. I don’t care whether or not Deeks is good to his kid and good to his wife and goes to church, or whatever. That’s beside the point. The comments that were made were sexist. Portraying a young, female student leader as emotional is drawing on a sexist trope. It’s drawing on a way that adult men have belittled younger women for years. […] To dismiss Joanna as emotional is to draw on sexist and misogynist tropes that exist in our society. That, I think, is unchallengeable. Were his comments sexist? Yes. Is Deeks himself a sexist? I don’t care.”
Up Next On UCDSU
Anderson sees environmentalism, accommodation and accessibility as the most pressing issues next year for the SU. “Largely, those are the strategic themes, if I wanted to speak the language of UCD management.” He believes students are passionate about environmentalism, and that many students are struggling getting affordable accommodation making this a “rallying point” for the SU’s members.
Earlier this year, the university worked with SU representatives at designing a policy to take into account the change in setting and academic pressure students faced during exam time as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The resulting practices may not have solved the issues completely, according to Anderson: “I am hoping that the no-disadvantage policy – which again is not called [that], the Covid Guidelines – are not going to be a major issue, but I have my doubts. I think they may become a major issue.”
“I don’t think it has been a silver bullet. I had my suspicions, I felt like getting it passed was a little too easy.” He says the SU have been given assurances directly from management. “There has been a lot of miscommunication around it, some of which is understandable.” He believes the university is trying to implement a “pretty drastic policy” across a number of “semi-independent schools that have academic freedom.” Anderson observes that communications with students have been difficult, with many students approaching him with questions on the policy. “I think we have not seen the end of it yet.” He says although the policy is rigid and clear, due to miscommunication between the SU, university management and students, “I think we are going to see issues.”
When asked on what he would like to be remembered for, Anderson says: “The individual student cases that I have taken on, I would like to be remembered for really fighting as hard as I could in each one to get the outcome that they deserved.”
He wants to be remembered for his work on giving grants to PhD students during his time as Graduate Officer. Incoming Graduate Officer Carla Gummerson has promised to increase the number of recipients of this €100 grant.
When questioned on what he wants to achieve as President, he takes a moment to think his answer through. “I really just want to be a worthy successor to Joanna,” Anderson finally says, “I think she is a very hardworking person, she did a fantastic job.”
Anderson would like to see a reverse of the recent on-campus rent increases. He says affordable accommodation should be “on the table” for the next phase of the Residences Masterplan. He wants to see “a change in UCD’s attitude towards international students,” explaining that they are not a “revenue stream” that will keep the university running.
“My great hope coming out of COVID-19, is that it will demonstrate how unsustainable and unfair it is for UCD to focus so much of its energy on getting international students in to pay exorbitant fees to fund the institution.”
Conor Anderson took over as President and CEO of UCD Students’ Union earlier this month and is joined by five other full-time Officers elected to lead the SU next year.