Today, some of you might have noticed that Young Fine Gael announced the motions that are going to be discussed at their upcoming Summer School. It’s worth pointing out for those of you who don’t know what a ‘Summer School’ actually is (myself included) that these motions can form policy of YFG, who will then lobby Senators and TDs, table motions at the Fine Gael Ard Fheis and run public campaigns as they see fit in order to act on the motions that pass.
For this reason, it was of particular concern to see that this group of young people – who, lest we forget, do not have a representative mandate from their student peers – table a motion that threatens to have such a negative impact on their fellow students.
Disclosure: From the outset, I should note that I was TCDSU Education Officer 2011/12, and my general opinion of USI as an organisation is that whilst it is flawed in some respects and I disagree with it’s stance on third level funding, it is probably in the best interests of students to be members.
I was thoroughly astonished to see that in an era of crisis in third level education, this was the motion that YFG members felt was most important to address. I’ll try to explain why in the rest of this blog post. Herewithin, I will address the separate issues of:
- The motion in question and the history of voluntary student unionism
- How membership works (locally and nationally)
- The impact on individual students
- The impact on campus and the general student populace
- The impact on Union advocacy
The motion in question and a brief foray into the history of Voluntary Student Unionism
For the sake of clarity, lets take another look at the exact wording of the motion:
YFG believes that the Universities Act 1997 should be amended so that membership of a Student Union or the USI is not mandatory for third-level students.
Not surprisingly, YFG isn’t reinventing the wheel here. Voluntary student unionism (VSU) has become an active concept in Australia and, more recently in New Zealand, and it is presumably these developments from which the text of the motion and the proposition to amend the Universities Act derived, given that this was the form in which VSU came into operation overseas.
The concept of VSU is closely tied in with that of Freedom of Association. Indeed, it is this phrase that adorns the short title of the act that was passed in New Zealand in 2011. Those in favour of the concept generally argue that one should not be forced to become a member of an organisation unless one explicitly chooses to do so. Historically, the argument has tended to arise where Students’ Unions have taken extreme (for the time) stances on political issues such as LGBT rights, which, it is argued, don’t represent the views of certain individuals. Why then – the individual argues – should they have to subsidise a student government that holds contrary opinions to their own when they did not opt into the membership of such an organisation in the first place?
One might, in the debating chamber or the internet forum, argue that such an argument has merit. However, unfortunately, we are not living in a political vacuum. The plain truth of the matter is that this proposal, were it to be accepted, would be hugely detrimental to the lives of hundreds of thousands of students across the country. But before we go into the reasons behind that, let’s just remind ourselves of how membership of these local and national student organisations works.
How membership works (locally and nationally)
Membership of a local Students’ Union
When I speak of a ‘local Students’ Union’, I mean the Students’ Union of the College that a particular student goes to, e.g. the local SU of a student of Trinity College Dublin would be TCDSU. I should note that I am speaking here from my experience as a TCDSU officer, and there may be slight variations across the country, so if this is unapplicable to a particular SU, it might be helpful to note this in the comments.
A student becomes a member of the Students’ Union when they pay their Student Contribution Charge. This charge is collected by the College to pay for numerous services and administrative processes, but a small proportion also goes to pay for student run bodies, such as a Students’ Union, Societies Committee/Guild, Athletic/Sporting organisations and Publications (although in some cases many of these aren’t separate bodies but organised by the SU).
The situation in Trinity College, and in many other colleges, is that a committee of all capitated bodies (Students’ Union, Graduate Students’ Union, Central Societies Committee, DUCAC, Publications) is set up to oversee the distribution of this funding.
An interesting aside to this debate is given the arrangement described above and the wording of the motion, students would still be making massive contributions to independent societies committees, sports organisations and publications who oversee societies that they have to pay an additional membership for, sports clubs that they’re not members of and newspapers and magazines that they don’t read. All of which are run by executives who are generally not elected by the entire student population and as such are less accountable. For this writer it’s difficult to see why the SU is singled out (the cynic inside me would be amused at the fact that as political parties are considered as societies, all political societies in colleges would remain subsidised by all students who disagreed with their politics and had not elected their leaders, but we’ll move on)
Membership of a national Students’ Union
An interesting feature of the motion that YFG have proposed is that it refers to the Union of Students’ in Ireland by name. Thus, if those not affiliated to USI were to form an organisation, it wouldn’t come under this motion. But lets not get lost in pedantries.
Membership of USI is not compulsory for any student in Ireland. A student becomes a member of USI when a referendum is taken of the student body to ask if they would like the College Treasurer/Chief Financial Officer to impose a membership levy for USI.
Once such a membership levy has been passed, this does not preclude the passing of a referendum abolishing such a charge and thus disaffiliating from USI. Indeed, both DCU and the University of Limerick are not affiliated to the organisation. If the student body wished, they could even impose that such a practice took place regularly, as occurs in University College Cork, where a referendum takes place every three years to determine the question of whether a student wishes to be afilliated to USI.
Thus, it is submitted that a question of amending an Act to make membership of a national organisation non compulsory is redundant, due to the fact that membership of such an organisation is non compulsory as it stands. If students wanted to have a referendum every year on USI membership, they could do so under the current situation.
In truth, the more far reaching implications of this motion apply to the potential application of VSU in relation to local Students’ Unions. I will now discuss why this should be avoided at all costs.
The impact on the individual student
Let’s be frank. Many students pass through the gates of their institution and have little to no dealings with a Students’ Union. Yes, they know that it exists, and yes, they use it’s shops, bars, other commercial outlets, relevant discounts, go on it’s nights out, attend the balls that it organises either college wide or in faculties, attend parties organised by the class rep, benefit from the work of class reps when dealing with class essay extensions… etc. etc. (again, I’ll ignore pedantries).
But they don’t go to SU Council, they don’t run for class rep and they’ve certainly never set foot in the Student Union offices. And you know what? That’s fine. If you can get through college and out the other side relatively intact and never have to contact anyone for help, more power to you.
But what happens if something goes wrong?
What happens if you fail an exam? What happens if pressures at home send you into a spiral of depression? What happens if you’re best mate commits suicide, or if for a million and one other reasons you suddenly find yourself in trouble and you don’t know who to talk to?
The one thing that all of these issues have in common is that nobody expects they will happen to them. When you walk into College as a Fresher, why would you spend a minute to think about the fact that there might be a problem down the line? You’ve got far more important things to worry about.
The simple fact of the matter is that if membership of a Student Union were to become voluntary, very few people would pay the fee for its use – not necessarily because they don’t agree with it, or because they will never use it, but because they simply don’t think that they will ever have the need for its use. We all think we’re invincible at 18. These things happen to other people, not us.
I had plenty of students contacting me directly this year who in their four years of college had never had to contact someone (SU or College) for help, but were suddenly finding themselves in desperate situations. What would have happened if I’d had to look them up on a membership system, find out that they hadn’t bothered registering in first year as they had never thought they’d need to contact anyone, and then simply turned them away due to a lack of resources to help?
One can argue that the College should pick up the strain. Again, in theory this is true but College services, as many students reading this piece will know all too well, have limited opening hours. This year, at around 6pm on a cold night in December, several students started hammering on the door of our Welfare Officer – they had reason to believe that their friend was about to commit suicide. Luckily, the system sprang into action and whilst the Welfare Officer called the Gardai and went directly to the residence of the student in question, I myself took the friends into my office, stayed with them until approximately 10pm to calm them down and managed to contact their departments to grant them extensions on their essays and projects that were due in the following week. I would ask those attending the YFG summer school – do you honestly think that in an era of limited resources that a College can provide that level of service for the same amount of money that a Students’ Union can provide?
The plain and simple fact is that the individual student will feel the impact of this when it is far too late do anything about it.
The impact on campus and on the general student populace
It is not just in the areas of pastoral care and casework that students will be disadvantaged were this motion to be passed. Students’ Unions provide many cost effective services to students that would be decimated if VSU were to occur. An example in point is the Accomodation Advisory Service provided by TCDSU. This was originally a college service – however, it was run poorly and inefficiently, resulting in the Students’ Union offering to take control of the service for a fraction of the cost. Now this service is used by hundreds of students, and is an invaluable centre for advice not only on accommodation issues but general student living in Dublin – a huge advantage for international students.
Not only do Students’ Unions provide valuable services, they are also inevitably behind the creation of new initiatives by College services – an example in point would be the lobbying for the introduction of internship schemes by the current President of TCDSU, preceded by the initiative under my own office of an Internship Fair provided by the Careers Office that saw 500 attendees in just 2 hours. This is not to mention the aforementioned shops, bars, nights out, etc, and of course the fact that generally the SU has the ability where College does not to respond quickly to particular needs of students (e.g. the provision of food hampers by TCDSU this year when it became apparent that many students were struggling to afford food).
The fact of the matter is that when Students’ Unions are well resourced, they can have a significant impact on campus for all students.
Were VSU to come into effect, the SU’s ability to provide services for their members would be unalterably compromised. Instead of focusing on providing the best services possible to their members, and lobbying College to do the same, the SU would have to focus on membership recruitment drives. Such an action is well outside the remit of what an SU should be doing, but it would be necessary in order to maintain the ability to provide even the most basic of services to their members. This is of course not to mention the fact that such a membership drive would be increasingly difficult in the current economic climate, and that one would have to contend with the fact that many students don’t even know what a Students’ Union is when they first start college!
In Australia, 72% of student organisations had total or near total cuts to services, campaigns and student support programmes following the introduction of VSU. I’ll let that figure speak for itself.
The impact on Union advocacy
Of course, a Students’ Union is not just a service provider. Were this to be the case, it would be more economical and sensible to simply hire people as opposed to electing them. The SU plays an important role in advocating for students at College level and at the national level.
If student membership were to be voluntary, we have already seen that the membership of organisation would decrease dramatically due to the fact that students don’t always see the long term benefits of belonging to an organisation that provides pastoral care (I would include my first year self in that category!) and the lack of familiarity with such organisations.
If this were the case, you can guarantee that the ability of SU officers to argue for students and represent their views at College Committee level would be severely compromised. Students’ Unions are generally the only recognised representative body in a college. Rightly so – they are the only ones directly elected by the entire college membership. The Universities Act guarantees that students will be represented at governing bodies, and in practice this has led to students being present on most major committees in college.
As someone who has sat on a huge number of these committees, I’ll let you in on a secret. College really respects the views of students. Whilst we don’t win all of our battles, when we speak up we are listened to and invariably we are able to influence policy in some shape or form. This may take weeks, or it may take years, but the fact that we are elected by a large number of students is respected by college officers. Two recent examples in Trinity of such results was the ability to split the student contribution into two installments (Trinity had refused to follow government recommendations in this regard) and the installation of self check out desks in the library in response to the cutting of opening hours. These are simple, tangible solutions that were achieved through the result of persistent lobbying. If the membership of the SU were to be decimated, I would ask members attending the YFG summer school – how easy do you think it would be for an SU to achieve results on behalf of its members?
This is to say nothing about national advocacy. The most successful lobbyists are those who have the biggest pulling power behind them – and for politicians, pulling power means votes. If an organisation representing a pitiful number of students were to contact a politician or even the media, they would be sent to the bottom of the pile. You could argue that an SU could increase their impact by running a voter registration campaign – but where are they going to get the money to do that?
I’m aware that I’ve set out a fairly lengthy response to a fairly obscure issue. Fair play to those of you who have read through it all. For those of you who have skipped parts, that’s fair enough too.
I’ll finish with this. Students should be hugely concerned when an unelected organisation seeks to interfere with the ability of elected individuals to provide vital services to often vulnerable members of society. I would respectfully ask the attendees of the YFG summer school to vote against this motion.
I sincerely hope that this is a damp squib of an issue that will burn out when people realise the impact it could have on them, their siblings and their friends. If not, I would urge those in a position to do so to cry out against measures such as these every taking hold in Ireland.