I’ve been keeping an eye on the debate happening in UCD over affiliation to USI for the past few days. I’m aware that referendums are happening in DCU & Maynooth as well, but UCD has particularly crossed my radar due to the arguments springing up.
Whilst I am for USI affiliation on balance, I do think that there are valid reasons for wanting to disaffiliate for USI. Mark O’Meara’s essential point in this article was that if you disagree with a group of people, why would you want to be in a Union with them? In theory, this argument is perfectly valid, although I disagree with Mark on its application in practice.
It’s a great disappointment, then, to see some of the points being raised by the “no2usi” campaign team in UCD (don’t even get me started on the textspeak).
Some are indeed relevant, but many are badly researched to the point of misinformation. Given that I have family members studying in UCD who will be directly affected by the result of this referendum, I’m going to take the opportunity to do a bit of myth busting before students go to the polls.
Myth 1: Leaving USI will allow UCDSU to focus on local issues
This is one of the more bizarre ones I’ve seen. Below is a quote from the ‘no’ team’s materials:
At the moment we need to sort out our own problems at home. We need our SU officers to make themselves into leaders in order to spur our students into action, we need our bar, library, ball, funding and welfare all secure for the future.
All absolutely important priorities for the students of UCD, I’m sure. However, leaving USI would of course have the opposite effect – all of a sudden, officers would have to deal with a local and national portfolio, doubling their workload overnight.
As TCDSU Education Officer, during Fresher’s week I worked from 9am – 3am most nights, which is fairly standard at that time of year. During the same week this year, the launch of the new TCD registration system caused chaos for students in terms of being able to get their timetables. Meanwhile, at the same time as all this was happening, several County Councils decided that it was a great idea to start (illegally) linking grant payments to whether students’ parents had paid the household charge.
USI was able to resolve the grant issue speedily and decisively, whipping up media attention immediately to put pressure on the government and force the Taoiseach to make a statement on the issue, putting it to bed before it had time to gather speed. This left TCDSU free to deal with the hundreds of calls/emails they were getting every day regarding local issues.
I can categorically state from personal experience that there is not a chance that a local SU would have been able to respond to a national issue of that magnitude without adversely impacting on their ability to deal with local issues. It’s quite simple really – there aren’t enough hours in a day or officers in an SU to deal with everything at once. Yes of course SU officers could have dropped everything to try and solve the issue – in fact, UL did get meetings with TDs – but a system where a national union can pick up the slack in the way USI did is a much better model which results in less stress for local officers and a more streamlined way of dealing with problems that arise at busy times in the year.
Myth 2: The money would be better spent on keeping the library open later
I’m going to deal with this one in 2 parts.
Firstly, it’s not clear to me whether the €120k ‘saving’ would in fact be UCDSU’s to spend. Generally speaking, when money is reserved for a particular purpose, and that purpose lapses, the money lapses with it. Apparently the ‘no’ camp have proof that the money will revert back to UCDSU. Fair enough, but there appears to be no evidence of this. Links on twitter show that it was posted to the No2USI facebook page a few days ago, but has since been removed. For what reason, I am unsure, but I would suggest to the no team that this is a pretty important point to clarify.
Anyway, let’s just assume that I’ve got it completely wrong and UCDSU will have control of an extra €120k if the ‘No’ side wins. The ‘no’ team argue that Sunday library opening hours could be brought back with this money. Hoorah, books for all!
But wait a second. Let’s go over that again. The ‘no’ team is advocating that UCDSU take money out of the core grant that they get from college, and spend it on a service that it is the job of the College to provide.
“Sure, it all comes from the same pot,” you could argue. One argument that I actually did see on Twitter was “we have to take matters into our own hands”. Let’s be very clear. This is a very bad idea and sets a bad precedent.
Firstly, it means that students will be paying for their library twice – through the student contribution charge and through the Union giving up the funds. This is an unacceptable position for a Student Union to take, because it essentially means that the pressure is off College to prioritise student services, as they know that the Union will just make up for the shortcomings. Yes, university budgets are stretched, but there is room for prioritisation there – take for example, the salaries for top level university staff. What the no side is essentially arguing is that the SU should spend student money on prioritising projects, rather than College doing its job.
Secondly, it sends a message to the College that the Union has no problem operating on the decreased budget, allowing the College to come to the conclusion that they can simply cut out the middle man and cut the core grant – after all, what’s the point in giving money to the SU if they’re going to just give it back to the college? Once this happens of course, what is there to stop the college spending the money on things other than student services – i.e. increased wages?
Myth 3: There are readily viable alternatives for events like pink training
This is particularly irritating because for me, it comes closest to blatantly misinforming students as opposed to simply being a weak argument. The no side state that
We think that USI could be replaced with a slimmed down organisation that only provided lobbying. Pink Training could be run by a pro LGBT organisation like GLEN, and training provided by pros like INVISIO, and all for cheaper than USI
Now, let’s be clear. I’m not suggesting for a minute that the ‘no’ team need to have a fully researched plan in place, ready to be executed point by point in the event of disaffiliation. However, If you make a statement to students that an alternative exists, you really should put some effort into investigating the viability of that alternative, as a failure to do so runs the risk of misinforming students.
Re: the lobbying argument, I think that Hugh Sullivan deals with this issue far better than I, so I’d encourage you to read his blog on the subject.
When I asked GLEN whether they knew that they’d been touted as an alternative provider of Pink Training, they seemed to know nothing about it. The ‘no’ team state that the policy was formed after ‘some correspondence with us and various figures within the LGBT community’ – not, you will note, organisations within the community (who, incidentally, all seem to think that USI is by far the best organisation to provide the service). Putting two and two together, it appears that the ‘no’ team spoke to a few LGBT people who reeled off a list of organisations that deal with LGBT issues. Not exactly hardcore research.
The problem with the ‘no’ team putting ‘organisations like GLEN’ on a manifesto without having actually spoken to them (GLEN or others) is that to the ordinary student it looks like organising an alternative would be a really simple thing to do. In fact, this isn’t the case. Many organisations have huge funding issues, especially in the current climate with big funders pulling out of Ireland. This is all without even mentioning the fact that many NGOs are stretched to the limit with their own campaigns/priorities etc. Without even bringing the money question into it, you’re assuming that they will all be free at the same time to organise a conference for students. Finally, perhaps the most basic oversight that the ‘no’ team have made here is that they have assumed competency in certain areas – when in fact GLEN makes it quite clear that they do not deal with issues facing ‘T’ individuals.
The assumptions made in this statement are dangerous because of their simplicity. Such a statement is clear and concise but because of this has the real potential to misinform students on the issues. The language used also indicates a flippant attitude to the value of Pink Training, and a lack of understanding of the issues that LGB, and especially T, students face.
Myth 4: The USI is undemocratic because you don’t vote individually for each candidate
This is another particularly irritating one that’s been doing the rounds, generally in the guise of “40 students voted for the USI officers last night, why didn’t you have a vote? Democracy fail!”
In fact, this is nothing to do with USI at all. Officers are elected at congress by delegates from each college, with the number of delegates that each college has depending on the number of students in the College. So UCD, as Ireland’s largest college, have more votes than, say, Trinity. A common practice for local SUs is to mandate all of their delegates to vote in the same way, in order to maximise their influence. So, for example, TCDSU might mandate all 18 of their delegates to vote for John Logue for President.
The key thing in all this is that the method of voting is decided by the local Students’ Union – i.e. UCDSU. UCDSU have clearly chosen to mandate their delegates to vote in a particular way by using representative democracy (allowing representatives to hear candidates and to cast their votes at SU Council). There is absolutely nothing barring them from doing it in another way, whether that be by simply allowing any delegate that goes to Congress to vote how they want, or whether they want to let every student in the college vote for their preferred candidate and mandate their delegates accordingly. The point is, if you have a problem with the way that USI officers are elected, your problem is with UCDSU, not USI. USI has no power over UCD to tell them how to select their candidates – the organisation works from the ground up, and USI only has the power that its members give to it. In other words, it’s not a federal system like the US.
This all means that even if there was a strong desire to elect USI officers by doing an online vote (a la last year’s preferendum), all UCDSU, or indeed any member organisation, has to do is initiate such reform using the existing structures. The fact that this hasn’t happened isn’t because USI is ignoring the membership, it’s because local unions haven’t engaged on this issue.
So, if you want to directly vote for USI and you’re not a rep, the solution is to go to your local SU and get them to change their policy on how delegates are selected. Simples.
Myth 5: Incapability of reform
This is really more of a value judgment, so I’m not going to dwell on it too much. What I would say is that to claim that the USI hasn’t made any reform in the past 15 or so years is erroneous. Historically, one of the main reforms demanded by TCD & UCD was to cut down Officer Board – USI’s executive body. The point made was that several officer positions were unnecessary, and that the money could be better spend elsewhere, by employing researchers, full time media executives and lobbyists.
Since these calls for reform, officers have in fact been cut from the officer board (Eastern Area Officer, LGBTRO) and one position has become a part time unpaid position (Irish Language Officer). As the NUS – USI President, who sits on Officer Board as a Northern Area Officer, is paid by NUS-USI, the only Officer Board positions that receive a wage from the USI are the President, Equality Officer, Welfare Officer, Campaigns Officer, 2 Area Officers (BMW & Southern), & Officer for Academic Affairs. This has enabled the USI to appoint a full time media executive, one of the promised reforms. Clearly this isn’t all the reforms that TCD & UCD wanted, but the nature of any Union is that you will have to compromise on some things for the greater good of the organisation.
In short, to say that USI is incapable of reform is a fallacy – it has reformed, and will continue to reform. The influence that UCDSU has in this growth is up to UCD.
Ultimately, whilst the USI is by no means a perfect organisation, some of the arguments raised by the ‘no’ campaign are extremely flawed. There are arguments for disaffiliation, but the fact that the ‘no’ campaign team have decided to focus on flawed and poorly researched arguments rather cheapens the debate, which is a shame for the students in UCD. Whichever way you vote, I hope that this has given UCD students food for thought, and that at least even if you disagree with the points raised, you do so based on informed arguments.
TL;DR – Whether you agree or disagree with USI, the arguments raised by the ‘no’ team are poorly researched and, in some cases, incorrect. This is why.