By Sarah Doran
The year of the dragon is certainly proving a fiery one in the realm of student politics. UCD students are reeling at the news that their Students’ Union is almost €1 million in debt whilst at the University of Limerick, two sabbatical positions have been cut to ensure the Union’s financial viability is maintained. The USI has come under fire, with students across the country turning their attention toward Crumlin College of Further Education. A new constitution offering a pay rise to its officers and a third term for any potential president has stoked the flames of dissatisfaction. In Trinity College, USI affiliation has become a hot topic while in IADT, students have already gone to the polls to decide if they will cut ties with Gary Redmond and co. At home, DCU student Gill Maguire thinks the SU is helpful and inclusive. “I think that they really do care,” she says. “I feel that students wouldn't hesitate getting onto them if they had problems because they're really approachable.” However, the majority of students nationwide seem to be apathetic when it comes to student politics and participation is a major issue. In the University of Limerick, SU president Derek Daly claims a recent survey shows over 60% of students believe his Union is effective. “Irrespective of sideline issues, students value the services a Students’ Union provides,” he declares. Science graduate Mikey O’Connell and Arts graduate Katie Quinn both say that ULSU do a lot of good work but argue that only small groups of people are actually involved in the Union. Daly agrees. “We have over 5,000 students signed up to clubs and societies, but it’s likely that Union officers would know 75% of the engaged participants by name.” He’s trying to counter the problem by going out and talking to students on campus but admits that participation is still not high enough. Rosemary Gallagher, editor of NUIG’s SIN, explains that participation is also an issue in Galway. She believes that the majority of NUIG students are disinterested in their Union but also in politics in general. “When we polled students across campus in the lead up to the presidential election last October we learned that only 57% of NUIG students intended to vote, far below the national average across six campuses of 74%,” Gallagher explains. “Most students wouldn’t know what to say if asked for their opinion on the Union.” However, both she and former class rep James Field-Corbett say NUIGSU do a lot of good work for their students. Fourth year student Fay Ryan echoes their sentiments. “There’s a great service where you give them your email address and they’ll send you information about jobs around the city,” she says, “but there’s a terrible new rule coming in for the upcoming elections. Candidates aren’t allowed bribe us with food so there’ll be no more free muffins and lollipops”. UCD student Dylan Gray argues that nobody really knows anything about the Union or how it works “unless they're writing for one of the papers or they're looking to get a position within the SU”. UCD Students’ Union president Pat de Brún admits that it has been “an exceptionally difficult year with huge cutbacks and some highly controversial decisions”. However, he believes that most students “appreciate that we are taking decisive action and tackling some big issues which have been ignored in the past”. Alyson Gray is in her fourth year and says the debt is definitely the major topic of conversation on campus. “I feel like I’m constantly talking about it either with housemates or with friends in college,” Gray explains. “Everyone is shocked and most people are questioning how the SU could let something like that happen. People who never took notice are talking thanks to the scandal.” Indeed, if there’s one thing that motivates students to play politics, it’s controversy, and since January there have been three letters on most student journalists’ lips: U.S.I. Trinity College SU president Ryan Bartlett says they’re currently conducting a survey to discern how students feel about TCDSU and USI. At a debate hosted by TCD’s Philosophical Society, the audience voted for disaffiliation from USI. Whether this will be followed by a referendum on the issue is still unclear. Mollie Guidera thinks her fellow Trinity students don’t really engage with the SU unless they're class reps or friends with class reps, but says they do seem to care about getting rid of USI. “The consensus would seem to be that Trinity doesn't really need it, we haven't agreed with it for a while and we could save money and do a better job without them,” Guidera explains. Former class rep Fionnán Howard agrees. “As far as I' m concerned, USI has outlived its purpose for TCD and at the moment, it would be more appropriate if we weren't members.” In NUIG, Rosemary Gallagher suspects that most students don’t actually realise that they are members of USI or “that they are paying for this privilege. We managed to get around 1,000 students to attend the march this year but one day of student activism does not a fully-participatory union make”. She puts ignorance down to apathy but says that many of the students she has spoken to view the USI as little more than a launch pad to a political career. UCC student Brian Byrne says he’s not sure many students even understand exactly why the USI exists but adds that many do take part in the annual protests. UL is disaffiliated but it’s still surprising that some students don’t even know what USI stands for. “I don’t feel that students on the ground necessarily see what value USI has or what it can offer them that we can’t offer them here,” explains ULSU president Derek Daly. DCU’s Kim Connick has her reservations about her own SU but admits she’s happy that the college has disaffiliated from USI. Alyson Gray says the recent scandal in UCD has motivated her friends to question the issue of compulsory SU membership. “A lot of the people I know said they’d rather it was optional and, given the option, they’d opt out.” There is no provision in the Irish Universities Act that says membership of a Students’ Union is mandatory but most Irish SUs follow a compulsory model. In UCC, Brian Byrne also thinks membership should be optional. UL’s Katy Quinn agrees and says, “Some of us just want to pass through college anonymously enough”. UCDSU president Pat de Brún supports the compulsory model. “Without the backing of the full student body, the Union would not be taken seriously by the university or by government. While it’s easy to criticise a Union for what they’re not doing, it’s also relatively easy to take the vital work that does happen for granted,” he says. Mollie Guidera agrees and believes compulsory membership is the only way to ensure that all students have access to services. The debate rages on but one thing is clear: there is no consensus on the state of the Unions. With calls for accountability ringing out across campuses and the issue of disaffiliation firmly on the table, 2012 could be the year that it all goes up in smoke.