Calm before the storm: USI Congress kicks off in Clare

Kevin Donoghue, USI President, opens the USI Congress. Credit: Catherine Devine

Repeal the 8th Amendment, student accommodation and the Back to Education Allowance (BETA) reform were all on the agenda for the USI National Congress 2016 day one.

USI member universities from across the country gathered their delegations in Treacys West County Conference & Leisure Hotel in Clare this morning for the annual congress. A series of strategic working groups assumed during the day in which those present had the opportunity to tweak the motions that will go before congress throughout the week.

The USI’s approach to Repealing the 8th Amendment is very similar to their same-sex marriage campaign, according to Annie Hoey, USI Vice President for Equality and Citizenship. The USI will hold another large-scale social media campaign to engage and inform students on the issue. Delegates also called for the USI to seek a seat in any conversation about the 8th Amendment, whether it be with political parties or interest groups on a national level.

Accommodation was another big issue debated by the delegates as students continue to struggle with the housing crisis.

Katie Quinlan, Welfare Officer at UCC, raised the issue of universities disciplining students who live in private accommodation. Quinlan said that UCC students have to sign a code of conduct, which they are later held up to if disturbances arise in private accommodation. Aoife Ni Shuilleabhain, USI Vice President for Welfare candidate, said that the “universities are holding themselves as Gardai”. The issue was added to the USI mandate on accommodation.

The delegates also proposed that the USI establish a licensing agreement with landlords, to control rent levels and regulate digs. Quinlan said that she had students come to her who have paid thousands of euro up front to landlords in digs and then had to live in poor conditions for the rest of the year. “One student paid €5,000 at the start of the year and was served hard pasta with cold passata. They’ve no protection,” she said.

The USI also aim to work with Threshold and PRTB to combat the student housing crisis and offer more protection to students.

DCU Welfare Officer, Domhnaill Harkin, suggested offering tax incentives for developers to build student accommodation. Development tax breaks are already offered but Harkin suggested that it be implemented directly for student accommodation.

Dan Waugh, USI Vice President for Campaigns at one of the working groups earlier today. (Credit: Catherine Devine)
Dan Waugh, USI Vice President for Campaigns at one of the working groups earlier today. (Credit: Catherine Devine)

The Back to Education Allowance (BTEA) reform proposals focus on the administration aspect of the allowance. “The USI shall lobby the Department of Social Protection for the reform of administration of the Back to Education Allowance on the basis of the following experiential recommendations” the reform proposal reads.

Students’ Union sabbats in attendance agreed that the current system for processing applications is defunct. The system was likened to the SUSI grant system when it was first enacted. Cases of applications going missing were raised and electronically filing documentation was recommended to prevent this. An online application system is being proposed.

The USI is also proposing the introduction of a consistent, systematic process for granting the BTEA across the country. A checklist of sorts was suggested so that social welfare officers nationally, are trained in managing the casework.

The strategic working group for the BTEA concluded that there must be a central listing created by the social welfare system of the people who are in recipient of this payment. The listing should be available to other fee awarding agencies such as SUSI as to avoid the circumstance where a student is awarded two payments as subsequently has to repay one.

A helpline for students applying for this allowance was suggested.

Delegates also focused on Union Development and asked for SU’s across the country to share goals and strategies so that achievements can be mirrored. The delegates called for equality across SU’s and asked the USI to help SU’s reach their full potential.

At the end of the working groups, Kevin Donoghue, USI President, officially opened the start of the Congress and urged students to voice their opinions throughout the week.

Day one was concluded with a hustings for new USI positions with voting taking place early tomorrow.

Until then, it’s to the bar where students are surely to liven up after a hard day’s work.

By Catherine Devine and Katie O’Neill

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