Are students disengaged from students’ unions?

Image credit: Mark Carroll

Week six of semester two in DCU saw the new Students’ Union team elected. Vito Maloney Burke was elected President of DCUSU with 2,446 votes. A total of 2984 valid votes were counted for the presidential vote, a low turn out compared to 17,000 students in the whole of DCU. Only 14.4 per cent of the entire student population that voted for our new President. However, low voting numbers are a common trend across universities, because students are simply disengaged with student politics.

Perhaps some students simply don’t care. Perhaps some believe that the individuals running for certain positions aren’t capable of the job (in that case, they should vote for RON – re-open nominations). Maybe some are dissatisfied with the mere idea of an SU or have been let down in the past. Speaking to The College View last week at election and referenda results, current president Niall Behan stated that “the snow [last week] was a huge impact on the campaigns to get any actual momentum going”. Perhaps Storm Emma did have an effect on the voting turnout – Behan did after all get nearly 5,000 votes last year, an all-time high. Regardless of the weather, surely more students would have voted?

The sad reality is that students don’t appreciate SUs anymore. SUs, with the right sabbaticals, do a lot for a university as a whole – they may organise parties, but they also provide a plethora of support to those that need it. Those that don’t make use of these facilities at their time at university may perhaps take them for granted – clubs and societies are a small part of the university experience, but for a lot of students, provide excellent opportunities to focus on something other than academic study. I think that people do forget the sheer importance of an SU – a great team can work wonders, but it’s up to students to elect that team. I believe that there is definitely a need for a students’ union in every single university, regardless of direct student engagement.

The verdict is out on whether SUs are merely popularity contests, but it’s clear that students do vote on issues they are passionate about. UCD’s infamous impeachment referendum of last year saw one of the highest turnouts in polls – 20 per cent of students voted to impeach Katie Ascough. Having said that, DCU saw 11 students running for a postgraduate officer position this year, also a new high. So perhaps it’s true to say that undergraduates are the students who are disengaged. This seems realistic – normally, undergraduates are more carefree and so don’t spend much time pondering which sabbatical officer to vote for.

To engage students, I believe that the key is awareness and advocacy. Talk to students, ask them why they didn’t vote – did they not find the time, do they know how to, or did they simply not care? It is up to the SU to involve all students, both undergraduate and postgraduate, in a university. That is the only way we’re ever going to guarantee successful elections, achieve the goals set in manifestos – and most importantly, ensure happy students.

Gabija Gataveckaite

Image Credit: Mark Carroll