“This year’s team of officers has been working extremely hard, and I’ve no doubt they will continue do everything they can to serve the College community in the coming months. But they could be doing so much more, if only they were let.”
The Trinity Students’ Union is broken. This is not the fault of this year’s sabbatical officers or class reps, or anyone doing wonderful work on the organisation’s behalf, but it is something inherent and something that needs to be rectified as soon as possible – because as long as the SU continues to be structured in the way it is, the wonderful work done by all these people is at least partially going to waste and a massive disservice being done to the student body.
The SU provides three really wonderful main services: advocacy, the welfare office, and a newspaper. It’s a collective bargaining organisation for students that enables us to negotiate properly with College authorities on contentious issues, and to lobby as a collective on issues in Irish politics that are of interest to students. The welfare office provides sexual health information, sensible drug education, loans and counselling to students, free of charge. Finally, the SU offers a second student-run newspaper, separate to this one.
These are things we need now and will always need. However, operating these three organisations as one, inexorably tying it to College administration and making membership compulsory is ludicrous – and yet, this is the system we have.
“No such union can possibly claim to be able to keep the administration in check when it relies on said administration to force every new student to join it, and to collect its mandatory yearly dues.”
First and foremost, the nature of the SU means its primary purpose – advocacy to College authorities and the Irish political sphere in general on behalf of students – is effectively impossible to fulfil. It is inexorably tied to the College administration in a way that represents a colossal conflict of interest.
While Trinity should absolutely facilitate a Student’s Union by providing it with facilities and consulting it on important matters and so forth, no such union can possibly claim to be able to keep the administration in check when it relies on said administration to force every new student to join it, and to collect its mandatory yearly dues.
With mandatory membership, and with the Union filling roles that College health services really should, it increasingly looks more like an arm of the university than anything else. While it seems quite unlikely to happen anytime soon (failing a return to the tire-burning student activism of the ’60s), the College could in theory put an immediate end to any serious dispute by evicting the SU from House 6 and completely cutting off its budget.
On top of that, the fact that membership is mandatory simply sweeps the legs out from under any stance the SU takes. How can it claim to be speaking on behalf of the student body as a whole when the turnout at its last election was less than 24%? If only interested students joined, the participation rate within the organisation would be astronomically higher, and there might be some actual weight to the Union’s lobbying. As it stands, however, any claim that it represents the student body as a whole is either gross misinformation or a barefaced lie.
One voice for all the students of the College is a wonderful idea on paper, but in practice there are 16,000+ students with many diverse points of view. It is morally dubious to speak for students who never gave permission to be spoken for, didn’t vote on the stance in question or the officers communicating it, and may well disagree with what is being said. In the case of most political lobby and advocacy groups, if they cease to represent your interests at any point you can simply leave, but with the SU you’ve no choice but to continue being spoken for.
Personally I have happened to agree, in the past, with most positions the SU has taken, but this is untrue for many within the student body and may not continue to be true for me and others. Though I might strongly disagree with someone who takes a pro-life stance, for instance, I fail to see why the SU should, supposedly on their behalf, be organising a pro-choice lobby group. This work should still be done, but there’s no need to include people who don’t want to be included.
“[…]it is unclear why the position of Welfare Officer is best served by an elected official rather than by a trained specialist whose year-on-year job is specifically that of said position.”
Secondly, the welfare office is hamstrung in the execution of its important duty by its ties to the SU. As I said, I think such an office is vital for the health and wellbeing of students and wouldn’t think to question the quality of the work that it does under the status quo. However, it is unnecessary to have it tied to a political organisation, and it is unclear why the position of Welfare Officer is best served by an elected official rather than by a trained specialist whose year-on-year job is specifically that of said position.
Something connected to College health services but with the mandate of the welfare office would be capable of filling the role much more effectively. Failing that, even a student-run organisation, in many ways the same as the existing welfare office, only not tied to any kind of political advocacy would be preferable. Though the SU has thankfully in recent years taken very enlightened positions on such issues as sexuality, gender identity and mental health, there is no reason why a less open-minded student body couldn’t have pushed it in a much less favourable direction (or won’t in future).
If such a thing were to occur, it would at the very least cause massive internal tension within the Union, making it hard for the welfare office to do its good work, or worse still potentially change the office’s mandate so it would be less open to helping some of the most marginalised within the College community.
“That report was never published by the SU, nor were any of its recommendations adopted by the board of trustees, which hints at the second problem with UT: its close ties to the rest of the Union.”
Finally, while the need for at least two student news organisations on campus is vital, the idea that either of these positions should be filled by a publication with a College-paid, SU-elected editor is ridiculous. It might seem democratic to have the student body select the head of as influential an institution as the University Times, but the fact that each successive editor is groomed in advance (to the point that they often run unopposed) negates any possible benefit.
Furthermore, granting this editor supreme power to appoint staff and fire them means accountability is a pipe dream. There is no mechanism for impeachment, save a vote from these very same staff members. Dissenting voices can either be removed or pressured into leaving themselves, and are unlikely to appear in the first place by virtue of the editor having recruited the whole staff. But don’t take my word for it – the damning report leaked last summer about the culture within UT confirms all of this. That report was never published by the SU, nor were any of its recommendations adopted by the board of trustees, which hints at the second problem with UT: its close ties to the rest of the Union.
The editor of the University Times is a sabbatical officer of the Students’ Union. They’re elected in the same elections, they receive the same benefits and operate a department that in most ways is functionally the same as the rest of the Union. It’s easy to see how this would cause problems and conflicts of interest in reporting on the Union’s activities. If the paper were to be critical of a policy, or to report unfavourably on the campaign of a candidate who ended up being elected to the SU, this would put the paper’s staff and the relevant officer in a rather uncomfortable situation, given that they then have to work together.
In the most extreme cases, the UT/SU relationship suffers from the same problem as the SU/College one: the SU could limit or cut off the paper’s budget. Given these close personal and organisational ties, the staff of UT have huge incentives to be less critical of the Union than a more independent organisation would be. Like a national government, the SU needs to be constantly scrutinised to ensure it is upholding its duty to its members — but there is a reason that we’re suspicious of news organisations operated by governments.
Union should admit need for reform
“It needs to distance itself from the College authorities to whom it represents us, and fund itself independently.”
Addressing these issues needs to be at the top of the SU mandate. Advocating for more student spaces on campus, and lobbying the government against the introduction of fees and loans are extremely important things, and things the Union should be spending time and effort on – but first it’s time for the Union to stand up and admit that it needs reform, and lots of it.
It needs to distance itself from the College authorities to whom it represents us, and fund itself independently. It needs to separate into at least three individual organisations, each capable of fully carrying out their duty to the student body. And it needs to admit, to itself and to us all, that it’s not able to represent everyone on campus and probably shouldn’t be trying to – and therefore immediately cease its policy of mandatory membership.
This year’s team of officers has been working extremely hard, and I’ve no doubt they will continue do everything they can to serve the College community in the coming months. But they could be doing so much more, if only they were let.