As election season barrels towards us, it’s perhaps a good time to look at the state of Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU). It has been an eventful 12 months for the union. Two of the first three Council meetings of the academic year failed to reach quorum, preventing any kind of decision making. Two weighty referenda were held, but neither reached a turnout of even 13%. Perhaps most strikingly, the union revealed that it haemorrhaged some €70,000 in the 2017/18 academic year, leading to questions and scrutiny from Council over potential mismanagement and the role of the University Times.
These facts paint a picture of a body with deep-rooted problems of both internal organisation and student engagement. At the most basic level, the union needs to be able to balance its own budget and organise Council in such a way that class reps are aware of it and able to attend. Without funds and the direction of Council, it has neither the ability nor the mandate to do any of its important work.
Indeed, mandate represents arguably the union’s biggest problem. Far more than just lacking quorum at meetings, it is unclear how much actual democratic backing any of its actions have, including those made by sabbatical officers and directed by referenda. After the Tobacco Free Trinity vote, the headline in Trinity News was that “70.6% of students vote[d] in favour” of the measure. In fact, the approximately 1,022 people who voted positively represent less than seven percent of the overall student body. At a local or national level, that would be considered farcical, and a tiny fraction of the kind of turnout needed to actually inform policy.
Sabbatical elections are no different. Last year’s turnout was lauded for increasing by a fifth in comparison to the year before, but this still represented less than a quarter of students bothering to take the two minutes necessary to vote. If TCDSU were a country, it would have the second lowest voter turnout in the entire world.
“Lip service has been paid to “unlocking the SU” and various small measures have been proposed to ensure individual officers communicate more with students.”
But the SU isn’t a country, it’s a representative organisation. This arguably puts a significantly higher onus on it to, as the name suggests, represent its members. Short of that, it has no reason to exist. The union shouldn’t stop existing, but it also has the responsibility to find some way to address this crippling engagement problem. It would be disingenuous to suggest the problem lies with students, given they don’t actually choose to be members of the union that per definition exists to serve them. The very point of having a students’ union is for it to unify students.
At the point where it continues to fail in this regard, serious questions should be asked. How can the union justify spending the amount of students’ money that it does, and in such a poorly managed way? In what way can representatives of the union, when communicating with College and the wider political world, have any claim to being the rightful representatives of Trinity students? What legitimacy does the union have in making campus policy?
To be clear, my proposal is not that we abolish the union or that it should stop trying to do any representative work. It is vital to be able to bargain collectively with College authorities, and to make our voices heard on the national stage. I just don’t think we can meaningfully do these things, or even claim with a straight face to be doing them, without a solid democratic basis to the way in which the Union is run. And the hallmark of a properly run democracy is not just that you go with whatever decision or candidate happens to get the most votes on a particular day, it’s about a more general level of representation and engagement with the population. That is something we lack right now.
“The very point of having a students’ union is for it to unify students.”
I lay no claim to having any kind of easy answer to hand for the union’s woes. But it is undeniable that those woes exist; that previous officers of the organisation categorically failed in their duties to the student body, and that a staggering majority of said student body has absolutely no interest in engaging with the union at all. And given the existence and extent of these woes, it is absolutely essential that all candidates in the upcoming election have at least some kind of plan to address them.
This is not something that has existed at previous elections. Lip service has been paid to “unlocking the SU”, and various small measures have been proposed to ensure individual officers communicate more with students. But given the problem continues to exist and has arguably gotten worse, and given the deep-rooted nature of student apathy towards the SU, it is clear these have not worked.
There will be many other issues rightly competing for attention at hustings and in manifestoes this year. The country remains in the throes of a housing crisis which disproportionately affects students, higher education is significantly underfunded, and students report serious difficulties with the rollout of the Trinity Education Project. It should go without saying that it is vital the union devote significant time and energy to these problems. But that does not represent an excuse to ignore the Union’s own internal strife. Far from it; it is more important than ever to have a body capable of adequately representing student concerns on these issues, and which has the money and organisational capacity to take action.
It seems likely that deep structural change and soul-searching will be needed to address this persistent issue. I don’t immediately have the answer, and I doubt any individual person does. But the first step is to at least acknowledge that there is something wrong, something not being done, some way in which the union hasn’t lived up to its responsibility to students before now. Only then can we begin to have any sort of conversation about how to fix it. I dearly hope this year’s candidates will do that.