No power in this union

The misinformation and low turnout surrounding the SU referendum is emblematic of deeper problems within the union

The recent so-called “omnibus” student union referendum was significantly more complex than was presented to us. Originally branded as a vote to fix typos within the constitution – though it remains viscerally unclear why the union’s constitution ever had so many – it became clear that of the seventy-seven changes, many existed notably beyond the domain of copyediting. 

From the voting rights of the Graduate Students’ Union president to the size of the Electoral Commission, there were many proposed changes, none of which were originally presented to students in any meaningful way. Both these amendments, among some others, make small but important changes to the process of decision making within Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU). Regardless of where you stand on the referendum, how the SU makes its decisions is relevant to every student in Trinity. 

One of those changes was altering the criteria for becoming an Officer for Students with Disabilities. Under the proposed change, a candidate must personally identify as being a student with a disability. Previously, any member of the union could hold that position. This is an admirable and important change; why it was folded into a referendum apparently only about typos and “inconsistencies” in the first place is quite unclear. 

Given the complete lack of attention being brought to the referendum, it would be reasonable for a student to have opened their weekly email, read that this was exclusively about typos, and take that as fact. The precedent of our representative body being allowed to mislead us without significant pushback is not one we should be comfortable with setting. The SU has put us in the uncomfortable position where the most reasonable thing to do is assume they are not telling the truth. This is unbecoming of a body ostensibly at our service.  

The SU did apologise for the mistake, but the mindset which prompted it is telling: there are students who are involved, and there are students who aren’t. If you fall into the latter category, you don’t need to worry about the details of our silly little referendum.”

This isn’t the fault of any particular member of the SU, but it is emblematic of a deeper issue with the body’s opinion on the people it supposedly represents. The SU did apologise for the mistake, but the mindset which prompted it is telling: there are students who are involved, and there are students who aren’t. If you fall into the latter category, you don’t need to worry about the details of our silly little referendum. 

For all of the SU’s capitulating about the importance of student engagement, it remains unclear why informing students about the capacity they have to make change remains an afterthought. Sticking the details of a referendum which changes voting procedures – affecting the way student issues are decided upon – in a spreadsheet on the weekly email simply is not good enough. If the SU wants its population engaged, it should begin by providing them with correct information and making an active effort to engage students in their decision making process. 

The decisions the SU makes can significantly affect the lives of students, and yet year after year, the turnout in both elections and referenda is notably poor. This cannot be blamed on anyone but the SU itself. With the move to online voting, this is the easiest year to vote in Union referenda to date — all you had to do was log onto your Trinity email and click a box. Despite this, only 652 people voted. This number should be deeply embarrassing to the SU. It represents just under four percent of the 17,000 voices in Trinity; 17,000 voices whose student contributions pay for their existence. The way to increase turnout isn’t through sending more emails, it is to fulfil the mandate of the SU: to represent the students of Trinity. It is naive and arrogant to expect students to magically become engaged in a representative body when they have been given absolutely no reason that they are being represented. 

“There is power in a union. This body has the capacity to be a colossal representative of every student in Trinity, and could be a significant political force if it wanted to be.”

Importantly, there is power in a union. This body has the capacity to be a colossal representative for every student in Trinity, and could be a significant political force if it wanted to be. An entire student body united in one organisation is a powerful thing. This lack of engagement is actively limiting the SU’s capacity to make effective change. How can they be expected to be taken seriously by College when it appears that they are only representing 652 students? The more important question is, why is the SU not even trying?  

In March, it was clear that the majority of students believed a No Detriment policy was vital to a fair university experience. The SU could have properly lobbied for this, making it clear that they would under no circumstances accept anything but that policy. But instead, they asked College nicely, and when College declined, they did absolutely nothing. How can the SU expect proper engagement in its referenda if it refuses to take seriously the demands of students? 

“The student union made it clear that they aren’t interested in the voices of students, and that they don’t view us as important enough to make our own decisions about how that union operates.”

The misinformation surrounding the typo referendum is incredibly relevant to this. I don’t doubt that their apology was sincere. I’m sure it genuinely didn’t occur to them that students would want to know about the vote. But that idea is deeply telling. Our union made it clear that they aren’t interested in the voices of students and that they don’t view us as important enough to make our own decisions about how that union operates. TCDSU has a duty to take the people they represent seriously. They have failed in that duty. We must demand more from an organisation with so much potential. Until their mandate to represent all students is fulfilled, they will not see the engagement they claim to want from us.