Sunday Longread: Student union engagement is facing a crisis, the UCD election results only prove that

The RON campaign against UCD candidates is a symptom of poor nationwide SU engagement

On April 1, four out of five officer races for the University College Dublin Students’ Union (UCDSU) elections resulted in a vote to re-open nominations. Amongst a backdrop of misinformation and gossip pages, these results represent more than the work of an attempted unanimous RON campaign but rather a growing issue of poor SU engagement on a national level. 

But what do I mean by an attempted unanimous RON campaign? Well, on March 24, an anonymous student-run account UCD Confessions (@UCDconfessions) uploaded the first of two posts that would ultimately destroy the upcoming UCDSU elections. Declaring that “an election with one person running for each role is unacceptable”, the post outlined that the owner of the confessions account would be voting to re-open nominations and that other students should too.

“The UCD Confessions admin launched a RON campaign to ensure that UCD students were ‘ACTUALLY represented this year'”

Citing that they had read “100s of confessions about it” and spoken with “some friends that are auditors of the biggest societies and even former SU members”, the UCD Confessions admin launched a RON campaign to ensure that UCD students were “ACTUALLY represented this year”. I don’t disagree with this initial sentiment. Having uncontested elections for positions that are supposed to represent an entire student body does raise some questions, especially when that student body has over 30,000 members. RON campaigns are extremely rare too, as we can all recall from the buzz around our own SU election this year. 

But UCD Confessions claimed that sabbatical positions caused students to be “blocked” from being involved in the union. Saying that taking a year out (the definition of sabbatical) made “no sense”, the account alleged that due to the majority of officers being graduate students, they could “coast”, and for the most part, aren’t held accountable. It is clear from this first post that UCD Confessions didn’t necessarily care about getting the facts right, but instead wanted to rile up their followers with misinformation. Commenters under this initial post raised two initial concerns: 1) that students should not be using a gossip page to inform their ballot, and 2) the page focused on complaining about UCDSU instead of telling their followers how to run in the election. UCD Confessions also failed to provide proof that they had received hundreds of complaints about the union or evidence that they had spoken with auditors of UCD societies.

The powder keg was ignited on March 25, when UCD Confessions posted an Instagram graphic captioned “How Different UCDSU Rules Are Silencing Our Voices”. In this post, the admin blamed UCDSU for governmental policies. Citing the case of Paula, a prominent activist and Diversity Officer for UCDSU, the account highlighted how her migrant visa status prevents her from taking the sabbatical leave necessary for her to run for SU President. Paula gave a statement to UCD Confessions saying: “As a migrant, I am not financially privileged enough to take a sabbatical year. I need to start earning money. I don’t have any house security, food security or any relatives in Ireland that I can live with.”

“If students vote RON, according to the page, the union would be ‘forced to change this broken system.'”

UCD Confessions claimed that in order for the SU to represent all students, sabbatical roles must be turned into “part-time jobs”, with a possibility of three students acting as president. If students vote RON, according to the page, the union would be “forced to change this broken system”. And the student population was seemingly convinced. On April 1, with a total turnout of 1,711, the UCD electorate voted to re-open nominations for four out of five races. For context, the recent UCD Law Society elections had a higher turnout than the SU elections. 

It is easy to be outraged at what happened, and students certainly were. Before the polls even opened, UCD Confessions had made references to “hacks” arguing in the comments section of their posts. Through belittling concerned members of the university, lines were drawn and it became easier for uninformed voters to ridicule older members of the community. The sensationalist idea of an anonymous, unaccountable student battling against the impermeable institution was irresistible not to engage with. 

Both of UCD’s papers, the College Tribune and University Observer, ran features on the election with the Tribune both interviewing and fact-checking the page in separate articles. But what strikes me, personally, as odd was the lack of challenge brought against this page. Where were the targeted anti-misinformation posts that should have been shared by the union? Where were the questions that would have dismantled the page’s ideas in the interviews? Who was telling this admin that they were telling the truth?

It may be a broken system, but it won’t be solved by splitting the presidential duties into three. UCDSU, of course, pays its sabbatical officers (around 21,000 per year) but doesn’t offer free or subsidised accommodation as Trinity does. Providing this kind of service would start to dismantle barriers to becoming an SU officer, as would encouraging third-year students to run for election. Younger members of the union might bring more energy to the establishment, who knows? Establishing grants or funds for minority groups could also encourage increased engagement. UCDSU also faces the problem of requiring 150 signatures to run for officership. The form to collect signatures is released by the SU and doesn’t provide any information on the individual candidates – a system that is far from straightforward. Reducing the number of signatures required also seems like a no-brainer if only to encourage more isolated students to run.

Poor SU engagement is something that all unions are accustomed to. Trinity’s own election had a total valid poll of 2,148 is hardly representative of our whole student population. The RON votes for UCD’s election were as high as 887 out of 1,711. But although student union members and “hacks” may be right about the destruction UCD Confessions has caused, they don’t do themselves any favours when they start accusing students of not thinking critically or negatively engaging with a union. 

Admittedly, it is really easy to pass comments on the performance of a student union when you are not a representative within it. But if students do not feel represented or worse, ignored, by their union they should be allowed to voice that without backlash. UCDSU failed to take on criticisms and open channels of communication, and now they are facing the consequences. 

“When I was entering college in 2019, I had no idea what a student union was or how it functioned. If a misinformation campaign of a similar size spread through Trinity around the time of my first SU election, I would fall for it too.”

From my own perspective, if I had very little to no in-person experience in College, and I saw a gossip page followed by over 18,000 of my fellow students calling attention to an issue, I would listen. The pandemic has unfortunately created insular union communities, which makes it harder for outsiders to engage. When I was entering college in 2019, I had no idea what a student union was or how it functioned. If a misinformation campaign of a similar size spread through Trinity around the time of my first SU election, I would fall for it too. And we can’t blame those who fell for UCD Confession’s RON campaign when the union didn’t attempt to take it down. Blaming them for not knowing any better will not create fans of union politics. 

Students have to know that they will get something positive out of being engaged with an organisation. It’s not easy to be a student, we need all the supports we can get, and if we think we can get something better then….well why wouldn’t you vote RON in that case?

So what happens next? Well, the by-elections have been scheduled and nominations closed over the weekend. Will more people run? Will students feel more represented? We’ll see. But UCDSU needs to let its members know of the work it does and reach outside of the societies or student centre bubble. It needs to reinforce the idea that their union can serve students in its current form, and that it is willing to dismantle the barriers it can. If misinformation can spread to this extent, we can’t be surprised at what happens.

Eva O'Beirne

Eva O'Beirne is the Deputy Life Editor of Trinity News and a Junior Sophister History student.