Head to Head: The Student’s Union

“It’s clear that voluntary membership would lead to increased accountability.”

By John Engle

The right to free association is a cornerstone of Western liberal society. People are allowed to choose what groups they wish to join and those that they wish to be representative of their interests. The Students’ Union actively ignores this principle.

The Students’ Union is the only student organization in College that is not only able to claim every student as a member from the moment they register, but to also extort money from each of those students’ registration fees.

The very nature of the current system is abhorrent. Telling students that only way they can represent students in College is if they are all members in the SU, as SU hacks are wont to do, is just silly. Labour unions the world over often speak on behalf of their whole industry without needing to boast every worker in that industry as a member. Their logic does not follow in any setting anywhere. To force students to be members of an organization that they might want no part in has serious moral ramifications. A student may fundamentally disagree with the policies of the SU, or with unions generally, and yet this student has no recourse or means of egress.

The SU structure also lends itself to inefficiency, as there is nigh zero accountability over how it spends its money and abuse is rife because of it. The SU manages to provide its limited range of services with a budget more than ten times the size of that of the two largest student societies combined. The amount of waste the SU represents is shear insanity. It is unnecessary that it should make new t-shirts for every one-day campaign, nor is it necessary for its officers to be paid a salary and given free housing on campus when their workloads are barely more taxing than those of the larger student societies who receive no such benefits.

I am not saying the SU should cease to be, but that it must change if it is to be an effective and genuine representative of the student body. Establishing an opt-in policy of membership means it can be held accountable through the mechanism of competition. The best solution is to make membership in the SU optional and to force its leadership to actively campaign for members in the crucible of Freshers’ Week, just as student societies and clubs must. The SU will have to set a price of membership that the student market will find acceptable, rather than simply levy money regardless of result.

Prices are a great mechanism because they reflect the relative demands of billions of consumers in the global economy. Every day people cast “euro votes” that determine how scarce resources get used. The price system is thus a communications network that makes it possible for people to navigate a world of many choices. Sellers who lose through consumer spending of euro votes suffer losses and must either improve their service or fold.

Fresher’s Week is a beautiful example of market forces in action that results in wonderfully efficient distribution of wealth and resources among student associations. Why should the SU be exempt from this competition? It is not special and offers little for the price students pay.

It is time for the SU to match its grand promises with grand action.

“Nobody comes into college expecting to fail exams or suffer depression.”

By Nikolai Trigoub-Rotnem

Every student who walks through the Front Arch of Trinity is automatically a member of the Students’ Union. All members of the union, all 17,000 of them, are represented by us. We work for you. Some might ask what exactly it is that we, as a union do. What do we do to make us worthy of every student being an automatic member? To put it frankly, we fight for you.

In the current economic climate we are representing you, and your friends. If you are one the few who isn’t feeling the pressure of the recession, you can bet you are very much in the minority.

As we stand right now, the country is in the worst state it’s ever been in. The SU is more relevant now than it ever has been. Most of us are fully aware of the impending threat of a hike in the registration fee. As it stands, the fee for students is €1500 which is already a high price to pay for a supposed “free” education. Our current government wants to re-introduce fees. And while they can’t do it overtly, they are doing it by the back door, by using a fee designed to fund student services as an academic charge. This will exclude many people, and perhaps you’re one of them. We are fighting for you on this.

And what about the grant? There is a huge danger of the government cutting the grant again. To people who aren’t on this they may not realise how severe this could be for a student dependent on it. It may be the difference between a student having rented accommodation or having to sleep in their friend’s houses because they can’t pay the last month’s rent. It may be the difference between a student eating for a week or having to survive on hand-outs from the chaplaincy. Or it may be the difference between a perfectly capable student graduating from college and reaching their full potential or dropping out and having to find a job or sign on. This should not have to be the case. Is it not in the interest of this country to be educating as many capable people as they can, to the highest level they can, regardless of their financial situation?

But perhaps the most important work that the Students’ Union does is the one that is the least visible. Nobody comes into college expecting to fail exams, suffer depression or have to get a student assistance grant. Few people expect that they will have to report a lecturer who is biased. But in all these cases the Students’ Union is there to help you out. Many students never expect to have to get this kind or support, nor would pay in advance for it, but are glad it’s there when they do need it.

If you’re one of the people who could afford a registration fee increase, who never has to worry about their grant coming in on time, who goes through college without feeling lost or who has never had a problem with their academics, then consider yourself lucky. I can guarantee you that someone close to you in college has, and if you can’t see the merits of being a member for your sake, try and see it for theirs.

Nikolai Trigob-Rothnem is the President of Trinity Students’ Union