Head to head: USI membership

Every fortnight two Trinity students pit themselves against each other on a major issue in higher education. In this issue, Ronan Richardson and Grace O’Malley discuss the upcoming referendum on USI Membership.

Ronan Richardson: “The USI helps illustrate students are a tangible element of society”

There are times when I feel that actions carried out by our national student movement are counter-productive, trivial and achieve nothing but to copperfasten our stereotype as “rebellious students”. I need go no further than the foolish occupation attempted by Gary Redmond, amongst others. Thankfully Ryan Bartlett avoided stooping to such levels!

Events such as this cause me to feel ambivalent regarding USI membership. They make me feel that Trinity simply must take a stand; that we must illustrate our opposition and our more mature approach to dealing with the authorities by leaving the platform that is the USI. After the loss of so many members already and of Ireland’s premier university, the USI would surely lose any mandate to represent the interests of students in Ireland. Would this be advantageous to us? Can this improve student welfare and educational standards? We could establish some form of new national platform to express our views but, quite simply, why bother?

The USI often gives the appearance of being short-sighted and too quick to support popular trends amongst students without appropriate deliberation. Student politics is over democratic and hence over bureaucratic. This makes it akin to a slow, lumbering, official elephant. But the USI is by no means a white elephant. Every interest group in the nation is represented by a union of some manner. This is intrinsic to the way our society works and only until society is reformed to become more fluid can we ever begin to think of removing ourselves from the USI. Until then we sadly must remain within the Union and utilise it as a medium to lobby the government in our own interest.

Before last December’s budget, the USI and its members launched a campaign to lobby the government in the interest of students against fee hikes and grant cuts. USI naysayers reasoned that Ireland simply can’t afford to pay for your college education at present, that as adults we must take responsibility for the nation and help contribute to filling the black hole that is Ireland’s budget deficit. This, however, is not the role that we need to play in society, nor is it the mandate of the USI to contribute to any form of financial solidarity. Every union lobbies the authorities for better conditions for its members, and why should we be any different? The USI helped to illustrate that the student population was an active, disaffected element of society. Rumours which cannot be clarified shot through the airwaves about hikes of up to €5,000. This figure was highly unlikely in reality. Maybe the extra €250 was in the pipeline anyway? Maybe the USI were successful in attempting to keep any increases to a minimum? Who are we to say. To look at it simplistically, the only way that the campaign could have hurt the student cause would be if the general public felt that students had no right to express their views. Apart from the odd maverick, this was not the case.

In less grandiose terms, the USI subtly but directly seeks to aid students. The USI provides training for our sabbatical officers, unavailable anywhere else. A case in point is the position of welfare officer. Each year he or she is trained to cope with a vast array of difficulties which confront students daily; for example, how to deal with suicidal students.

The problems within the USI lie in its structure and leadership. As a lobbying movement it provides a necessary link between us and them. Trinity has the ability and calibre of students to work with the USI and endeavour to alleviate the flaws of the organisation – to change it into an efficient organisation with real national clout. This can only be achieved on the inside.

Grace O’Malley: “Attempts by the USI to influence government policy are embarrassing”

I am quite excited by the prospect of a referendum on TCD’s affiliation to the USI. I’m even more excited about the likely result. Why? Well, there are many reasons – their incompetence and inefficiency impinges on all issues, big and small; from the way that they (attempt to) influence government policy, to the way that they communicate with their own members.

Attempts by the USI to influence government policy have been, at best, embarrassing and, at worst, irreparably damaging to the lobbying power of Irish students. They were entrusted with the power and responsibility of representing us to the government: to ensure that our needs were not just heard but that they were catered for; to ensure that the quality and access of education is not casually diminished through political convenience.

And have they lived up to these committments? You only have to look at the USI’s own campaign literature to see the history of registration fee (now “student contribution”) increases. You only have to look at their own campaign literature to see the cuts that third-level institutions are being forced to make across the country.

You’d imagine that if there was a strong case to be made against the increase of point-of-entry fees (which there is) then USI President Gary Redmond shouldn’t have too much difficulty making that argument to Labour Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn. Well, all he did was to take out full-page newspaper advertisements calling him, his party, and coalition colleagues liars (which is obviously the clever thing to do to someone who you’re trying to win over).

One would imagine that the cornerstones of such a campaign should be facts and figures: the reasons why the USI believes fees are bad; the reasons why they believe that education (particularly third-level) needs to be funded to the fullest possible level; the reasons why the USI believes this money should be spent despite the budgetary requirements that the government has to deal with.

This should not be a particularly difficult argument to make to a Labour Minister; especially one who signed a pre-election pledge to oppose third-level fees. Yet, when Gary Redmond was given a national platform on RTE’s Prime Time to express his arguments directly, the best he could do was to break out the props. You see, the cornerstone of the USI’s campaign was not facts and figures. The cornerstone of the USI’s campaign was not reasoned argument. The whole campaign was based on waving around a picture of Ruairí Quinn signing the USI pledge. Then when Gary Redmond was asked where the money for third-level education could come from (not exactly an unexpected question), the best he could do was to reference the cost of payslips (not salaries; physical payslips).

The above highlights of the woeful campaign were followed by USI-led occupations of government buildings. The Labour Party HQ was the original target, until they were defeated by an unexpected locked door. This took place the day before they were supposed to actually meet with the Labour Party.
You, me and every other TCD student is currently paying for the privilege to be a part of this. We are paying over €100,000 a year to support their ridiculous, ineffective campaigns. This needs to be put to an end. There are some who may argue that Trinity needs a national campaign presence. I agree, we do need a national campaign presence. The USI, however, are not providing us with one.

They would be doing the same thing regardless of whether or not we were affiliated with them. They don’t represent us, and they don’t care that they don’t represent us. It should be at our discretion whether or not to get involved in any of their campaigns. Trinity Students’ Union is more than capable of doing something far more productive with this money if we give them the opportunity to do so. We need to do better. We can do better. And without the USI, we will do better.