Head to head: Should students be allowed to opt out of TCDSU?

Riain Fitzsimmons and Hugh Whelan go head to head on whether students ought to have the option to opt out of TCDSU membership

Art by Megan Luddy

Yes, students be allowed to opt out of TCDSU – Ríain Fitzsimmons  

Students should not be forced to be a member of an organisation that they do not want to be a part of; that is the simple position of the Students’ Union Opt Out Project (SUOOP).

It is with this simple principle in mind that over the last few weeks a succession of movements within Irish universities have emerged in an effort to give students the choice to leave their students’ union if they so wish. This principle applies for every formal organisation one can think of. There are no good reasons why Trinity Students’ Union should be an exception to this rule.

The right to freedom of association is not only a fundamental right, but one which makes sense to the student body because they are citizens of a free society. Outside of Students’ Union and political activist circles, among the people TCDSU claims it represents, the small request of having the option to leave the union is not objected to. To the average student in Trinity, and indeed nationwide, this option is instinctively reasonable.

Many of students are unaware that there is currently no actual option to not be a member of the Union and it puzzles them to learn there is no way to disassociate. When I first learned this fact soon after coming to Trinity, it puzzled me. It seemed to defy the most natural principle of such organisations, whereby you join if you want and you don’t if you don’t want to. After all, choice on Students’ Union membership is written into law in other free societies like the UK, New Zealand and Australia.

Furthermore, there are a host of legitimate reasons why students might want to leave, or at least have the choice to do so. TCDSU has repeatedly proved itself out of touch with the real concerns of students. Year after year it seems that sabbatical officers are caught in some sort of virtue signaling effort in order to appease political correctness.

Bob Geldof said it plainly and clearly when he visited Law Soc and accused students of “banging on about transgender toilets”, while the reality for many was that they hadn’t had a pay rise in eight years.  

Only last week we saw the latest example of this with College’s contrived attempt to do away with the word ‘Freshman’. For ordinary students, it is entirely frustrating to see their Union supporting futile efforts like this one whilst there are unacceptable waiting lists in the College Counselling Services, and students facing extraordinary rates on their rent. Efforts such as the Accommodation Support Service provided by TCDSU that focuses on the most pressing student interests just don’t seem to get as much emphasis as cumbersome political campaigning.

The strong focus on political campaigning within the SU has led some to feel that it is more like a political party than a union. This might go some way to explaining why the general student body seem so detached from the Union. Why should any student have to be in a union that actively campaigns for policies that might contradict their personal values? There’s no arguing that some of the big political questions TCDSU takes on are important questions for the lives of students. However, if TCDSU want to focus on political activism, it should not force everyone to be a part. Membership should be voluntary.

The rejection of choice of membership is made on some very silly grounds. Much is made of the free rider problem, which poses a minor technical problem as a trade-off for an important, fair and principled reform of the Union. Every club and society on campus has voluntary membership systems and frequently takes measures to make their services exclusive to members. If the SU would like to do the same, it is fully within its right and ability to do so.

Those who put forward the free rider problem as an argument against choice are clutching at straws with the idea that a necessary condition for all those who benefit from any action taken is membership. But this isn’t how the world works; people often benefit from actions taken by organisations they aren’t associated with. Plenty of workers’ unions allow members to leave even though they may still implicitly benefit from union actions at some point.

Opponents to the freedom to disassociate will suggest that those who wish to leave the union instead try to reform the union from the inside. The response to this is twofold.

Firstly, providing the choice to leave is one of those badly needed reforms in itself. Good institutions don’t force membership. It is potentially unconstitutional to force membership of the Union.

Secondly, providing students with the option to leave the union doesn’t prevent reform; rather, it may well encourage it. This is because the Union loses legitimacy if significant numbers do indeed decide to leave. It will provide greater incentive for the Union to retain all members by focusing on reform and on the issues that affect students directly.

In its current form, the Students’ Union is threatened by the push for freedom of association and opposition to what is, in essence, a power grab. This because the SU trades politically on the fact it represents all students. The same old way of running things stands to lose legitimacy if students have choice. Accountability for officers and the way the Union is run would be stronger. A drop in numbers for TCDSU and Union of Students in Ireland (USI) would not suit the political activist agenda and the careerism that exists alongside it.

The challenge for the opt-out project will be to engage ordinary students in a way that TCDSU has completely failed to do for years. It will not receive much support from the establishment. Opt-out will have to appeal to whatever desire the general student body have to create a fair, sensible and respectable union. Let us hope they have not become too despondent.

No, students should not be allowed to opt out of TCDSU – Hugh Whelan

The question of whether Students’ Union (SU) membership should be voluntary is one that had honestly never crossed my mind. That is, until I received an invitation a few weeks ago to like a new Facebook page, entitled ‘SU Opt-Out Project (SUOOP)’. Notably, this invitation came to me from someone who is a prominent campaigner in the pro-life movement.

SUOOP propose that students should be given the choice to opt out of TCDSU. While this may seem ideologically ‘fair’ or ‘reasonable’, when it is properly examined, it becomes clear that opting out of TCDSU would create far more problems for students than it would solve.

The argument of SUOOP seems to centre largely on politics, stating one of their core problems as “TCDSU is essentially a political union, not just a student union.” The implication is that it would be better if the SU were entirely apolitical.

It’s impossible to see how this would occur. Students’ Unions represent student interests – which are, invariably political. The two are inextricably linked. It would be unfair if the SU forced these “politics” upon people; however, as we are all aware, this is not the case. Votes are held on each motion proposed by the SU, and it is through this democratic and fair decision-making system that the SU decides what stances to take.

Every single student has a say, and the elected class reps and majority-rules system means that in the fairest way possible, the interests of the roughly 17,000 students in Trinity are represented.

So in other words, we’re talking about the minority of people for whom the democratic process has failed, and who feel their views aren’t being represented.  One reasonable solution here would be for these students to begin lobbying the SU for a change of stance, if they feel so strongly that they are being wronged.

Or perhaps, as many do, to ought to start campaigning for SU candidates or movements that they feel do represent their own views. These are entirely valid and productive avenues that may yield success for these students.

The opt-out option proposed by SUOOP is a classic example of people running away from the problem at hand instead of attempting to solve it, in a move that is entirely counterproductive and disingenuous. Such a move serves no purpose other than to divide students further and polarise student issues.

A situation whereby some students are members of the union while some are not is not only an administrative nightmare, but is also fundamentally unfair. Picture a classroom where half of the students are represented by a class rep and half are not. How would issues be raised and dealt with by the department? Academic support issues barely scratch the surface of what an SU opt-out option would entail.

The opt-out would affect every aspect of a student’s college experience: the SU Shops and cafes; the innumerable services provided by the Welfare team, from financial to psychological; the countless events run by the Ents team; IT Services, jobs assistance and accommodation services; TCDSU campaign weeks such as Rainbow Week, Women’s Week, and the countless other events organised that benefit students.

All of this would be irrevocably damaged. Taking all into consideration, it’s clear that these are fundamental elements of every student’s experience that cannot and should not be taken away from them.

Automatic membership of the SU ensures that there is a fair system in place for all, and for many students, it is essential. SUOOP attempt to argue that some students never use any SU services and therefore, should not have to be members of the SU. This rather narrow-sighted selfish view absolutely overlooks the role of the SU in assisting the student body as a whole.

Certainly, there may hypothetically be a student who never once attends an Ents event, never has an issue they need to solve with a class rep, never needs accommodation or Welfare assistance, has never purchased a single item from an SU shop, and so on, for their entire four years as an undergraduate. It seems highly unlikely, but it is the plight of these supposed individuals that SUOOP seems to cater for.

In this very specific circumstance, perhaps this student would rather not be a member of the SU. However, the standard contribution fee that all students pay is intended to contribute to the student experience as a collective whole – not just on an individual level. Many students never use the sports facilities offered on campus, and yet, we don’t mind contributing towards them so that they are available for all to use.

It is reasonable that the membership contribution we all pay goes towards the continued running and improvement of the student experience by the Students’ Union. Your college experience may be smooth, and you may not, for example, need Welfare assistance – but your fellow classmate does.

Attending a college and being part of a student body entails a certain amount of collectiveness, and I for one don’t think it’s unfair that while I may not individually make use of all of the services has to offer, my membership and contribution ensure that my fellow students who truly do need assistance from the SU receive it.

Supporters of SUOOP have argued that we should look to the UK, where universities offer students the option of opting out of their SU. To compare Irish students’ unions to the UK is misguided in many ways. We live under different governments with entirely different policy and funding structures for third level education. Also, the ‘political’ issues that SUOOP have difficulty with are uniquely Irish, and therefore incomparable with the UK.

This is the crux of the issue. When TCDSU stood against apartheid in South Africa, we rallied together as a student body and with great success. Similarly, with the 2015 Same-Sex marriage referendum, TCDSU took a stance in support, and no such project as the SUOOP emerged. Again, a motion was brought forward last year to support for the re-unification of Ireland and the majority voted in favour of neutrality – and no more was said on the issue.

In of all these cases, the majority vote ruled and students’ interests were represented and championed. So why has SUOOP emerged now? Off the back of the 2014 vote by the student body to take a pro-repeal stance, TCDSU’s campaigning is now in full swing, and a national referendum on the Eighth Amendment is in sight for next year. It is absolutely no coincidence that just as we are entering into this critical phase of the repeal movement, this opt-out project has been set up.

Those behind SUOOP seek nothing more than to encourage divisiveness and distract from the real issues at hand. It is a very deliberate and pointed political move.

Of course, our Students Union isn’t perfect and many would agree that there are problems to be found with certain policies or people. However, the issues with our SU, as with any, should be resolved from within.

If you don’t agree with the SU’s stance or policies, table a motion against them. If you feel you aren’t being represented, go along to the council chamber, or the public debates, and represent yourself. Use your vote. Use your SU services. There are tools at hand for anyone to use who will engage with them. To simply turn your back and ‘opt out’ of it all is sheer ignorance of what being a student means.