The SU’s engagement problem needs immediate attention

A TCDSU part-time officer discusses the systemic issues within the organisation

Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) has a growing engagement problem that needs to be addressed. Whether shown through low election turnouts, unfilled class rep positions, or a campaign for the right to opt out, it is clearly a problem which the SU can no longer turn a blind eye.

One method used to explain why students do not want to engage with the SU, especially during the Eighth Amendment referendum, was to brush them off as people who were annoyed at the pro-choice stance the SU had been mandated to take; people who weren’t coping well with being a minority voice on a divisive issue. This allowed those students to be largely ignored because it is easy to discount the opinions of people you see as sore losers. However, the engagement problem with the SU goes far deeper than one legislative issue. The SU Opt Out Project is not just a bunch of ultra-conservative, pro-life people. They, and many others, are students who feel disenfranchised, and brushing them off as a minority is not going to do anyone favours.

“It is difficult to approach someone for help if they have repeatedly and wholeheartedly denounced beliefs you hold dear.”

Theoretically, the SU is a place where students can go for help. Whether they are facing an academic issue or need a welfare loan or anything in between. It is meant to serve all students regardless of who they are, or what their opinions are, and it is meant to be our voice in College’s decision-making bodies. The idea has been beaten to death but still bears repeating – it is difficult to approach someone for help if they have repeatedly and wholeheartedly denounced beliefs you hold dear.

However, this is not the only time it is difficult to approach someone for help. What if they have repeatedly ignored problems you face? What if they have decided that boycotting an entire country is more important than keeping you safe in your college? What if they decided that the academic and welfare problems you face are a problem for you and you alone while the problems of one man in DCU, or a teenager in Cork, are the problems of all of Trinity? What if they talked about this all the time, and acted as if you were terrible if you didn’t get involved in all of the activism all of the time? Would it not be difficult to ask them for help? That’s not to say that the issues the SU takes stances on aren’t important, but are they worth alienating and demonising students who don’t agree with them?

“It is important to remember that we are not all in College to be political activists.”

Historically, students have been a driving force for social change. Not only with things like marriage equality in 2015 and the Eighth Amendment referendum this year, but also in Tiananmen Square in 1989, and with civil rights protests in the US in the 1960s. Such history can carry a weight of obligation. There can sometimes be a feeling that we must all make such change, to land us and College firmly on the right side of history, the side of freedom, equality, and morality. As noble a cause this is, it is important to remember that we are not all in College to be political activists. Trinity gives us a place to do that but, at the end of the day, we are here to be students.

While encouraging young people to engage in politics is admirable, the SU has to find a balance. This is an unenviable task. For every hour spent discussing migrant rights, Palestine, or other global issues, that is an hour not spent talking about lunch spaces, or bringing campaign weeks to off-campus locations. Furthermore, it is an hour spent isolating students who disagree, giving them the message their opinions don’t matter, and that there’s no room for them in the SU. And while change has been made on this, with local issues now a recurring feature of SU Council, many feel that change isn’t happening fast enough.

It would be a mistake to attribute the slowness of these changes to apathy within the SU towards local issues. There are significant, often invisible, barriers to making change in that direction. It is easy to forget that those most active in setting the course of the SU, the part-time and sabbatical officers, are just like the rest of College; clueless 20-somethings trying to convince the world we know more than we really do. The main difference is that it is easier to admit your lack of knowledge when 12,000 undergrads are not holding you accountable. One of the problems SU leadership faces is that in those moments of panic when decisions have to be made, the easiest voice to listen to is the one shouting the loudest. And by the nature of radical politics, that voice is usually shouting about radical issues. It is easier to speak passionately about global humanitarian crises than it is to voice an opinion on places to eat lunch on campus.  

“The time has come to admit this is a cop-out answer.”

Another barrier to changing the SU is the social stigma. When the SU has to decide on whether to put time and energy to a global political issue, no one wants to look selfish. They are reluctant to look like they do not care about those who do not have the opportunity to be in the room. Elected members of the SU quickly learn that if you speak up as a voice of dissent, or even caution, on such a decision, you are casting yourself as the enemy. Saying anything which might be considered apathetic means you lose credibility, and it affects your ability to make changes on things that might matter more to you. There are definitely those who are less comfortable with the political activism of the union. Yet, due to an implicit social stigma, you will never hear them say that out loud, for fear of being brandished with the worst c-word the SU knows – centrist.

This touches on a wider question which many SUs across the country are struggling to answer. Is the primary aim of a students’ union to be a political voice for its students – to lobby TDs and present to the Oireachtas and join global boycotts, or, is the aim to promote the interests of its students to the administration of College? Every political stance the SU takes pushes us closer and closer to the former, at a cost to our ability to do the latter. When asked about this dilemma, many would-be sabbatical officers will tell you that balance is possible, that we can do both, that we can be active in radical left-wing politics and be a voice of all students in College policy. The time has come to admit this is a cop-out answer. The sabbatical officers are only five people; the SU is not big enough to do one wholeheartedly, without the other suffering. The question of which to prioritise is something we should challenge every hopeful leader on. It is also not a question that should only be addressed around election time; it is central to the functioning of the SU.

The fact that the referendum requesting the choice to opt out failed does not mean that the idea, or the problems from which it sprung, disappeared. So long as disenfranchised students refuse to accept that they belong to an institution that has flaws, and the SU can’t listen to students beyond their normal purview, the gap will continue to grow. As difficult as it is, both sides need to cede some ground to reach a compromise that will ultimately work in favour of students.