The last referendum held by Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) saw only 652 students vote, a mere 4% of the student body. It can be argued, as many candidates running in the upcoming SU elections have done, that you cannot force people to take an interest in the Union and that there will always be a small number of people who are uninterested in engaging. But 4%; it was online; people didn’t even have to go anywhere.
Apathy has clearly come to dominate students’ attitudes towards the union, and political apathy of any form must be addressed. We need a plan to rescue the students’ union from its demise, to increase voter turnout beyond that of an authoritarian dictatorship, and prevent it from joining the Academic Registry in the long list of defunct Trinity institutions.
“It is clear apathy has come to dominate students’ attitudes towards the union, and political apathy of any form must be addressed.”
Firstly, let’s discuss student activism. For any students who were in or around College in the months prior to the Repeal Referendum in 2018, they would remember a palpable sense of excitement in the air: voter drives, marches, information evenings, many of which were organised by the Students’ Union. That same year, the ‘Take Back Trinity’ movement emerged in opposition to a proposed policy to charge students for sitting supplemental exams. Granted, not set in motion by the SU, but when they came on board they were crucial in disseminating the message of the students inside the Dining Hall and generating support for their goals. Both of these moments fit into a long line of activism within College, a tradition which has secured significant improvements for students. Forget lectures, what use is a college if it doesn’t implant some element of revolutionary fervour inside the souls and brains of the students it supposedly educates. Against what you may ask? Anything. Student nurses still not being paid? Skyrocketing rents? The SU should engage seriously with such movements and their respective demands if they wish to gain credibility and relevance among students.
Secondly, town halls. Bureaucracy is killing us. Committees and elected representatives take the fun out of caring about things. Let us return to a time when a man stood atop a wooden box could enthral and engage crowds for hours in hearty debate over the ills of the world. So, the second step in the Students’ Union’s path towards popular uptake should be the organisation of weekly, bi-weekly or monthly town halls, where any and all members of the college community can voice their concerns in a public forum. This will allow the union officials to actively engage with the students they supposedly represent, and will give students an opportunity to hold said representatives accountable.
The union must also look to new and innovative ways to engage with students, tactics that perhaps step outside the traditional remit of student politics but that have demonstrated their effectiveness in generating excitement and eliciting real change. The #RIPOFFNUIG movement, launched by the NUIG’s students’ union has been an incredibly effective means of maintaining student engagement with the SU throughout this pandemic. When Simon Harris was due to speak at an Oireachtas hearing on student accomodation in October, the union was immediately able to mobilise its social media following and launch a nationwide Twitter storm demanding the minister address student concerns. The achievements of said storm were minimal, but for a few minutes it did genuinely feel as though students had a voice, and were able to take collective action which had the potential to affect change.
“The union must also look to new and innovative ways to engage with students, tactics that perhaps step outside the traditional remit of student politics.”
Whilst it may seem unimportant, irrelevant, and oftentimes void of any use, the true power of the Students’ Union should not be misconstrued. Rarely in our lives will we have access to a representative body with as much power to ameliorate our lives in real and meaningful ways as a students’ union. Representing fewer than 15,000 students and having direct links with countless government institutions and public bodies, a properly harnessed students’ union could be extremely effective in its pursuit of change, both in the day-to-day lives of students and on broader national issues.
The failure of TCDSU and students’ unions across the country, is having real, material consequences on our lives. Unlike students’ unions across Europe, Irish unions have proven completely incapable of opposing the simultaneous assault that has been launched on students by both government and colleges over the past decade. We now boast the highest undergraduate fees in Europe, student housing has become almost laughably expensive, and colleges have become completely impervious to student concerns, consistently opting to place financial motives at the centre of their philosophical and organisational outlook.
“We now boast the highest undergraduate fees in Europe, student housing has become almost laughably expensive, and colleges have become completely impervious to genuine student concerns.”
A glaring consequence of the withdrawal of students’ unions from the political landscape is the government’s complete and continued disregard for third-level students throughout the entirety of this pandemic. Each time a new set of restrictions was announced, Twitter exploded as students bemoaned the latest bout of disregard displayed by the government towards their lives. Why would they care? The government’s attitude is testament to their understanding that students’ unions, and by extension students, pose no threat whatsoever, and a failure to reorientate the union will mean student concerns will continue to slip down the list of government priorities.
So, when you vote in this upcoming election, and please do, promise yourself that next year you will be more in tune to the comings and goings of your elected, and generously reimbursed, representatives. They are there to act as your representative to the college and to the government throughout your time as a student. There have always been, and will always be issues and concerns facing students that the Students’ Union is in a position to address. As the most recent email from the union, relating to the lack of protection for student renters noted: “This is urgent for students; we cannot wait any longer. Action must be taken as soon as possible.” And yes, they are correct. But receiving that email exactly one year after the first case of Covid-19 was identified in Ireland can’t but lead people to question the power, and purpose, of the union. If the SU wants to increase engagement, it must demonstrate that it can and is willing to take serious action to address the issues that truly affect students. Maybe then people will start to care.