Tuesday, 12 March 2013

A short piece on my problem with students' unions

Couldn't think of a relevant pic so I just used a stock image.
 He looks a bit pissed off. It'll do.

In the garishly ornate St. Peter's Basilica this week a conclave is being held to decide who should be the next leader of what is left of the Catholic Church. Cardinals will talk, talk, bicker, debate and talk some more before voting. And voting again. And possibly even again. Then a plume of white smoke will emerge from a small chimney signalling to the world that a week and a bit of uncertainty and angst is over and that a new pope has been elected.

Unbeknownst to those cardinals and the vast majority of the world, there is a another election taking place this week. It is slightly less elaborate and less ritualistic but just as annoying, as obtrusive and as wonderfully pointless. It is the University of Limerick Students' Union election.

This election is being held to elect a new SU president, welfare officer and entertainment officer. Or something like that. There are parallels to be drawn between this election and ordinary political elections - similar amounts of hyperbole, cringe-worthy attempts by candidates and campaigners to 'get down' with the electorate and an a potent sense of vanity and self-indulgence pervading through the air. "Hyperbole" is just a fancy word for "bullshit", by the way.

Similarly there are also parallels between the SU itself and actual political institutions - even more hyperbole, vexatious bureaucracy and feelings of resentment and apathy towards it amongst its electorate. 

Some of you reading this may attend UL and may be thinking "Last week was RAG week and it was DAY-CENT and the SU organised that. Why the overt contempt, man?" Let me explain. I do not think the ULSU is particularly rank in comparison with other students' unions nor do I have any personal gripes with anyone in ULSU (Most are actually rather affable). I just dislike all Students' Unions. 

You see, I view students' unions the same way I view political institutions, namely with  suspicion. In my eyes, students' unions are, or at least seem to be, empty vessels used by self-serving, overly desirous persons to further their own personal advancement and get a good reference on their CV while feigning an interest in students and their issues.

 Now I don't see anything particularly wrong with that - in this ecnomic climate everyone needs a good CV and I'm not particularly fond of my fellow students either - it's just the way they go about it. 

You see them on Twitter. You see them around campus. You see their Facebook groups urging you to vote for them around election time. They're the type of irritating busy-bodies who treat their Twitter account as if they were a journalist at The Irish Times, discussing current affairs with the sort of discernment unbecoming of them. Discussing people and news they've never heard of as if they're experts in the field. Their profile pictures are always excessively formal and on Facebook they encourage their friends to "get involved" in the Student Union. Their sense of humour is restricted to the occasional meme. They see themselves as future leaders and thinkers. Some of them, indeed, it seems are being groomed for a future in politics.

And then they wonder why they're so unpopular. Not them personally, but the Student Union itself. Why do so very few students take an interest in it? Why do they consistently fail to reach quorum in their AGMs and EGMs? Why the low turnout for voting despite the fact that it is remarkably easy to vote? (You just need to log in to ANY computer in the University - and there's quite a few of them). Now, of course, I can only discuss the ULSU here but I'm sure this scenario replicates itself in many other students' unions around Ireland. 

Is their unpopularity down to the natural and irrevocable apathy towards anything that doesn't involve consuming copious amounts of alcohol among most students? It most certainly has a big part to play but there are other factors too. Students' unions claim to represent students but they're so out of touch it's laughable. The campaigning that takes place during election week is exceedingly annoying and it seems the promises they make are exact same each year. This, of course, is very similar to politicians' campaigns but with the difference being that we can (or should be able to at least) hold politicians to account when they're acting like divs - not exactly the same with students' unions officials. 

The only time students' unions really raise their voice is around November time - just before the Budget. With fee increases and grant levies expected in the Budget they organise a few buses to the Capital and take part in a collective "letting off of steam" exercise or "protest", if you will. Protests are valiant causes but, come on, is one poxy protest going to make a difference? Or would a sustained campaign be more practical in actually combating fee increases? Of course it would but the students' unions don't seem to care - they just want to make it appear that they do. And therein lies the problem. If I were to bestow a collective motto upon students' unions it would be that - "We don't really care but we'll pretend to."  

I can be challenged on this subject and I would welcome a rebuke. It's just as an observer of my own students' union for a year and a half now I have already formed a well-set opinion on them and their dealings. Indeed, this opinion took root very early on in my academic life and nothing since has convinced me to change. Students' unions, like the Catholic Church in this week of concurrent elections, could do with a reevaluation of what their role exactly is. 


  1. I agree to an extent. I'm part of my SU Council, as a class rep, & it's the same groups of people that speak at every meeting, that get elected that get involved.
    But on the other hand, I've seen people bitch on Facebook about decisions made at council, etc, but they've never been or tried to give an opinion. A lot of people think there's no point, because they're not part of 'that group', but you can't complain if yo haven't made an effort.

    1. Indeed. You cannot complain if you don't try to get involved. I would say 90% of students have absolutely zero interest in their students' union and its dealings (This is true in UL anyway) and I just wonder what the reason for that is. Most people our age are extremely apathetic but I think there's more reasons than that as to why more students don't get involved in our SU.

      Thanks for reading anyway and getting involved!

    2. Oh, it's definitely true in TCD as well. At an SU meeting last night, at least 50% of people who actually turned up left halfway through, when USI hustings began.
      I suppose most people just are indifferent towards the SU; They don't think of most services as being affiliated with the SU, or don't see how it's relevant in day-to-day college issues?
      But it's an interesting topic!