By Eimear Spain
Student engagement with their Union is awful. During the Students’ Union elections in March 2018, only five percent of the student body turned up to cast their vote. Engagement from students is vital. Without it, the Union has no effective mandate to address student issues. But why are students turning their backs on their elected representatives?
The current executive committee are at a loss. During the first class reps meeting of the 2018/2019 college year, it was acknowledged by the executive that student engagement has been poor. It was agreed that something must be done.
Four months later and we are still waiting. Since coming into office in June 2018, the executive committee have repeatedly failed to take a pro-active and hands on approach to interacting with the student body.
Back in 2008, things on campus were a bit different. The (notably smaller) executive committee were a visible feature of campus life. When asking a former classmate if they knew their Students’ Union President, Muireann O’Dwyer, the response I received was, “Sure, she’s always about with the bright t-shirts and bullhorn.” Now, unless it’s to hand out free lollipops or complete surveys, the executive committee have mostly confined themselves to Áras na Mac Léinn.
Poor student engagement runs deeper than lacking a visible presence though. This Students’ Union has been incredibly lax about honouring their commitments to the student body. In the first class reps meeting of 2018/19, the executive committee were reminded of their obligation under the Students’ Union constitution, a document that, at its heart, seeks to ensure quality representation for students, to hold weekly executive meetings and to publish minutes.
As of the writing of this article, there have been no published minutes since November 2018, and no evidence of weekly meetings. When this was put to the Students’ Union President, Megan Reilly, she admitted that the failure to upload minutes was “an oversight on my part and I apologise for that.” Ms Reilly was silent on the matter of weekly meetings.
The Union have continued this laid-back approach to commitments with their handling of Éalú, a one-day on-campus festival. A daylong festival was first promised back in 2011. The class reps of the day voted to end their support of RAG Week on the condition that it would be replaced with an on-campus event, similar in style to the Trinity Ball.
In her manifesto for election, Ms Reilly promised to make it happen. With the first half of semester two gone, information is still scant. “The reason we haven’t been so vocal about the event is because we want to keep hype around it until we build up to selling tickets,” said Ms Reilly. While a venue and date have been decided (but not released), funding is still unconfirmed. It is unclear why the Students’ Union has waited until the last minute to sort out the finances of this endeavour.
As of late, the Union have even failed to engage their own class reps. The Class Reps Councils due to take place on 21 January and 11 February failed to attract the required numbers of class reps. Despite this, the executive committee pressed on with a meeting with the concession to refrain from voting on motions.
Ms Reilly maintains “for the sake of the reps present and the matters we wished to discuss, we stayed in the room afterwards and allowed discussions to continue.”
But it should not come as a surprise to the Union that class reps are eschewing council meetings. Many suggestions made by class reps are ignored. At council in November, a suggestion was brought by the Students’ Union to engage in a letter writing campaign, asking that families displaced by the closure of a direct provision centre were rehomed within the local area.
Class reps made multiple suggestions: make a template for students to fill in; print letters and ask class reps to distribute them. The SU President herself suggested a letter-writing workshop. In the end none of these things happened.
A decision was made, behind closed doors, that one letter would be sent with multiple signatures, the bizarre reasoning being one letter was more effective than several. Ms Reilly has since revealed that the letter writing campaign “was stalled” as the decision to close the provision centre in question was not confirmed. However, this vital development in a Union-endorsed campaign was never brought to the attention of class reps.
The Students’ Union may bemoan the lack of student engagement, but the fault for this lies directly in the laps of the Union themselves. The executive committee have repeatedly failed to follow the rules of operation that have been laid out for them in the Students’ Union Constitution. They have ignored class rep suggestions and have failed to keep them in the loop about happenings on campus. They have failed to get out and about and make themselves relevant to every day student life.
Increasing student engagement is no easy task. It requires the Union to physically put themselves in front of students on a daily basis. It requires the Union to make multiple and repeated announcements about their campaigns over a variety of platforms. It requires the Union to put boots on the ground and listen to what the student body is telling them. Until they improve student engagement, the Students’ Union cannot claim to represent the student body.