Revolting students, your country needs you!

By Steve Conlon
Steve Conlon is a 2nd year BA in Communication Studies student in DCU. He is the chair of the DCU Journalism Society and the News Director for DCUfm. He has previously written for The Irish Times, the Sunday Independent, Magill and his local newspaper the Sligo Weekender

There is something rotten in the state of Ireland. I am not talking about corrupt politicians or bent bankers, or for that matter unscrupulous trade union leaders fixated on bankrupting the country. I am talking about the death of the student movement.

Students have often been the champions of identity politics in Ireland. They have, in the distant past, protested and marched to defend the civil liberties of many minority groups that made up its ranks or were continents away. Today the student movement is a paltry shadow of its former glory. The reasons for this are varied but the growing strength of minority groups within the student movement and the relative wealth and comfortable lifestyle experienced by students are the two of the biggest.

Students, and to a greater extent student leaders, live in a bubble. Protected by university life many students are immune to the effects of social injustice. They are, after all, continuing to enjoy a privilege not available to those from more deprived backgrounds.  Of course third level education is ‘free’, more or less, in this country. Student leaders (and the left) would have you believe that there is nothing free about higher education. This is true if one chooses to view the €1,500 Registration Fee as fees ‘in all but name’, but that is a political viewpoint, and not an unbiased one.

Do we for one second believe that the hard working ordinary taxpayer would tolerate paying for gym and library membership, doctors, archery equipment, ego-masturbatory aids such as student publications and elections or ski trips to Alpine resorts for undergrads who, for the most part haven’t contributed a cent to the exchequer? I think not. It is dishonest for student leaders to brand a charge that they lobbied for as a heavy burden on students, when the services and activities it provides for would be considered luxuries by those in the dole queues.

Last year saw Minister O’Keeffe put ‘tuition fees’ back on the agenda. A brave and correct move by the Minister. Student leaders were quick to galvanise ordinary students and organize a coordinated lobbying and public protest campaign across the country. Whilst impressive, it did little to sway the Minister who simply brushed aside the students protestations and moved on to more pressing matters. There was a naivety too in how student leaders protested, for instance holding a national rally the same day as the protesting pensioners. The tuition fees issue was quickly relegated in terms of news importance. The campaign also took a dive into the macabre with the violent behaviour of certain student groups towards Government Ministers.

Campaigning students on a self-serving issue is not something to be applauded. It is natural for students’ unions to rally the troops on an issue such as third level fees. However it would be more morally incumbent on student leaders to have a full and open debate on third level fees, when both the sector and the country are crying out for more money. But do they? Of course not. Instead the students’ unions chose to condemn those who tried to compromise and angrily silenced those within its own ranks that proposed a more engaging policy.

The issue of fees is an ideological one for the student movement. A sane rational debate is forever unlikely. This was not always the case. On fees, well yes, but not on other ideological issues. Student movements across the world have marched for change; be it national or international. They have lobbied against injustices, boycotted, protested and even rioted for causes that were of little relevance to them but they held a fiery passion for.  In Ireland these issues used to be numerous. Civil rights in Northern Ireland, the Vietnam War, hunger and debt in Africa, gay rights and Iraq to name but a few. All synonymous with the iconic image of the dirty, hairy, ragged, skinny stoned hippy student. Today’s ugg wearing, Astra driving, sunbed-using spoilt students know little of poverty except for the pictures they have seen on the back of a Trócaire box. Whilst our economy is suffering, and nobody is free from the downturn, their ability to empathise with this suffering has been significantly compromised by their privileged upbringing.

An exaggeration? Let’s look at what vexes our students these days. Car park spaces. Sofas. Water Coolers. The student movement has lost all sight of what is truly worth fighting for. It has become materialistic, inward looking and is afraid to take on those it aspires to be.  Students’ Unions continue to avoid any issue of real contention, issues of real concern. They fail to educate their membership on these issues and shy away from encouraging them to become empowered to campaign.

Within the student movement there is a gap between those who lead, and those who are unwillingly led. Turn out at students’ union elections is an example of how irrelevant to their membership local students’ unions have become. In last years DCUSU election just fewer than 2,000 students turned out to vote. That’s just 25% of the full-time student undergrad population. More worryingly this figure is much healthier than other students’ unions. So if one were to take the DCUSU elections as an example, the students’ union President who received 45% of the first preference vote holds a mandate of 11%. What government could survive on this, or justifiably engage in any unpopular policy with such a mandate? How can these student leaders really speak on behalf of their members? With such low turnouts the true democratic representative weight of even that 11% is totally diluted.

The student movement once fought for the end of apartheid, the legalisation of contraceptives in Ireland and the dissemination of information on abortion. Today it shies away from the controversial even though nothing engages students more than controversy. It is the local politics of students’ unions that has destroyed the student movement. It has heralded the dawn of the compromising national student leader, a person more concerned with partnership than social justice. It is not that ordinary students don’t have the capacity to care, they are not allowed too, and the Union that purports to represent them is unwilling to inspire.  Unemployment, freedom of speech, the environment, health cuts, fair trade, the erosion of democracy, militant Islam, unjust wars: these are issues students and indeed Ireland need to address and highlight. A student movement that fights for what students believe in, not what it thinks students should believe in, could go a long way in promoting social change in Ireland once more.

Irish society needs a robust, vocal and rebellious student movement. We need the young, the rash, the idealistic to widen the narrow vision of Irish society and our political leaders. In times of such uncertainty our politicians are hesitant to make rash decisions and neglect those issues that transcend the fickle. The student movement has in the past focused the attention of our leaders and our media on the pain and suffering of those with no voice.  Students must challenge their leaders, educate themselves on social injustice and prove to the public and politicians that some things are worth standing up for.

All politics is local and local students’ unions can easily make a difference nationally and internationally. The death of the student movement has led to a society that is resigned to selfish protectionist politics. Students were able to grab headlines by simply chaining themselves outside an offending embassy or Government department; headlines that informed and educated. Headlines that motivated us all.  The rebirth of the student movement could energise Irish politics for years to come. Many rebellious student leaders of the past are now high profile national politicians. If our student leaders really have an eye on a political career they would do well to take heed of a simple truth – political parties always believe it is better to be pissing out of the tent than into it.  Energy, passion and ideals are attractive qualities to political parties, and are qualities that can be molded.

Maybe the best thing that ever happened our youth and social conscience is the end of the Celtic Tiger. Let us pray that our youth never have it so easy so they cherish what they have and campaign for others to have it too.

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14 Comments on “Revolting students, your country needs you!”

  1. Micilin Muc Says:

    How revolting do the students need to be?

  2. belfield Says:

    Steve, you should go talk to NCAD about student action – they even managed to put the frighteners on The Doc a few years ago.

    Or if you want a masterclass in student action – of the slightly crazy, run-around but still effective sort – drop in on that rather lovely university slightly to the west of Dublin and ask about visiting, honorary associate thingies that they don’t like the sound of… 🙂

    Student movement – not dead: just resting. But we probably do need a bit more life in it these days…. though perhaps not on the Greek scale of things.

    • Steve Says:

      Hi Belfield;

      As far as I recall it is the student group FEE are one of the main opponents of Deputy Ahern’s academic accolade. The same group that fancies itself as the true representative of the student voice without any elected officers and ergo no democratic mandate. It can of course be argued that these are just a bunch of ordinary students doing exactly what I am calling for in this piece, and to an extent this is very true. Some aren’t aligned to fringe youth wings of political parties, but most are. And whilst membership of a political party is something that should be applauded – their actions and behaviour should not.

      I do accept your point though!

      😛 ……and going Greek would be a bit of a knee-jerk reflex reaction to this call to action alright!

      • A Maynooth student Says:

        Yes, FEE are one of the main opponents of Bertie’s honorary adjunct professorship in Maynooth. As for no ‘democratic mandate’ – well I suppose that depends what you mean by democratic. FEE would consider themselves to be proponents of ‘direct democracy’: non-hierarchical and participatory structures of decision making, and therefore no need for elected officers. I’m sure they would be more than happy to talk to you about why they chose to organise this way, and about their decision not to be ratified by the Maynooth SU if you’d care to contact them (you could add them as a friend on Facebook).

        I think they will probably also put you straight on this notion you have that they fancy themselves to be the true voice of the student. For one thing, students are more diverse than you state (and perhaps believe) in your post. The composition of FEE’s membership reflects this diversity. As for most of it’s members being career-minded wannabe politicians, Labour Youth on occasion works with FEE, yes, but there is little crossover in membership. The youth branches of other political parties are not so interested.

        As for not applauding FEE’s actions and behaviours – why not? They managed to get over 1,000 signatures on petition against Bertie’s appointment (though I think 1,200 is closer to the final figure) – no mean feat for a bunch of students running into lecture halls with a few sheets of paper. And between 150 and 300 (truth probably somewhere in the middle) students walked over to deliver the petition to John Hughes’ office during their lunch break. John Hughes, it should be noted, did not have the decency to receive the petition in person.

        But objecting to Bertie’s professorship is only the best publicised part of FEE Maynooth’s activity. They have also been active in other areas – protesting with the public sector workers against cutbacks, standing with the college workers on the picket lines on 24th November 2009 (when the SU encouraged students to cross), getting in contact with the canteen workers who lost their jobs when the canteen burned down in November 2008, and more besides. Again, I’m sure they’ll be happy to tell you about it.

        As for SUs avoiding “any issue of real contention, issues of real concern”, I only have personal experience of Maynooth but basically the university has the SU under its thumb, which severely limits its capacity to do or even say anything meaningful. But while the union exec and council may be incapacitated, student activism is alive and well in societies such as, for example, the global justice society, the volunteering society, the Lion’s club, the social solidarity network, various charity groups, FEE (obviously) and the GLB. Maybe student activists aren’t as loud/smelly/obviously stoned as in the good old days, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist, and you certainly shouldn’t dismiss them.

        One final comment – I noted with interest the criticism levied against the student body as being only interested in car parking spaces, water coolers and sofas. Re. car parking spaces in particular – I presume this is something brought up with university management on a semi-regular basis, if DCU is anything like Maynooth. Interesting that a guest post on the President’s blog should be encouraging students not to be so concerned with such petty and trivial matters. No, students should turn their attention to loftier matters and leave the poor harangued university management in peace. Of course they should. 🙂

  3. kevin denny Says:

    One of the joys of teaching in the big lecture theatres in UCD is that students running for election inevitably want to use the start of my class to give a little spiel. I generally allow two to have a go.
    The rather low level of the campaign does disappoint. Its the same old stuff each year, the same empty promises.
    Of course the students are the same age each year whereas I get older & more cynical and hey, professional politicians here are not exactly brilliant in the rhetoric department either, but it would be nice to see someone showing a bit of spark, a bit of imagination and maybe a bit of guts, like welcoming university back on to the agenda for example.

    • Steve Says:

      Hi Kevin;

      Making education sexy is a terribly difficult thing to do, and has been the main reason the national movement has failed to energise its own membership. It moved away from its advocacy role for minority groups to a more service orientated organisation from 2004 and since then students’ unions have been unable to attract as many students into their folds. And during the tuition fees campaign it totally ignored its grassroots campaigns which resulted in a loss of interest by many students.

      We have very few politicians who can generate interest in education. Maybe we lost interest in it because we had it so good an degrees have become two-a-penny, or at least generic degrees.

      Is radical education policy reform needed in third level? Will the lecturer unions welcome this new policy if one of our political parties proposes one? And which party would the media take seriously with radical reform?

      In my honest opinion we need to start looking at primary and post-primary first. Serious reform of the Education Welfare Act for instance – look at attendance in schools, give the NEWB for instance some teeth. Introduce proper, structured pre-school education also. Look at retention levels into the Leaving Cert. Funding obviously is an issue too, and serious political courage will be needed there.

  4. Forest Gump Says:

    There is something rotten in Ireland Steven, your 100% correct. I don’t think its the Students Unions that are the problem, lets take a little walk down memory lane here with me, I know that the Students Unions in Ireland in the past have called for the end of apartheid, the legalisation of contraceptives in Ireland and the dissemination of information on abortion, save the whales, write letters to the dalai lama. Yes, its all true and yes its also true to say that the money that students have paid to get students to represent students was getting pissed into a toilet bowl or against a wall some where. Students unions in Ireland have changed so much in the last 20 years. A mature student I hear you say yes your right I am and I have been to 4 different colleges in Ireland doing different courses through the years and have seen first hand the way the Students unions have changed.

    Can I give you the example of the USIT Travel company? It was run by USI and they also had night a club etc that was all making money for student in Ireland to benefit from. Where are they all today, not in students hands, my point being, student get better represented in college now a days by officers. They have better structures in place to support students in their time of need and its important to say this as now its a more professional group of student that get more out of being a leader in the students unions.

    I would rather take the way the unions are being run at the moment than go back to the dark old days of what has happened, money flying back hand’ders, I don’t need to go on. I hope you see my points Steven and I hope that you see you have a very good union that work very hard for you. I for one am a member of another union in Ireland and I see your union as a union that s gets off its ass and fights fees, students rights at a government level, in college, and at a national level. Professional approach is the way forward for the Students Unions in Ireland and most if not all are embracing that need for this. I for one would like to thank the staff of the unions across Ireland,see that work that you don’t see, I see people who care about students, I see people who don’t want to stand on the highest roofs of the city’s and towns, and call out look what I did today, more modest more modern, more professional.

    I like the bit in you piece about “We need the young, the rash, the idealistic to widen the narrow vision of Irish society and our political leaders.” Do I hear an election campaign starting from UCD….me thinks so and good luck to you I really mean it I think if you can see what I see then you would become a part of something that’s professional. So my words to you my young friend is “get involved and see for yourself”.

    Embrace it be a part of it its good, its clean, and its fun, and you never know where the road might take you,……………..”Good afternoon to you”

    • Steve Says:

      Hi Forest Gump;

      Thanks for your comments. I am also a mature student and have intimate knowledge of the students’ union industry. I am a former sabbatical officer of both a students’ union and the USI. DCU is my third college and I have worked as a USI officer on almost every campus in the country. I have worked with students in all these campuses and have got to find out (albeit a small sample) of their issues with how the modern students’ union operates.

      I know how much students’ unions have changed for the better, but this change has had serious negatives in terms of their ability as representatives compared to the sterling work they do as service providers. A union is a union first, not a business, although many unions have gone down this road.

      The professionalisation of students’ unions is indeed welcome, and I am on record in previous interviews I have done on the topic over the last three years. Where Unions have become limited companies this has led to greater accountability of budgets and better more long terms spending decisions being implemented. These Unions are also required to submit accounts and as such are required to follow good practice in terms of accounting. These are all welcome things. These unions work very hard for their students, everyday and are equally frustrated with the inability of the national movement to get things done as they are small colleges and are simply out-voted.

      In terms of the Club USI and USIT, yes it is true to say that these enterprises were once owned by USI. However it is equally more important to acknowledge why these no longer belong to USI. For the record I was not a USI officer when this was going on. Was there corruption within USI? I remember several of the national councils discussing the fall out of 9/11 and the stress this placed on the then President of USI – trying to save a company that was about to go public with hundreds of jobs at stake, trying to make sure he was in a position to pay his own sabbatical officers the ridiculously low salaries his officers were on at the time, trying to save staff positions in Ceann Aras (USI HQ) – people who had families to feed and mortgages to repay. Yes these were very difficult times for USI and thanks to strong leadership and the guts to make the decisions that needed to be made the Union survived.

      Of course USI is by no means a perfect organisation. It has too many officers, local unions have way too much say at executive level in the union, and sometimes people get elected for the wrong reasons. Put the national union is in stalemate at the moment however from what I hear from the several students’ union I remain in regular contact with this years USI congress may well see the changes being adopted that USI needs.

      You seem to believe that I want to turn back the clock to the days of back scratching and dynasty students’ unions. You don’t have to look to far to talk about a students’ union engaged in dynasties to the ones you are hailing.

      I have seen how hard unions work. I worked my backside off when I was an officer. Early mornings, late nights, with many a night spent sleeping in the office. Why did I and others like me do it? Not because we were on great money or were getting some backhander for it. We did it because we genuinely cared about the welfare of students and believed in what the movement stood for, or should I say we thought the movement stood for. I suggest you speak to former officers in the national union of the last 5 years and ask them how the constant pandering to these local unions you hold in such high esteem has resulted in a demoralised and drained officerboard in USI. Officers that were elected to do a job, and were blocked at every turn by local unions too afraid to be shown up by the national union.

      In saying this I do, and have acknowledged very publicly in fact, the positive and hard work done by DCUSU. Believe me the officers in question were in shock when I did it, but I did because I saw how hard they worked. But this does not take away from the real problem that exists – that of a significant democratic deficit that is a cancer in student politics. It has allowed playground politics destroy a national movement I and many others had great pride in.

      In terms of an election from UCD I’m not quite sure what you are talking about there.

  5. Steve. This is a very well-written considered piece. I wonder would you allow us to reproduce an abridged version of it for our newspaper as a letter. Please let me know on my e-mail address:

  6. James D Says:

    I am a former student union officer in a different college and I think Steve has put his finger on it big time here. There is a serious problem in the student movement, one that has not been addressed in years. Whilst I would agree with a previous poster that student unions have improved that have totally lost sight of what is most important. Student unions (for the most part, there are exceptions) are concerned with ents, printing services, binding services, bars. These things are important but instilling a greater awareness of global issues and social injustice is very important too. Student unions are founded on the principles of democracy, equality and the protection of the vulnerable no mater where they be. There is no fraternal movement anymore. It is simply out for what it can get for itself, very much like the trade union movement IMHO.

    When I was an officer we campaigned on various issues that weren’t student related. We initially didn’t want to do it but the response was massive and we got students involved in education campaigns on the foot of it. They enjoyed the protesting and the camaraderie that came with it.

    I read Steve’s Irish Times piece a few years ago which carried the same sentiments. I was just out of the student union at this stage and that article caused great upset amongst SU heads. Why? Because students who read it said hang on a second he’s right. There were debates all over the country. It really made SUs take a long hard look at themselves. The movement has come a long way in terms of professionalism but I do think students need to be more revolting and show all us old heads how important it is sometimes to ‘rabble, rabble rabble’ once more!!!

  7. ‘Maynooth student’, I am more than happy to provide space for a guest blog from a FEE representative also.

    • A Maynooth student Says:

      Hi Ferdinand,

      It’s still exam season over here in Maynooth, but I’ve passed your message onto FEE in the hope that they’ll take you up your offer as soon as they can.

      A Maynooth student.

  8. themonaghanpenguin Says:

    I guess there are a number of issues being thrown around arising from both this article and the comments after it. I remember when I ran for SU President and was unopposed, virtually my entire Executive was unopposed that year. Coming at the end of my stint as a non-sabbatical officer it was horribly demoralising to see such disinterest in even running for positions. Myself and the other Sabbats that year decided that there could be no repeat of that same apathy the following year. Circumstances helped us in that regard with a Fees campaign and recession to create some interest.

    Still, trying to organise the average student to anything that didn’t interest them directly was a huge and often unrewarding endeavor. Apathy is rampant in the student population. The reason most SUs don’t try to engage students in campaigns against wider social issues is because to do so risks irrelevance. The year of the average sabbat is so frantic and so fast paced and confined in reality to two short semesters of 12 weeks that a failed attempt to organise on an issue can take away greatly from what they hope to achieve.

    When I was elected, the staff in the union liked to refer to me as the “political president.” As I was the first student to come from studying politics but also because I was the first president “in years” to actually have an interest in politics outside the campus. In DCU up until last year there were three political parties, (Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and Sinn Fein) represented amongst the student societies and one of these struggled to find the 20 members needed. Last year that expanded to include the Greens and Labour but membership of all parties on campus is embarrassingly low.

    All that said, what students want from a Union is different from what Steve (and although we believe in different things based on this article, I) believe they should want. It’s harsh to completely blame leaders who are elected based on what people want in a Union. People get the government they deserve. As for the more professional attitude for one is most welcome. I and my Executive were criticised for not being more independent from the University. However this micro form of Social Partnership allowed us opportunities to push initiatives and ideas we believed in. Anonymous Marking is the most visable recent example, but also campaigns like last year’s Road Safety Awareness campaign which was co-ordinated by the Education and Welfare Officer and supported heavily by DCU’s Health and Safety Office. And the co-operation between that same office, DCU security and the Union meant that last year DCU was spared the headline grabbing shambles that RAG Weeks were in other colleges.
    I think Unions need to stop and carry out extensive analysis of where they are, where they came from and where they are going and any contribution to this debate is welcome.

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