Posted tagged ‘student politics’

The travails of student politics

September 27, 2016

I entered university as a student slightly later than most of my contemporaries. After I left school I decided to take a job rather than become a student. I did this for a couple of years before changing my mind and deciding to study law. I started in Trinity College Dublin on a bright October morning in 1974, and decided that I’d probably learn more about TCD by taking a tour organised by what was then called the Student Representative Council. We were given a student handbook and asked to study this before the actual tour.

The handbook was totally wonderful, featuring as it did two motivational articles, one each by the SRC President and the Vice-President. Except that the two of them didn’t agree on much. The President was a key activist in the Communist Party of Ireland (Marxist-Leninist), which in turn saw itself as mostly following the teachings of Chairman Mao, and later Albanian Communist leader Enver Hoxha. It liked armed liberation struggles (including in Northern Ireland), but was not much into liberal decadence. The same President once suggested during a debate on gay rights that this wasn’t much of an issue in Mao’s China, meaning that that was the end of the matter. His contribution to the student manual was to call for a struggle to free the working classes globally and beyond. He believed that it was every student’s duty to oppose the capitalist bourgeoisie, including its placemen in university management.

The Deputy President was an altogether different man; indeed he more or less personified the ‘liberal decadence’ so disliked by his President. His contribution to the manual consisted of exhortations to enjoy sex and drugs and rock’n’roll, in whichever order suited.

The year that followed this induction saw some major actions in the university, in pursuit of the various ideals of both student leaders. Without necessarily suggesting I pursued all of his proposals, I much preferred the Deputy President; he was without doubt rather good company, and it may be worth saying in passing that he was later a known figure in Irish broadcasting circles long after the President dropped into complete obscurity. But in a year off occupations and protests and marches and demonstrations, most students got on with their studies, many of them completely oblivious of all or any of this.

But are student politics irrelevant? One key moment in all of the fun back in 1974 was during a debate organised by the SRC, which featured a motion that ‘we’ should liberate South Africa’. It was not a bad debate, and it included really interesting contributions from leaders of the Anti-Apartheid movement. However, one of these suggested, with a twinkle in his eye, that maybe the TCD Student Representative Council,  regardless of how it voted on the motion, would not itself liberate South Africa; what would matter more would be persuading the influential western middle classes that this was a goal worth pursuing. There was complete silence at this suggestion, as students digested the horrible possibility that they were not in the vanguard of liberation. There was no applause.

The issues around student politics are maybe not that different today, as this recent assessment by a current student indicates. Today’s student leaders still sometimes manage to fight battles that don’t particularly resonate with the masses and that over-play the impact of student politics. But student politics do matter. They provide an opportunity for engagement and for debate, and so at the very least they allow students to develop leadership skills. Maybe student politicians sometimes over-estimate the interest felt by most students in radical politics, but many of them go on to be highly persuasive as politicians in the ‘real’ system.

I’m glad I don’t face the particular brand of political agitation favoured by my student president in 1974 – but I’m glad also that students still come forward to represent their colleagues and hold us to account. Doing so provides a genuine service.

Finding the student voice

September 30, 2010

It has become a common argument that, as tuition fees return or at least are being discussed, students will become more demanding; if they are paying, they expect to see some service. As a theoretical perspective that sounds reasonable enough, but the experience of higher education systems with fees doesn’t necessarily bear this out. On the whole, the student voice has not become louder or more demanding.

And actually, that’s a pity. These days students are generally so focused on navigating their courses and coming out with a good grade that they don’t spend much time arguing about university policies – not even catering, for heaven’s sake. Even where they have representation on decision-making bodies, they often do not use this very actively. There are of course exceptions to the rule, as for example in the attempts here and there to stop Bertie Ahern speaking on a campus, but frankly these little outbursts are of no great significance in the scheme of things.

Over my time as President of DCU I spent some time thinking about why this might be so. One possibility is that we – meaning the universities and their students – have arranged student representation on a kind of ‘social partnership’ model, which in the end simply parachutes student representatives into what are essentially staff discussions, which may not always be of direct significance to them. It’s not that I think we should discontinue this – I don’t, emphatically – but rather we should become more skilled at making the students’ narratives a more recognisable part of the university communications.

One interesting experiment in this context is being conducted in Arizona State University, which now runs a student blog page on its website, where new students are given an opportunity to write about their experiences, and thereby perhaps highlight what is good and not so good about the university and their programmes of study. There are no doubt also other ways of giving space to student voices and encouraging them to engage in constructive critique. It can and should all be part of the earning experience, and perhaps will encourage students to take an active part in charting the direction of their university.

Revolting students, your country needs you!

January 14, 2010

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.