UCDSU’s position on membership in the Union of Students in Ireland is to go to the polls once again alongside students’ union sabbatical and executive elections on March 8th & 9th. The referendum comes just three years after the student body voted to disaffiliate from the umbrella union. With an increase in the student contribution on the cards and an apparent disinterest among voters, what’s it going to be?

In 2013, after an engaging campaign by the yes and no sides, UCD voted to disaffiliate from the umbrella body with 64.5% in favour and 35.5% opposed. This initial campaign saw a shock result as UCD, Ireland’s largest university, elected to part ways with the rest of the student movement in Ireland in order to focus on rebuilding itself following a near meltdown and fiscal collapse.

Speaking at the time, then president of the USI John Logue acknowledged the unique position that UCD was in, saying; “We recognise the unique circumstances in UCD. It’s clear that the decision taken by its students is not reflected in referendum results elsewhere and while we are disappointed to lose their voice from the national union, we respect their decision.”

The pro-USI camp lamented the loss of a voice for UCD at national level, while their opponents congratulated one another on a job well done. In their minds, UCDSU could now look inwards and seek to make itself better.

All change

At the core of the 2013 referendum was the belief, on both sides, that something had to change. The USI was viewed as being a bloated, ineffective behemoth by no-campaigners while yes campaigners argued that UCD alone, despite its considerable size, could have no impact on wider issues such as third-level funding.

Hindsight allows contemporary observers to look back and recognise that both sides were being highly optimistic. The same structural issues which plagued the USI and caused its perceived ineffectiveness also exist at UCD, and despite the clearing of debts which has been ongoing since UCDSU’s near bankruptcy, little undertaking would appear to have been made to make the union more effective.

Hoping that either UCDSU or the USI would do better was an ambitious, naïve goal. Both have changed the way they operate in the intervening years and have had their share of successes and failures, but the problems which caused the 2013 referendum still exist and remain difficult to address.

Two sides have sprung up once again in the debate. Speaking to the College Tribune, a spokesperson for the Yes (Rejoin) side said; “Students in UCD are calling this referendum because we are at a crucial point in national conversations about issues such as fees and accommodation. Currently, we have little impact on the national agenda. USI have clearly demonstrated their capacity to deliver on a national level and UCD needs to be part of that and we believe that UCD students should have the opportunity to have an input into decisions that will ultimately affect them. We are running this referendum independent of USI and UCDSU to show put this responsibility back on UCD students”

Their counterparts  on the No (Remain Out) campaign team added the following; “Whether they have reformed or not is an irrelevance really. We see them as an added layer of bureaucracy and cost that is completely unnecessary to have in place and does not benefit us in any way. By joining the USI, the students of UCD have to give the USI their hard earned money which we can little afford to give. Students have enough economic hardship at the moment with rent and fees and forcing us to pay the USI only adds to this.”

The addition of €2.50 and €5 per part and full time student to a student’s contribution at the start of the year would see in excess of €100,000 go to the USI from UCD. A sticking point of the anti-USI campaign last time was this cost, with campaigners arguing that monies could be better invested in students if they were to remain within the university.

The addition of this payment on top of what is already given would see the Union’s budget remain in effect the same, allowing it to continue to provide the same level of services as is presently available in UCD. This is a point on which the current no campaign will attempt to attract voters. The number of student’s registered to vote by the USI in advance of the general election is raised as one example of the USI simply being an added layer of bureaucracy.

The no camp argues that if UCDSU were itself better organised, such an undertaking would not be an issue as registration happens at university level regardless. In this case, they see the referendum as being little more “UCDSU wanting someone to hold their hand and make decisions for them.” Yes campaigners maintain the UCD gains a voice beyond the boundaries of Belfield and that membership in the USI represents an important step towards unifying the broader student movement in order to act collectively.

Only one thing counts

It appears likely that this referendum will pass or fail on a much thinner margin than its predecessor. While there is an appetite to rejoin, how much this is felt among the wider student body is uncertain. The presence of a vocal no campaign would appear to indicate that memory of 2013 is still fresh and that there are some in UCD who are happy for it to remain in splendid isolation.

What matters most is that you make your own voice heard at the referendum on March 8th and 8th. Read up on what both camps are offering and make your own decision.

  • Seán O’Reilly, Editor
    This piece originally appeared in Volume 29, Issue 9. Published February 29th 2016.