Just before the mid-term, UCD students took to the polls to vote in a referendum which, if successful, would have seen UCD’s Students Union re-affiliate with the Union of Students in Ireland (USI).

UCD left the umbrella union in 2013 following a constitutional referendum, the result of which saw 65% of students decide they wanted out. This time around, that figure was 74%.

Simultaneously, candidates for the 2016/2017 sabbatical team went up for election, as did those vying for the college officer roles which support the paid sabbats in doing their work over the year.

In the sabbatical race, only the role of campaigns and communications officer was contested, with three candidates gunning for a shot at the recently re-instated role. Of six college officer positions, four were uncontested, as was the race for Irish Officer.

According to UCD’s own figures, there were 32,387 students registered as attending the university in 2014/2015. Of these, 5,636 are studying overseas. This leaves somewhere in the region of 26,500 in the pool of students who can vote, give or take the few who will for whatever reason not be eligible take part in students’ union elections and referenda.

The numbers in the USI referendum appear at first glance to be an overwhelming statement of intent. The result however, democratically binding as it may be, offers only a thin veneer of legitimacy to students’ decision. The 74% of students who elected to remain out of the USI make up three quarters of a total valid poll of 2,921 – just 11% of UCD’s student body.

In no way does this mean that the opinion of this majority is invalid. The No side rightly pointed out many structural issues within the USI, some of which have gone unrectified since UCD elected to leave in the first place. Problems exist at national level. But these only mirror the same kinds of problems which exist in individual students’ unions, UCDSU included.

Looking at how few of the positions up for election within UCDSU were contested gives some indication an indication that a problem exists within student politics. There would appear to be very little interest among the student population in what it is that’s happening in the student centre.

This isn’t confined to being a local issue however. Last weekend, the USI held its national congress in Ennis, Co. Clare. Of the five sabbatical officer positions up for election there, again only one was contested; the role of vice president for welfare and equality.

A quick chat with friends after the referendum result brought up one sentiment. Those who were aware of what’s happening in student politics expressed frustration at problems going unsolved and issues being overlooked but the vast majority, 9/10, couldn’t care less. One even went so far as to ask “how any of that is my fucking problem?”

There’s a longstanding disconnect between students and their representatives. Something which appears to only be getting worse as time goes on. The core work of a students’ union, representing its members has become nearly impossible as the unions themselves have no teeth.

While sabbats are allowed access to university management meetings, places on boards, and occasionally a voice at national level, they will come to find, very quickly in many cases, that they are there solely to be seen to be there.

That to a certain extent, the students’ seat at the table is a token one. A bone thrown to keep those who would otherwise agitate for change sweet enough not to act.

Students are notoriously disengaged with the political system, something which is so entrenched that it can be relied upon by those in positions of power. The Marriage Equality Referendum inspired some hope that this might change, with polling day having inspired the #hometovote movement and pricked up pundit’s ears at the prospect of the young vote becoming as powerful a force as their elders.

The general election has proved more than a little ambiguous on whether or not this change has actually precipitated. New political parties such as the Social Democrats appear to have drawn in some of the young crowd, as do the old guard in the treaty parties and Sinn Féin. But despite a lot of chatter on social media, there was no landslide. Things have only ground to a halt.

Student politics is the entry point for many into the Irish political system. Many of those who will haunt the corridors of power in Leinster House in the not too distant future have, and will continue to, cut their teeth on student issues. Those who came before them, Gilmore, Quinn, Creighton et al, did.

But, it now seems difficult to convince anyone to take a chance at putting themselves up for election – a chance at a well-paid, CV cementing, year-long job which itself offers the opportunity to make life better for the office holder’s peers.

By its nature, much of the work that the students’ union does will go unnoticed, taken for granted only by everyone bar those who benefit from it themselves. No-one can ever know when the welfare officer gives a hand to the woman who approached them with crippling depression, or when the education officer helps the man who needed to get extenuating circumstances, and nor should they.

But everyone, and their mammy, will know when there’s a fee rise, or when the wait for a counsellor is extended by another week, or when an undergraduate can’t access the journal which they need to write a second-year essay.

These are the issues which are key to students’ interests. And these and issues like them are precisely the things which students’ unions, not solely at UCD, are failing to tackle.

UCDSU was established in 1975 to represent students’ interests against powerful professionals. This paper was founded in 1989 to hold both it and the university to account. Clearly the problem of students’ issues needing representation and how this is to be best achieved is not a new one.

Students at UCD have a wash through rate of somewhere between three and five years. When another USI referendum comes around in four years’ time, there’s a good chance that anyone who might have been around to experience the events of the past few weeks will be long gone.

It’s very likely though, that the same problems which exist today will exist then. As they have down through the years gone by. A quick glance through the back issues of this paper confirms this, with many of the problems which existed in 1989, or 1993, or 2005 remaining unresolved.

This is my fifth year in and around UCD. Having graduated last year, I’m not quite as clued in to what’s going on as I once was, thankfully I have a good team of section editors and writers to act as my eyes and ears.

A quick chat with friends after the referendum result brought up one sentiment. Those who were aware of what’s happening in student politics expressed frustration at problems going unsolved but the vast majority, 9/10, couldn’t care less. One even went so far as to ask “how any of that is my fucking problem?”.

Those in positions to effect change would do well to look back at what’s worked and what hasn’t for their predecessors. Those who feel they’re not in these positions need to make themselves known and involve themselves in any way they can.

Students must organise and do so by fixing the structural problems which have hampered efforts in the past.  If this can’t be managed, then you’ll be reading this same editorial in four, eight, twelve, 20 years’ time.

Find some teeth, use them.

  • Seán O’Reilly, Editor
    This article originally appeared in Volume 29, Issue 10. Published March 29th 2016.