Conor Anderson, president of UCD Students’ Union (UCDSU), spoke to The College Tribune this week about the fee protests, UCD’s handling of the COVID crisis, and the difficulty of carrying on the union’s work through lockdown. 

This week, Graduate Entry Medicine (GEM) students at University College Dublin (UCD) announced their decision to withhold fees in protest of ongoing fee increases. Anderson has been working with GEM students, and other student groups, to apply external pressure on UCD to reduce fees. “There are at least 3 other schools/courses that are planning something similar [to the GEM students],” he said.

“My hope is that the medical students going public triggers a snowball effect across the university, and we see more students getting organised and deciding to take direct action.” Fees for the course have increased year on year since 2017, accompanied by larger class sizes, with no increase in student services to match the larger number of students.

Anderson’s strategy is to encourage students to “get organised at a course or school level” when campaigning for change on campus. “Different schools will have different needs. So the GEM students are getting organised with their own particular demands,” he told The Tribune.

“They’re looking for a freeze to fee increases, a reduction in fees to their 2017 levels, and a comprehensive breakdown of where their fee money goes. As the fees have been going up year on year, class numbers have also been going up. Last year, there wasn’t even enough seats in a lecture hall to accommodate all of the GEM students. But there’s still the same number of seats in the library and no student support programme in UCD is expanding.”

“Everyone has seen the cranes around campus. You can’t tell me UCD doesn’t have any money. If they made student support a priority, they could find the money…”

So where is the money going? Anderson believes it’s being spent on “prestige projects” in an effort to build UCD’s international reputation: “Everyone has seen the cranes around campus. You can’t tell me UCD doesn’t have any money. If they made student support a priority, they could find the money, but they don’t because it isn’t [a priority].”

The SU President believes that university management did not handle the campus’ reopening in September well – citing the plight of UCD’s international students. “UCD invited international students to come here and then locked them down in their campus accommodation. I can’t tell you the level of mental stress that is going on with students who have come over, quarantined, and then found out they could’ve done the entire thing from home.” He believes that UCD had other motives, both financial and reputational, for allowing this. 

“UCD management does not care,” he told the Tribune. “They’re already hurting for accommodation revenue and fee revenue. If UCD announced an online trimester and a bunch of students deferred, what would they do next year? They would have to offer fewer places to new students to accommodate those deferring students.”

He noted that students’ unions across the country, as well as the Irish Federation of University Teachers, knew that it was likely that teaching would move online, despite plans for hybrid learning. “All the campus unions predicted this scenario back in July. You can’t tell me that UCD were blindsided by the fact that COVID did not just go away.”

Anderson notes that being a sabbatical officer has been more difficult this year. “Part of the fun of being a sabbat is that you’re always meeting people and running around. It’s a position for ‘people people’ and it’s hard to do it all through Zoom. But the team this year are doing a great job despite the circumstances.”

Despite the challenges this year has brought, he encourages students to remain engaged with their union and to continue fighting for change on campus. “We are the university. It belongs to us. We pay for it, we’re the largest constituency on campus and the deciding power should lie with us.”

Isobel Dunne – Reporter