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What is to be done about the Union of Students in Ireland?
This week, student union representatives from all around Ireland will head to Bundoran for the annual congress of the Union of Students of Ireland (USI).
The congress is taking place at a critical time for the organisation. The Union has industrial relations difficulties. SIPTU, the trade union affiliated to USI which provides free representation for USI members as well as vital solidarity in times of need, is taking a case of unfair dismissal against a former member of USI staff. A hearing is set for April 16th at the Labour court.
The Union has political difficulties. It might seem obvious that a general election year would be a critical time for the Student movement to mobilise and attempt to apply pressure to gain concessions from the political system. Organised student pressure has been noticeably absent in recent time. The result? No discussion what so ever of student issues in that national debate facing into the general election.
That we need a national students union is obvious. It is hard to imagine how fees would have been defeated in 2003 without a national co-ordinating body for that campaign. The malaise facing USI is the malaise facing the Student Unions who make it up. Lack of participation by students, lack of student campaigns and a failure to realise the potential power of the student movement effect many student unions in Ireland. It is hardly surprising, then, that a similar malaise has embraced the national union. Students who complain that USI “does noting” ought to remember that proposals for action are often blocked by constituent unions at USIs national council, the representative body of students unions that runs USI between congresses.
Reading through the Clar or manual for this years congress, it is difficult not to come to the conclusion that there is little willingness on the part of our students unions, all of whom are entitled to put forward five motions, to face up to the malaise facing USI. Many of the motions call for worthy initiatives that would enhance our education system. But there is little evidence of a willingness to actually do something to make such initiatives a reality.
Some of the motions take on a hard line approach to the idea that the Union of Students in Ireland is indeed a union at all. Trinity College SU have submitted a motion calling for the link between USI and SIPTU to be broken and links to be established with the employers group IBEC instead. Whatever about the ideological questions involved in such a proposal, it represents the pursuit of an appalling strategy. When student unions have come into conflict with college authorities in the past, SIPTU and other unions have often been their only allies. On a national level, the trade unions, through SIPTUs education branch, are a voice for the preservation and expansion of free education.
This brings us to the nub of the matter. The crisis facing USI is a crisis of politics. The dominant ideology of the Student movement of the present time might be described as service based. Most Unions now simply see their role as providing services and managing the staffs that run them. In this context, it makes sense to cut links with bodies such a trade unions because the service model sees no role for the campaigns that might involve trade unionists in the first place.
This model is leading to the ruination of the student movement. Yes, Unions ought to provide welfare and education services. But there has to be a campaigning role if the Unions are to become relevant again. The campaigning model gives students a role in their union that is something other than a mere consumer. By doing so, it encourages participation and empowerment. Only the campaigning model can fight to introduction of fees by stealth and achieve a real say for students with college authorities. This much has been proved time and a time again. Recall how students achieved a say in how colleges were run in the first place and how students worked with their allies to defeat fees.
The occasion of this year’s annual congress will provide an opportunity for those attending to confront USIs crisis of politics. It is an opportunity that should be grasped.