Student Democracy is an important part of an educational ecosystem. It represents our wants and desires, behaviours and habits, and allows a deeper connection between institution and student. The Student’s Union in UCC is no exception. I feel proud to be part of a University which allows for the Students to influence how it operates. Not just in the provision of the materials we need to learn, but in the interpersonal relations and life skills we pick up along the way.
This is why I feel it is important to keep a check on our Union. Its capacity for student representation does not absolve it from issues. The issue I wish to bring to bear is that of accountability. It seems, from where I’m standing, that our union lacks accountability in the various ways in which it operates.
This article isn’t here to vitiate and vilify the union, nor to undermine it; but instead to point out the specificities of its failings, and suggest how to improve them.
Who is our Union financially accountable too?
The union receives its budget each year from the University. At the end of each year it publishes a set of accounts from the previous year’s budget. As students we have a right to view these documents, and you can, of course, email the Student’s union and…wait….you can?
This fact isn’t made very clear anywhere: Every student is automatically a member of the union, and this entitles us to access to the accounts. When speaking to people across campus about this, though, the majority had no idea of this stipulation. In fact, speaking to 3 separate S.U Class Reps yielded a shocking result: they didn’t know this either.
I doubt anything nefarious is going on here. After all, the Student’s union is accountable to the College Exchequer for all of its financial transactions. The ignorance of the student body on the financial matters of the student’s union is shocking. This isn’t a failing of the student body; it is a failure of the union. These accounts are just too difficult to find.
As we receive emails from President Hayes every so often informing us of events across campus, so too should we receive emails with a shiny PDF of our Union’s budget for this year and the account’s for last year. Make it public! After all, we contribute to it and are represented by it. It is only correct that we should know about how they spend the money required to run.
Accountability for Actions
The President sits on several boards of management to represent the student body. Can we see his attendance to these meetings?
What about the numbers connected with the Ents crew? How many people do you entertain?
These statistics are important to understanding how effective the Union is. If our President isn’t showing up to meetings, we should know.
This current administration has only been sitting for just under a month, so it can’t be judged upon its actions. Yet let’s imagine that come Christmas time very little has been done. What recourse do we have?
It seems as if we have very little. In reality, tucked away in the manifesto and never referred to, is a very powerful tool. Any student can call a referendum on any topic as long as they accrue 500 signatures, including asking the Student’s Union to step down.
It’s understandable why this fact isn’t publicised. It’s hard for a union to function under the constant threat of election. The solution to this, though, is not to hide this fact.
So, besides this Nuclear option, what other channels for our discontent exist?
Not much. Very little ground exists between voting them out of office and leaving them alone. We need a mechanism by which the Student’s Union can know if people appreciate it – For them to be aware of how effectively they are doing their job. The SU should send out mid-year survey that asks questions like, “How much do you know about the students union?” “Have you seen any measurable improvement to the student experience based on the performance of this year’s students union?” or even “Who is the Student’s Union’s President?” (You’d be surprised how many people do not know that.) With public results, of course.If you don’t want to do that, just make the Nuclear option far more visible then it is now. It’s just seems like if the Student Union does nothing it can get off scot-free. In reality this isn’t the case, and make sure people know that.
Yet if an election is called, we have more problems. Elections themselves are another issue in which accountability seems lacking. According to regulations, no candidate may have more than 2 posters per noticeboard, and may not spend in excess of 500 euro on a campaign, only some of which is reimbursed by the SU. If you were around last year, you’ll probably raise your eyebrow at those numbers. Candidates circumvent the posters limit by using flyers instead, which is clever, but cheating. Popcorn machines aren’t exactly cheap to rent, and neither are posters and flyers and stickers. We need to make sure that people aren’t cheating. This includes abroader system for expenses. How many can you really buy with 500 euro? What about manpower? Shouldn’t that be included in the limitations as well? How can two candidates face off if one has 29 volunteers and another has 6? These issues are not insurmountable. A limit of 10 people at any one time volunteering would be useful in keeping things fair. A limit on flyers, not just for the equality factor but for the cost to the environment. The returning officer should show us who broke the rules and when they had to enforce them, but even the most fastidious Returning Officer can’t fight lies.
Our electoral system lacks penalties for exaggerated campaign promises. People will say that that is the nature of politics, but that doesn’t make it right. Shouldn’t we ensure that candidates run an ethical campaign ? This could be done by submitting campaign materials to a verification board. Currently we have an election board which exists to prevent harmful, targeted and obscene materials from appearing on campaigns. By adding an verifications officer to the board, we could make sure that candidates actually have a plan on how to do what they say they are going to do inside their manifestos. If a candidate campaigns on an issue relating to niteline, it would be nice to know if niteline was actually aware of this plan beforehand.
These regulations apply only to board positions in the S.U. Class Reps are in a much poorer situation.
Class rep elections are a mess. Here’s an anecdote brought to my attention by a fellow student:
As you know, we aren’t given any notice in advance that class rep elections are going to be held. In this one case, five candidates overcame the sudden social anxiety of being asked to volunteer and each gave a campaign speech. This class was not a core module for the course, so the students within the class were a combination of students from various courses. One of these candidates was “Connor from Cavan”. Connor from Cavan may not have had any intention of actually winning the election, he just wanted to step up and give the single reason for his candidacy: “I’m Connor and I’m from Cavan”. A group thought it would be funny to elect Connor from Cavan. This group was not even part of the class which was electing a class rep. They didn’t have to live with the consequences.
I will not deny that class reps can and do provide a valuable service to the student body, but how about giving students more than 5 minutes notice before an election. Each candidate can be prepared, and thus if they do nothing they can be held responsible. Now it is simply a case of, “I didn’t know what I was getting myself into.” How about making sure that elections only take place, if possible, in core modules? This eliminates the possibilities for outside groups to influence who will represent a class.
The Accountability of Accountability.
This final issue I bring to your attention is one about the nature of Student Media and the S.U.
All the major student media outlets (University Express, Motley Magazine and UCC 98.3 FM) are funded through the S.U. What position is student media in to criticise the S.U?A very compromising one. Let’s divest student media from the Student’s Union. Allow the media to be unafraid of criticising each and every brick of the college. This is possible by separating the Student’s Union budget from the Student media budget. Barring that, what about creating regulation which prevents the S.U from altering funding for the media all together. Leave that to the college.
I’ll end with this. If we didn’t have a Student’s Union, this article would probably be about the need for one. It’s not a perfect system, and we can make it so much better. So let’s put in the effort to do so.