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USI Future Hinges on Finance

Stephen Goulding analyses the referendum result which saw UCC remaining affiliated with the USI and asks what next for the organisation?

After the gyre of slogans, facts and viewpoints that preceded the referendum, the students of UCC voted to stay affiliated with the USI last Tuesday. This landslide victory, however, may not be as unambiguous as it first appears. Why would the students of UCC give an overwhelming endorsement to a union that has a rather shady transparency record? A union that has failed to prevent the hikes in fees? A representative body that many students may feel disenfranchised from? The answer, it would seem, lies in the depth of our pockets. Money makes the world go round, after all.

The ‘No’ side’s far flaunted figure of €120,000 – which in all likelihood was borrowed from UCD’s 120,000 Reasons to Vote No campaign, as the figures don’t match up with UCC’s USI related spending – was, in hindsight, not enough of a deterrent for students to sway from the USI. In reality, €120,000, whilst not mere chickenfeed, isn’t a great deal when it comes to running a world class university (it’s only slightly more than half of what we dish out to our president as an annual salary).

Undoubtedly, the benefits of the saving would have been immediately appreciated on a local level, with the ‘No’ side pointing out that the money would enable the university to hire three more doctors for UCC health services, or could allow for more library hours, or even that a new common room could be built. But, had we disaffiliated, we would have been forced to fork out a similar amount of money trying to compete as a localised union on a national basis, something that we tried and failed to do in the eighties and nineties.

“In reality, €120,000, whilst not mere chickenfeed, isn’t a great deal when it comes to running a world class university.”

Thrift thrived on voting day, however, with the ‘Yes’ side vehemently pointing out that USI membership amounted to a mere €5 per full-time student per year. By any standards, €5 for union membership is a bargain: SIPTU charges its average waged members about €4 per week. To deny having a national union, who have a strong history of lobbying for individual cases on a national basis, at your disposal for a mere €5 per year would amount to nothing shy of idiocy.

That said, the USI may not have debate and rational thinking to thank for their indisputable victory. Instead they have us, or rather our €5 per annum contribution to thank. Anyone with a physical presence on campus during the two voting days would have noted an overwhelming ‘Yes’ presence, outfitted with leaflets and t-shirts. Which brings to light the question of whether or not it is justifiable that the USI use our contributions (which are taken without option) to campaign for its continuation?

Did the difference between the sides lie in campaign funds, the moneyed muscle of the USI competing against a grassroots ‘No’ side that had no disposable funds? Would the outcome of the referendum have been different if every student who voted hadn’t come into contact with a T-shirt-wearing, leaflet-branding ‘Yes’ supporter?

These questions will have to remain rhetorical for, as it stands, the USI is here to stay. As for the defeated naysayers, this should be the spark they need to gather momentum on campus and start raising awareness about the issues they have with the USI, its ineffectiveness and lack of transparency; as opposed to just opting out and pleading nolo contendere. Why not campaign to make sure we get bang for our buck? Why not start demanding that the USI get the most out of our €5 and make them prove that they are by continuing to publish their accounts, as they did on the eve of the vote?

“Would the outcome of the referendum have been different if every student who voted hadn’t come into contact with a T-shirt-wearing, leaflet-branding ‘Yes’ supporter?”

I for one am glad that we didn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater: whilst the USI has the potential to be so much more than it is today, it is still a necessity for the progression of students and students’ rights. Yet its future, if the recent referendum is anything to go by, rests on the union’s relationship with one thing: money. More specifically, how it handles money, its ability to generate money and its accountability towards money.