The UCCSU of 2020 have been voted in, and the term of 2018/19 is slowly coming to an end; what do we think? Skepticism of the UCCSU seems rampant. Critics claim that elections are won based on free sweets and popularity. This election season, there was a healthy RON campaign against the only Comms candidate David Condon, the Nap Pod For President Campaign did pretty well, and two exec positions went uncontested. I’ve interviewed a handful of students, of varying courses and at various levels of SU involvement, asking what they think of the Student Union. It won’t surprise you to hear that the majority said, “I don’t know.”
‘Engagement’ is a huge buzzword thrown around every election season, with fresh promises of a new, transparent, engaging SU every year, but nobody quite knows the secret of making 20,000 vaguely interested students look at the SU. The class rep is supposed to be the go-between, but you’ll be lucky to have a class rep who attends student council (if you’re lucky enough to have a class rep at all; at least half of the people I interviewed didn’t). How did the SU do this year, and what do people think of them?
What does UCC know about the SU?
When I asked what people knew about the SU and what they did, I got a variety of answers. A group of three second-year undergrad friends all solidly answered that they weren’t sure. “I suppose they would be important, but I don’t know what it is they do, really,” said one student, when asked if the SU were important, “We got a lot of emails.” One student, after a moment of thought, tentatively told me, “I think the president’s from Kilkenny.”
Other students are more certain. A first-year undergrad managed the simplest answer; “They represent the students, and they work in the interest of the students, with the university with things like accommodation and bring up any issues.”
Among those who keep up the workings of the SU are its skeptics, too. “They are supposed to represent students, but they don’t do that,” said one student, “They seem to be very good at trying to placate people who criticise them and then do nothing about it. It’s the same one damn thing after another”. A pHD student said, “I think the SU are important, (but) I think we’ve had poor candidates filling the positions for the last couple of years”.
Are the SU engaging students?
Mentioning the SU to the majority of students prompts shrugging. Fewer still express an interest in knowing more, not being certain about how to find out about the SU’s activities or roles. Between their Facebook page and the Know Your Union programs, it’s easy enough to figure out the exec’s names and roles, at least, but a sizable chunk of students don’t really care enough to find out.
Communications officer Faye Murphy, speaking to the Express, said, “The SU works constantly to reach out to all students. In a university of 22,000 diverse students, it is very difficult to engage with all of them…We have tried various measures this year such as campus clinics on all satellite campuses, Instagram questions, surveys and more. We do realise there is more work to be done in terms of reaching out to every student on our campus”. Deputy President Kelly Coyle noted, “We have an endless stream of students who would visit the Welfare Officer or the Education Officer to seek representation and we constantly get emails and messages from students looking for advice or information”. Ents Officer David Cronin noted the increase in attendance to events this year, adding, “I’d be the first person to agree engagement is a very hard thing to grasp, especially on the welfare and education issues which often matter most…”.
“On a broader sense of the SU, I believe that we’ve done a decent job at engagement – in an ideal world every student would be engaged but I think when you look at the resources there it isn’t feasible, time just simply isn’t there on a day-to-day basis to sit down and create the perfect approach to each topic we want students to know about,” said Education Officer Aaron Frahill, “I’ve found that time becomes such a luxury that you don’t have enough time to try and push something as much as you’d like.”
President Alan Hayes pointed out the two-sidedness of the engagement issue, too. “There has been times this year that made me feel we were doing everything possible to get our points across but some students simply do not feel the need to engage or the need to know what exactly it is we are doing,” he said, “The root of this may be that some students do not realise the extent of our work, and when we try to let students know what work we are doing, they do not feel the need to be exposed to this.”
What did the SU actually get done?
If you attend the Student council or read the minutes, you’ll see that there’s a lot going on; that said, whether or not that stuff is useful, relevant or managed efficiently is up for debate.
In campaigns, we have the Fund our Future protest, the climate change rally, the Can You See It campaign; progress has been made on the front of unpaid placement for Pharmacy students doing their master’s, baby steps are being taken towards an opt-out panopto system, and lots of big manifesto pieces– free sanitary products, free STI checks, better SU crossovers, better elections, and a UCCSU website that works– are all tipping along, albeit at a snail’s pace due to the constraints of bureaucracy. Each member of the SU sits on absolutely endless committees and has a say there, but very few people seem interested in that (despite, really, sitting on committees and representing students being their job.) For the record, you can view all the minutes for the SU online, although finding them isn’t necessarily that easiest thing in the world. Several curious students have reported that the UCCSU’s accounts are difficult to find and hard to see, despite the constitution stating that they’re publicly available; usually for reasons of their not being ready, lost, or the member being emailed not replying about it. Whether or not that’s true, and the details of it, are up the SU.
Did the SU achieve the goals on their manifesto?
Last year, I covered the UCCSU Elections for the UCC Express. In 2018, the Express asked each candidate to choose a single point from their manifesto as their main goal. How did the candidates do at achieving that one goal– and the rest of their manifesto as well? This year, I’ve gone back to those candidates I interviewed and asked them to follow up with what they told me before their term started, and asked them about how their manifestos went.
When I asked whether or not candidates felt they’d achieved many goals from their manifesto, here’s what I got.
Alan Hayes, President
“I quickly learned that it’s easy to say you’ll do something but in a university where things tend to move quite slowly, it can be challenging.
I explored all areas of my manifesto regarding mental health; we expanded counselling services, linked Niteline with the counselling department, introduced drop- in sessions and we also reviewed the Mental Health policy. Regarding accommodation, we introduced two information sessions about tenancy rights; we are focusing on putting together a list of landlords not registered with the Residential Tenancies board but renting to students, we ran protests both in Cork and outside of Cork.
I am happy to say that I completed a majority of my manifesto and those things that were not done, were explored in depth but unfortunately could not be done. For example, I said that I’d like to introduce a housing officer to the union so that they could help students with their rights and finding houses. The university recently introduced a role for that very purpose; therefore, there was no need for an SU officer.”
Kelly Coyle, Deputy President & Campaigns
“Achieving everything in a manifesto can be a difficult task, especially when new issues come along that we need to respond to. That being said, though, I think I have achieved a significant amount of my goals in my manifesto. There are some things I unfortunately have yet to complete, getting rid of the contraception fee being one of them, but it’s something that I am still working on, it’s just proving to be quite a difficult task. There’s still time left before finishing up, and I am hopeful that I will get through more of my manifesto goals before the end of the year, along with some other things that I have been working on throughout the year.”
Faye Murphy, Communications
“Last year at my hustings I stood up and said I wanted to reform the constitution. This year, I stood up at the hustings and spoke about the proposed constitutional amendments and I campaigned for a yes vote on each of these. Thankfully, due to the hard work of the SU Exec, the students voted in favour of these amendments. Other points in my manifesto which I succeeded in achieving were election reform, creating partnerships with new businesses, promotion of Gaeilge, official campus presence on all campuses and SU promotion.”
Aaron Frahill, Education
“This is a bit of an honest answer, and I would say that I didn’t get a lot finished from start to finish– what I found about the role of Education Officer is that there’s a reason the same things are in manifestos year on year and that’s because all the changes students want take time to come. The University recently approved a policy on Lecture Capture, and this had been coming through committees for a couple of years now and even at that it didn’t really address the whole thing about “opt-out” of Panopto – change takes time in UCC when it gets down to the gritty academic issues I have found personally and that has meant I won’t see out a lot of what I promised last year. I have addressed everything on my manifesto and worked towards those objectives all year, and I’m proud of what I was able to mark off the list especially about the pharmacy students, but I always wish I could have been there to see them reaching the finishing line.”
Niamh Connery, Welfare
“I have achieved many of the goals in my manifesto this year; however, what I found (as I imagine most sabbatical officers find) is that before you’re actually in the role you have a bit of an idealistic view of what can be achieved in a year. For example, I mentioned that I wanted to improve accessibility to Sunday’s Well, but I found that the issues couldn’t be rectified just like in a short space of time but it’s something that I think will be addressed by ongoing concerns from the students’ union. I did achieve many of the goals outlined in my manifesto especially in relation to mental health, wellbeing, and accommodation but of course these can continuously be worked upon and I hope that next year’s union will carry this work on. Casework is one of the biggest aspects of role however it is not until you in the position that you learn this. I would view this as one of the most important parts of the role.”
David Cronin, Entertainments
“I feel I achieved as much of my manifesto goals as possible! One major disappointment I personally had was Docklands, while working on the festival for all the summer months, booking acts, organizing insurance etc, the site fell through at the start of September. It was a really frustrating time for me as I invested so much time into something that didn’t happen. We then spent the rest of our time looking for new venues, a lot of these venues were perfect but either proved to costly, too far away or generally inaccessible for students. We have built up contacts with a number of venues throughout Cork that I believe will be extremely useful to next year’s team.”
Last year, we asked each candidate to choose one point from their manifesto as a main priority; how did they do with achieving that goal specifically, and was it realistic?
Mentioned extending hours for niteline, establishing a drop-in support centre, and improving mental health services
“A Niteline and counselling department link up was a priority of mine this year. I established a link up so now students who ring Niteline can be referred to the counselling department and will be contacted the following morning. The SU this year worked closely with the counselling department to introduce 2-3 drop- in counselling sessions per day. This has made early intervention more accessible for students. We felt that waiting 1-3 weeks for counselling just wasn’t effective, so this has helped. There has also been an introduction of evening counselling sessions, so students studying courses with heavy hours of 9-5 Monday to Friday now have an opportunity in the evening time to look after their Mental Health.
This year, I set up a panel to review the Student Mental Health policy, [which] has not been reviewed since 2011, There has been a few changes in the policy. It now makes the pathway clearer when it comes to seeking support for yourself or for a friend’s mental health.
We hope to set up a mental health and wellbeing proofing panel that will ensure all new initiatives introduced to the university will not have a negative impact on our students mental health.”
Gave the introduction of a mandatory bystander intervention module for first-year students as her main priority
“Unfortunately, we have not yet been successful in making the Bystander Intervention Module a compulsory module for all UCC Students. However, we did this year see it move to an online platform making it available to all students for the first time ever. I still strongly believe that it should be made compulsory, so it impacts every single student in UCC, but integrating it into an online module was the first step.”
Said introducing a ‘comms crew’, a group of students that would help establish sponsorship links, was her goal
“I advertised this year for a Comms Crew, alongside the Welfare Crew, Ents Crew and Campaigns Crew. Unfortunately, there was very little interest shown in the Comms Crew, which proved it wasn’t viable to go ahead with it this year. During my Crossover with David Condon, I will be focusing on this and seeing what we can do to make it a possibility for next year.”
Wanted to primarily improve work placement issues for students
“When I was running last year, I found that placement and issues around it was the main priority for a lot of students, so I decided to put something in my manifesto about working towards it because that was something that students wanted traction on. The honest answer about placement as a whole across UCC was that it was very easy for me to say I would change things for everyone when I simply couldn’t, and it was something I couldn’t understand until I got the role – but that isn’t to undermine what has happened this year. The work with the pharmacy students was notably successful, there’s still work to do in relation to fees, but the movement on their conditions has been brilliant– the students should receive every bit of credit for what they did, I’ve never seen so many eager people at 4am on their way to Dublin. The students led the change that came and I just assisted them in that, nothing would have happened if it wasn’t for them. The pharmacy campaign was very successful, and I wish I could have brought a victory like that for all students, especially PME students, but it’ll be something that I’ll continue working on until I’m done, and I’ll be working with the USI on those issues as well.”
Gave harm reduction with substance abuse as a priority
“Wallet sized drugs harm reduction cards were designed and inserted into every First Year Freshers pack this year for the first time. I also organised an Alex’s Adventure Of A Lifetime workshop, which was delivered by founder Nicole Ryan. During this event, Nicole launched emergency response cards, which set out clear guidelines on what to do in an emergency situation. This offered students a fantastic opportunity to learn vital information about drug use and harm reduction methods. During Raise and Give week, the Cork Local Drug and Alcohol Task Force were present on campus to raise an awareness around drugs and alcohol and also to educate students.”
Wanted to establish a “RAGcovery week” focusing on health after RAG week
“It’s been an extremely busy year for all of us on the Students Union this year, and as a group we are extremely proud of the work we did. Coming into the job, I had some extremely huge ideas that I wanted to get in motion. Unfortunately, the University is a lot slower than we expected. Often the work we do isn’t seen for a number of months. In relation to RaGcovery, while I still strongly believe in the idea events unfolding around this time of year did not permit me to fulfil it to the best of its abilities. We had Arts Ball on the 7th of February and then went straight into RaG Week on the 11th, a really mental time of the year!”
What do we think of the SU, and are we right?
Opinions on the SU vary from indifferent to skeptical, to those who avidly keep up with its work and are heavily invested. But let’s extrapolate: people on many sides of that divide, including aspiring candidates, expect an SU that’s much faster, more effective, and more powerful than it is. It seems to me, however, that the SU is slow, and results come in tiny baby steps over many years; not due to the incompetence of its members, due to the nature of UCC’s structure. After all, the SU don’t run the university; they can only lobby for change and do their part to make it come around. Is there more that could be done? I’m uncertain given the current system. What can be blamed on the structure, the union, and on general high expectations is up to you.