TCDSU President Ryan Bartlett has called for a referendum to be held on whether the SU should disaffiliate with the Union of Students in Ireland, the national representative body for most universities and institutes of technology in the country.
In an extensive interview with The University Times, Bartlett made it clear that he is no longer convinced that the USI represent the views of Trinity students and that a referendum was necessary to decide whether it was appropriate to continue participating in and paying for USI-organised campaigns.
“I’m not convinced that the “Stop Fees, Save the Grant” campaign has represented Trinity students and other colleges seem to have accepted that there is a different sentiment in Trinity. This means that students have to ask whether or not they want to continue being represented by USI,” said Bartlett.
While Bartlett was initially hesitant about making his long-building dissatisfaction with USI publicly known, events of the past few weeks have persuaded him of the need to re-evaluate Trinity’s position within the organisation. The much criticised occupation of the Department of Jobs by four SU Presidents, including USI President Gary Redmond, proved a step too far for Bartlett who sympathised with those in Trinity who viewed it as an embarrassing move by USI, both in its conception and execution.
Bartlett said that, “the occupation was another step which seemed to come about without it being discussed thoroughly and properly decided on. I was asked if people would be interested in taking part in it two days before it happened. At that stage, the unofficial conversations lead me to believe that it would be happening at some stage later that week.
However, I wasn’t given any further update on it until I was told that it was already underway.”
As regards the execution of the occupation, Bartlett said, “I think the execution of the occupation undermined the aims of it and thus it failed to achieve any of the proposed aims. It was something which I was concerned about all the time, the planning and the execution, and these concerns turned out to be justified. Trinity students didn’t support it, from what we’ve seen.”
The SU President’s frustrations with USI are nothing new. For years he has been an outspoken critic of the standards to which USI have operated. During Cónán Ó’Broin’s year as SU President, Bartlett and then Education Officer Ashley Cooke were planning a similar move to disaffiliate but were persuaded to hold off by Ó’Broin, who was convinced that he and Redmond would transform the organisation as Deputy President and President.
Now, with Ó’Broin long gone and Redmond in his second term, Bartlett thinks that USI has slipped below the standard it set for itself last year.
“Last year, decisions were taken at an early stage in the year which meant that the campaign was fairly well organised. This year, decisions were taken later on, which caused major difficulties, which meant that less students knew what the campaign was about and which resulted in less students being involved than would otherwise have been.”
Criticism has come from students at SU Council who have asked if the “Stop Fees, Save the Grant” campaign, and the November 16 national protest in particular, was ever fully supported by the student body. Council passed a motion in favour of supporting the campaign, but as it was proposed by Bartlett, its passing was somewhat inevitable. At the time, students had no literature on the mission or stated aims of the campaign. Indeed, the SU had no long term policy on the the issue of fees, the previous policy having lapsed during the summer.
Bartlett says that this haphazard course of action was the only option open to the SU, because of poor planning on behalf of USI. When asked about this, Bartlett said “the way in which the November 16 protest became a part of the national campaign seemed almost accidental. It was not part of any plans that were being talked about early on and seemed to come about without other options being fully explored.”
The end result was better than what many, including Bartlett, had expected. While attendance was down on last year’s march, the lack of violence meant that the media’s coverage was focused solely on the message being put forward by USI and Gary Redmond in particular, who was judged to have acquitted himself well in all his media appearances.
Yet, Bartlett feels that the relatively low attendance from Trinity illustrated a certain detachment among students with the simplistic rhetoric of the campaign.
Thus, Bartlett is calling for the USI question to be settled.
A back-up plan is needed, however, if Trinity students are to maintain some semblance of representation on the national stage. After all, disaffiliation from USI does not remove the need to represent the interests of Trinity students to the government of the day.
In a pre-emptive move, Bartlett has already spoken with the Presidents of DCU and UL Students’ Unions, both of which have been disaffiliated from USI for a number of years. As it stands, TCDSU pays USI €78,000 per year to retain membership of the organisation. €5 of this comes from the €8 levy that most students opt to pay when they register each year. The other €3 is spent on USI-related activities by the SU. Assuming that the SU pays its full membership fee, it will spend €111,000 on USI this year.
Bartlett’s hope is that students will be asked not only if they want to disaffiliate from USI, but if they would also replace the €8 levy with a levy to be paid to the SU for the purpose of conduction national campaigns. He envisions this levy being smaller than the current one. Whether the College Capitations Committee would grant such a levy is not guaranteed, but Bartlett is confident.
Now, all that remains is for one student or a number of students to gather the 250 signatures necessary to mandate the SU to hold the referendum.