Feb 14, 2012

The USI Debate and Why I Oppose Disaffiliation

Phil debater David Byrne speaks at the disaffiliation debate last Wednesday


Rónán Burtenshaw

Deputy Editor


On Wednesday TCD Students’ Union (SU) and the Philosophical Society combined to host a debate on TCD’s proposed disaffiliation from the Union of Students in Ireland (USI). The motion, “that this House would disaffiliate from the USI”, was proposed by Phil speaker David Byrne and opposed by USI President Gary Redmond.

Opening the debate TCDSU President Ryan Bartlett noted that 2012 marked the ten-year anniversary of Trinity’s return to the USI after a ten-year absence. Bartlett himself initiated the process of a referendum on USI membership back in December. Criticising the USI-sponsored occupations that had taken place that month he questioned whether the organisation represented Trinity students and lamented its poor organisation.

A long-standing critic of the USI, he and then-Education Officer Ashley Cooke were keen to push for disaffiliation when Conan Ó Bróin was President in 2009/10. This time around Bartlett said he was prompted to raise the issue of a referendum when students asked him questions about USI to which he “wasn’t able to give answers”.

The debate opened to an event audience easily three or four-times the size of that achieved by the SU’s townhall on their fees policy in 2011. David Byrne’s argument for disaffiliation went down well with the audience – eliciting laughter at the moments set-up for mockery and tutting disapproval at those meant to establish indignation.

Presenting itself as “pragmatic” it was, on examination, deeply ideological. Paradigmatic of the right-wing arguments against unions it criticised the USI as a “dilute” of interests where Trinity’s voice wasn’t represented (a point Bartlett had touched on in December when he talked about the college’s “different sentiment”.) The confederate member-unions of USI had “different demands”, Byrne said, while branding the USI’s tactics “frankly embarassing”.

He urged the audience to turn their back on the “self-styled Che Guevaras” of the USI – whose approach to fees he argued was unrealistic and intractible. Painting the USI officer-board as either deluded or romantic, depending on your interpretation of the following phrase, Byrne alleged that they were beholden to elements within the union who wanted to engage in “anti-state revolution”.

Touching on the ideological argument against unions again he criticised USI’s “monopoly” as a student representative body and advocated TCDSU’s independence as a “fresh voice of reason” within the student movement. Students should, he said, be arguing for some sort of a student loan or grant system. Although he never referenced it, it would appear that this was a hat-tip to the Australian system – oft-quoted by Fine Gael and firmly in the political zeitgeist for higher education at the moment.

There were troubling parts. A flippant remark disparaging other colleges was a sinister twist on an innocuous comment made earlier by Phil President Eoin Ó Liatháin about Redmond’s UCD background. It might be harsh to criticise this too strongly – it was said in jest and Byrne immediately suggested it be taken out of the video being made of the proceedings. It did, however, belie a commonality between the argument he was making and the college’s superiority complex.

The remark also dovetailed with the individualist theme of the speech. Trinity’s demographic profile being more affluent than other colleges the emphasis on the need to pursue our own interests, especially in the area of fees, played on the awareness present in the college community that Trinity students would be more able than most to afford fee increases and cuts to grants.

Despite this, and occassional nods towards hyperbole and inaccuracy to be expected in the polemical style of a chamber debate, Byrne’s speech was well delivered and received. It articulated an apparently popular argument and, together with his rebuttal, drew almost no rebuke from the assembled audience.

Whereas Byrne had opened with a comment about the €77,000 paid annually by Trinity students to the USI, Redmond immediately framed this as “five euro up-front and three euro ancillary” per student. (Machiavellian politics isn’t just for grown-ups, y’know.) Disagreeing with Byrne’s argument that USI was a “talk-shop” and site of “student hackery” Redmond stated that policy was set at Congress, “not by me”.

The USI was not an entity to itself, he reminded the audience, rather “everything [it did was] sanctioned by membership”. Continuing with (much needed but rarely received or listened to) procedural wonkery he clarified that those decisions implemented were mandated by members – seeking to establish the organisation’s democratic bona fides.

Moving on to the constitution, Redmond, who had evidenced his professionalism in a string of media appearances before the Budget, made his first misstep. Ducking Byrne’s criticism for the pay-rise which re-elected officers may receive under the new constitution Redmond instead misleadingly diverted discussion to the fact that their pay was to be tied to the civil service. He also said (this figure is worth keeping an eye on) that officers could expect a €900 pay cut next year.

Redmond then began the feel-good section of his speech – intended to inspire pride and togetherness in a student movement whose members today seem, in reality, to regard it with neither of those things. His list of accomplishments, tied to TCD, was both noteworthy and judicious.

Bringing up TCD and USI’s prominent (this must be emphasised because some students cast doubt upon it) role in the contraception campaign and USI’s role in getting Trinity Halls built, the funding of the TAP programme and the passage of the Student Support Bill for grant recipients was clearly aimed at evoking a renewed commitment to the principles of collective action. A sharp, sarcastic and accurate riposte from Byrne about the lack of difficulty in securing a tax break for property in the Celtic Tiger aside, the point stood up well. As an example of that which had been achieved the increase in the funding of the Student Assistance Fund, too, was a strong case.


2011 USI National Congress

The Constitution 

When he talked about the new constitution, however, some of the USI’s failings became evident. I was at the USI Special Congress which voted on the consitution – and the debate was of a high standard. Yes, the constitution had been the result of a long process of consultation and the discussion of the new constitution had been going on for many years. This document was written by representatives from twelve colleges, Redmond said, and had gone out for consultation seven times. But I couldn’t help returning to something I thought on the day… How many students knew about any of this?

The USI argues that the perception that it is out-of-touch and cliqueish is inaccurate. It points to interactions with its confederate unions. But, what happens when those unions are, to a degree, guilty of those perceived infractions? Democratic legitimacy and culture is based not on a set of structures or procedures but on the attachment to the power and workings of an organisation of its constituent members. USI might be a confederation but we each individually pay its dues, so its accountability is primarily to us.

And, in this instance, far, far too few students knew about this constitution. I, as someone who worked in student media, had never been in a conversation about the document outside of the direct deliberative bodies of the SU or the Special Congress. (TCDSU were, incidentally, mandated to vote in favour of the document.) If policy-making in representative democracy is of a scale, with one end being bureaucrats making decisions amongst themselves and the other being plebiscite, there’s little doubt which end this constitutional process was closer to. Legitimate criticisms were also offered by speakers from the audience about the fact that the constitution document was not independently readily-accessible to student members before the vote.

There were some further interesting moments. David Byrne’s rebuttal criticised the “left-wing stuff” the USI did. Redmond, who had previous involvement with the youth wing of Fianna Fáil, responded that it was the first time he had been accused of being left-wing. His Deputy, Colm Murphy, has been connected with Fine Gael while the organisation’s Education Officer Aengus Ó Maoláin is a Labourite.

Redmond, in a nod to Byrne’s earlier argument about utility maximisation, argued that Trinity being out of USI would mean that everyone’s interests but Trinity’s would be served. Although what distinct interests Trinity has, when national policy is centrally decided and college issues are the purview of TCDSU, was never appropriately clarified. There is a strong argument based in union theory that if we disaffiliate USI will continue to serve TCD students’ interests on major national issues (which are their chief responsibility, let’s not forget) but TCD simply wouldn’t pay for this. This might be maximising our utility (we get €8) but ending up in this situation wouldn’t say much about us as a college.

The €750 increase in fees, he conceded, was a failure. I asked a question at the end about this – to which I never got a response. In fairness Redmond was hit with a series of questions. He could never answer them all. But this bears repeating – so that’s what I’ll do.


2011's 'Stop Fees, Save the Grant' protest

USI and Strategy

First, some context. At the USI Special Congress Aengus Ó Maoláin spoke about how the USI was the most widely respected student lobbying body in Europe. The USI’s relationship with the HEA and the Department, including regular meetings with the Minister, is certainly cosy. As someone who has tried (fruitlessly) to gain this kind of access for organisations before I can safely say it’s access Trinity couldn’t expect to get outside USI.

But what does this mean? In the twenty years between 1995 and 2015 fees for higher-level will have increased 1,579%. From an adjusted figure of a shade under €190 in 1995 to €3,000 (at least, one would imagine) in three years time. At €2,000 per annum our fees were the second highest in the EU and they’re to go up by half from that. This is not just a failure, but a spectacular one. I challenge the USI to find a comparable cost increase (1,579% over twenty years) in any sector of Irish life. Where there have been ones in higher-level in other countries they have (with the exception of the USA) been accompanied by comprehensive loan and grant schemes that we do not have. In addition, this fee increase has not contributed to the better funding of our universities. As fees have risen the amount given to colleges has been cut. The result is the worst of both worlds: a comparatively emaciated third-level system that costs students more for less.

The worry that I raised related to strategy. (Incidentally UT Deputy Opinion Editor Max Sullivan produced a thorough dissection of the USI’s ‘Stop Fees, Save the Grant’ campaign recently. I don’t agree with all of it but has many valid points on strategy and organisation. USI can’t say there hasn’t been critique of this.) Co-operation, engagement and bargaining was the USI strategy that culminated in the fees pledge signed by then-Labour Education Spokesperson Ruairí Quinn. Allied to this was the ‘I am a Vote’ campaign and protest, utilising the leverage provided by a general election. This was the 2010 strategy.

2010, though it wasn’t a bad strategy and it’s not USI’s fault they were lied to, failed. The question I would ask about 2011 is this: if more than 30,000 students marching months before a general election didn’t stop fee increases in 2010 why would we expect a third less marching five years before the next election (in a march and campaign that was less well organised) to do so? While 2010 achieved its immediate political goal in the pledge it didn’t succeed in stopping fee increases. And in 2011 we needed something else. And we got… Nothing, really. A fairly calamitous occupation and a sleep out no-one went to.

Part of the reason why our fees have sky-rocketed is that the USI have been branding defeats as victories for years. And the government knows how to play this. You leak a higher figure a month beforehand to the press, the student movement picks up this number (as the USI dutifully did) and then you introduce smaller, incremental increases rather than immediate ones. It leads to the same situation in the end. And the protest march happening with such regularity and decreasing political potency that it becomes parade feeds into another problem: the government have seen this all before – they have factored it in to their political cost-benefit analysis when deciding to increase fees.

When considering strategy, negotiation is a tactic and not an end. USI should not seek to be taken seriously as a lobbying group, as Ó Maoláin says they are, because it affords them some abstract notion of professionalism. This is a mentality derived from a desire to be taken seriously by the big boys. It also begs a question about whether professionalism is important in itself for USI because so many of its officers are playing their role in an audition for national frontline politics.

The USI should pursue professionalism because it gives them political capital. By all means negotiate – but do it from a position of strength. And take advantage of our distinctions from the political class, our proximity to the cultural zeitgeist, the youthful energy and new ideas student activism can provide. Why should we be seeking to play them at their game? The USI’s job, in defence of its stated policy of fighting fees, is to identify and act upon actual leverage. In 2010 it sought to do this, in 2011 it was just lost.


TCDSU Education Officer Rachel Barry leads the Trinity contingent at the USI 'Stop Fees, Save the Grant' march

Further Questions


On the evening itself some questions followed the debate. TCDSU Education Officer Rachel Barry spoke eloquently about the job the USI do training sabbatical officers. I think this well outlined the two roles of the student representative bodies. Above are some of the failings of USI in its role as a union – a political body fighting for the interests of its members. But SUs are also, moreso at local union level though USI does a deal of this too, a civil and public service for students. What Barry called an “invaluable” service provided to our sabbats shouldn’t be over-looked in the debate about disaffiliation.

There were a number of questions asked to Gary Redmond on the assumption that USI’s position on fees was not supported by Trinity students. This is a widely held perception – but it’s actually wrong. In TCD politics the loudest voices can sometimes be taken as majority. TCDSU conducted a poll on student opinions about its lapsed anti-fees policy just before Christmas. It showed that 73.4% of the 1,063 undergraduate students polled found that the policy was “representative of their position”. That result was never published. The dialogue in political circles in the college had been so pro-fee that those making the assumptions shouldn’t be blamed. But it is a reminder that Trinity has its own silent majority who need to be brought to voice by its student movement. And they are solidly anti-fees.

This doesn’t mean that they oppose a grant or loan system – we don’t have numbers on that. But it’s worth mentioning that there is no chance of getting that in the short-term. The government’s interest now is not to put in place a fair, sustainable system for funding higher-education. Its interest is producing money upfront to pay its creditors. This makes any system of deferred payment unrealistic but also mitigates against a sensible, over-arching structure being put in place – do we really think this could be done optimally (or want this done) under such coercive conditions? I think this provides a strong argument for the fees issue being a battle, not a negotiation. In the increasingly Hobbesian landscape of Irish politics those who organise best and fight hardest will be hit least. (There is another question here, though: is this what we want? Or do we want a student movement that takes a broader perspective – as the political voice of an emergent generation? Can we justify ‘out-competing’ primary school children, the elderly, the unemployed, the poor or the sick? These are debates the USI should be leading.)


Voting at the USI National Congress 2010 in Galway

USI and Democracy


UT Opinion Editor Hannah Cogan then asked an important question: when was the last time a student-wide poll had been held on any issue by the Union of Students in Ireland. Redmond’s response: he “couldn’t remember”. USI’s argument, and it is not totally without substance, is that it is a confederation. It is the responsibility of the constituent unions to organise direct ballots on issues.

But that, while partly true, simply isn’t good enough. This has become an existential problem for the organisation. It is seen by far too many (most?) as an anti-democratic bureaucracy. Its leaders disparaged as representatives of a social ladder and a wallet padder. It cannot democratise by force through its Congress, it has no power to do that. But its leaders have a pulpit to use to argue the case for a more democratic USI. If they make it a campaign – to be more directly accountable to the individual members – they could make headway with the confederate unions. And, if they don’t want Trinity to be just the latest in a string of disaffiliation referenda, this is something they’ve got to do. (FAO TCD students: This does not preclude us agitating here in college for a direct vote for our delegates at Congress.)

The argument advanced against direct elections is largely cost-based. But lots of large unions regularly ballot their members. They do it because democratic legitimacy and mandates are worth it. They provide more power to a campaign than all the fliers and t-shirts that could’ve been bought with that money. Representative democracy exists to provide democratic political structures where direct democracy is impractical. If it is not impractical, and the structures are bureaucratic anyway, then it’s not democratic.

Finance need not influence a direct election campaign either – I’ve seen it suggested that the person with the most resources will be able to attract most attention in colleges and that this will be a disadvantage. There are many ways around this. Placing limits on expenditure and managing accounts, central funding of campaigns or, even if less desirable in my view, a loan or grant system for students who are of disadvantaged backgrounds. Excuses won’t do here for the USI – not pulling this off will leave it disempowered without enough popular support to mount successful campaigns and at risk of mass exodus of confederate unions.

Other issues worthy of discussion did arise at the debate. Could Trinity come together with fellow non or disaffiliate unions, like the University of Limerick, to produce a rival national union. This risks becoming a People’s Front of Judea. The time it would take to establish a new organisation could be better spent on democratising the USI. And what a disaster if we did end up with competing national unions. The government would use this as an excuse to interact less and play them off one another. And if you think hackery is bad now: what happens when the hacks have two rival clubs to partisan over?

Then there was the question of whether our sabbats could handle the extra work entailed in representing Trinity on a national scale. They’ll have to argue that. I know Ryan Bartlett thinks he already spends his time doing it and Louisa Miller feels she doesn’t have the time. Personally, I would say it’s unlikely that they would be able to add the job of running national campaigns or establishing new organisations to their current portfolios successfully. But they know better than me. And we need answers to the questions about how Trinity provides the sabbat training without the USI – it could be done but by whom, on who’s time and at what cost?


USI LGBT Blood Ban protest with Senator David Norris

 Why Not Disaffiliate?


The vote on disaffiliation on the night finished fifty-nine in favour, thirty-two against and nine undecided. I initially was undecided, but the more I think about it the more I oppose disaffiliating. Students are one of Irish society’s precariat: high emigration rates and those staying destined for unemployment with low job prospects.  We’re paying more for less in universities that are under-funded. The part-time jobs necessary to tide many of us over aren’t there – and neither is the support from parents suffering cuts to wages, increased taxes and job loss. Those in power aren’t our age and our voices aren’t heard in the parliament, the board room or the media.

We need a strong TCDSU that can provide services here in college and I worry disaffiliation will harm that. We need a strong national union to fight a battle that takes place on a national level – we’re better off together than individually because the fundamental policy is decided based on us as a group. And we need a student movement that can provide us a voice. A way to exert ourselves as a new generation emerging into society – hopefully with some desire to change it. For that to happen it needs to be democratic, but also powerful and united. I don’t see any constructive outcome on those fronts from disaffiliation. If we can use the referendum threat to shake USI into action in the areas I outlined it mightn’t be a bad thing. But just taking out our anger at their failures by leaving begs the question: then what? The answer to that is that no-one knows. And when there is such an urgent demand for what a national union is supposed to provide – organised popular action – that is the last thing we need.

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