In response to “ever-increasing encroachments” on their independence from institutions and a feeling of being unable to act, campaign and budget freely, students’ unions across Ireland are in the early stages of attempting to legislate to ensure their autonomy.
While many students’ unions maintain a mutually agreed system of independence from their institutions, several are not considered autonomous, and thus have to justify expenses. Others, because of an undefined relationship with their institution, find that their independence is being eroded. As such, momentum is now growing for a national campaign that would leave students’ unions answerable to the students they represent, and not the institutions they work with.
Unions from around the country have already come together to meet with legal representation to begin the process of drafting legislation, which would see institutions unable to threaten students’ unions with actions like withholding funding, preventing them from hosting certain events or campaigning on particular issues.
Speaking to The University Times, Richard Hammond, of Hammond Good Solicitors, who also serves as the lawyer for the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) and represents a number of students’ unions around Ireland, stated that a group of unions was making “very preliminary progress” and had taken advice from a barrister.
Hammond stated that “whilst we are at a very early stage in the process, I would nonetheless expect it to be something that does go ahead”, citing the ongoing issues of interference from institutions that unions are facing.
Two motions formalising USI’s commitment to ensuring the autonomy of its member institutions were passed at its national congress last week in Ennis, Co Clare, at which over 350,000 students from the island of Ireland, including Northern Ireland, were represented. In a demonstration of how pressing unions perceive the issue to now be, one motion saw the commitment added into the national union’s constitution for the first time, inserting the wording that “USI shall defend the right of students’ unions to be autonomous, democratic, student-led organisations, independent of all external authorities, with decision-making being made at the level closest to students as possible”.
The issue of students’ unions’ autonomy was thrust into the national spotlight in July 2016 when Dublin Institute of Technology Students’ Union (DITSU) was left without its usual summer funding after rejecting an “unacceptable” funding proposal put forward by DIT that would have allowed the college to internally audit the union. Speaking to The University Times at the time, DITSU President, Boni Odoemene, stated that the wording was something the union “could not accept” and that the new auditing structure “has never happened before” and “goes completely against our independence”.
The change was condemned in the Seanad, with Independent Senator Gerard Craughwell stating: “This is an attempt by an institution to try and use the pressure of funding to manage a union … This is big brother trying to control things.”
A DIT statement provided to The University Times emphasised that “DIT is committed to supporting the full independence of our Students’ Union”.
“We were at the stage where we had to look at closing down the DIT Students’ Union completely. It was a terrifying time for DIT Students’ Union”, Odoemene said in Ennis. “I was even more shocked when I came to the presidents’ working group and realised this is actually happening to other SUs as we speak. It is clear that these administrations, they talk. And they’re looking at how they can weaken the student voice somehow.”
Indeed, speaking at USI’s congress, President of USI, Annie Hoey, stated that the issue was becoming more pressing: “I’ve been engaging with students’ unions across the country for the last year, and seeing at a national level how students’ unions and their right to self govern and their right to manage themselves [is] being encroached on day in, day out, by the institutions.”
“We absolutely need to commit to this. There are many campaigns that we need to work on. But this is the one that, if we do not take a hold of it in the next couple of months and the next few years, it is going to slip away from us”, she continued. “And there will be a congress in a couple of year’s time when everyone’s sitting around scratching their heads going ‘I don’t know what happened, but we don’t really have the student movement anymore’. They will take that away from us.”
“They do not want us to be strong. They do not want us to be powerful on our campuses. We see this up and down the country: when we work together, we are effective, and they don’t like it. So we absolutely must work on independent students’ unions. We must work towards autonomy and we absolutely must make it one of the basic principles. If we as a student movement does not defend our right to self govern, to self organise, we’ve no business being a student movement at all.”
Indeed, speaking in Ennis, President of Maynooth University Students’ Union (MSU), Dillon Grace, stated that unions are now seeing “subtle but ever-increasing encroachments on our freedoms that have not gone unnoticed, and the [higher education institutions] need to be put back in check”.
Speaking to The University Times, Grace stated that the union has faced issues with getting its promised funding. Three weeks ago, the union hadn’t received several months of funding, which Grace described as the “first time it ever happened that severely for us”.
“Now the situation is [that] they’ve paid us, we’re all up to date now, but as a union you shouldn’t have to go through that two-week period of ‘Are we going to get it? Are we not going to get it? What’s going to happen?’”
For Grace, this is where the question of independence comes in: “If they don’t transfer the money, then you’re not really [independent] because they may start putting conditions on when you may have the money.”
Maynooth University finances MSU through monthly installments. “In principle, yes, we are financially independent”, Grace stated. “They collect the contribution and we receive our proportion of that. And then in theory, once it’s received by us, that’s it. We spend it based on our own internal procedures. We don’t have to go across to the university … and ask to draw down money. We’re in receipt of it and we spend it in the areas that we deem appropriate. The problem is getting that funding.”
Maynooth University did not respond to a request for comment.
MSU has spent the past three years working on a memorandum of understanding with the university in order to formalise their relationship. “The original document was very constricting”, Grace said, speaking to The University Times. “So it might say something like ‘we respect that you’re independent’ but then say that you’re not allowed criticise or push the university’s name into disrepute, or you’re not allowed use information that you get in your representative roles against us, or if we don’t like how you conduct your election we can just not accept your officers.”
Noting the “good, co-operative” relationship the union tries to have with the college, Grace states that they are trying to formalise an “understanding relationship”.
“I believe we should have a collaborative but challenging relationship with the institution”, Grace stated. “We’re on university grounds and are obviously governed by the various health and safety and other legislations … but at the same time then we do have to challenge them.”
Referencing the meeting of unions in Maynooth, he stated that the groups had a “good discussion on what we mean around independence or autonomy” and that “it’s now time to go back and figure out what is it that we’re going to do. I think it’s now time to come back to that to see if we can come up with that framework”.
Hammond explained that preparing legislation in Ireland is a “very complicated, technical process” that is “particularly slow”. Following such preparation, unions would have to get a bill introduced into the Oireachtas. Unions would “need to lobby” and hope for support as “it’s very hard to get private members’ bills to pass”, Hammond added. “The overwhelming majority of legislation passed in this country would be government-sponsored legislation.”
President-elect of USI, Michael Kerrigan, ran on the platform of ensuring the autonomy of students’ unions. Speaking to The University Times after congress, he stated how the union is “trying to see exactly how bad it is” by continuing to collect data and “analysing it over time to see if it’s getting worse”. Highlighting the main issues as being internal audits by colleges and unions having their constitutional changes ratified by their governing bodies, he stated that the union “wants to find out as well where there are good examples of autonomy and try to replicate those”.
“It’s great that we have a mandate and it’s gone into our constitution”, Kerrigan added. “So we can make it a priority next year.”
Some of the country’s smallest institutions are facing the same issues. Speaking to The University Times, Alice Hartigan, President of the Institute of Art, Design and Technology Students’ Union (IADTSU),which represents just under 2,500 students, stated that, with the union’s funding coming directly from the finance department of the College, “we are not independent at all”.
“Any time I want funding, I fill out a form of ‘this is how much I need’ or ‘this is how much I have left’ and I have to get it signed off.” This process involves going through the College’s student experience manager, a human resources representative and multiple people in the finance department. The union also presents an annual budget to the College, “which again is another step of opening ourselves up to questions of ‘why do you need this much’ or ‘why is this down as this’”.
Hartigan states that the ideal situation would be to “be able to self govern without having to present and justify our budgets to members or staff of the College”.
Some unions, such as Carlow College Students’ Union and Institute of Technology Tralee Students’ Union (IT Tralee Students’ Union), are governed by a staff member of the college.
Speaking to The University Times, Adam Clarke, President of Carlow College Students’ Union, stated that he is “brought into weekly meetings” to update the College. Clarke is currently working on a referendum on a new constitution: “My work throughout the year has been trying to change that – putting forward the battle for autonomy.”
“I’m the first president in six or seven years to go for a second term and that’s because every president up until now has felt that they can’t make any change because of the college administration and they just feel so stressed and feel so defeated by it”, Clarke stated.
Steve Clifford, President of IT Tralee Students’ Union, is contracted by the college, and therefore is treated by an employee of the college. He describes his position in the college as “very unclear, very ambiguous, [I] don’t know what it means”, Clifford told The University Times. In order to get funding from the college for something not included in their previously approved budget, “I have to justify what I need, clarify exactly what it’s going to be spent on, how they’re going to give us the money or how they’re going to give us the information”.
In contrast, some unions, including Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU), do not face such issues. In response to questions from The University Times by email, Kieran McNulty, President of TCDSU, stated that the union is fully independent, and that the College’s capitation model means “College does not provide us with any money. It comes from students”.
“We are autonomous in the sense that I do not represent the College, and can email my members”, McNulty stated. The union does not justify expenses to the College, and the College cannot stop TCDSU from campaigning on a particular issue, bar breaches of regulations such as health and safety.
As unions work together to think about legislation, Hammond stated that the different experiences of unions means that no international model of legislation would be likely to work as a model for Ireland, meaning that there is “no real country you can copy”.