In his first article Eoin Griffin writes about the recent SU elections in Maynooth and what impact they will really have on students in the college. This piece originally appeared in the print edition of The Student Standard, Maynooth’s independent student news source, on the 13th March 2013.
It’s all over. We’ve survived another year of Students’ Union elections. Are you filled with unbridled hope for the future of students in Maynooth? Is your faith in the democratic structures of the Union revitalised? And with our resounding yes to re-affiliation to the Union of Students’ in Ireland (USI) do you feel properly represented at a national level? Or are you like me, sick and tired of the whole lot. The empty promises, the lack of progress and the general apathy of our campus. We are living through a period of unparalleled economic upheaval. The Irish economy has ground to a halt, with the generational export of our best and brightest masking the true effects of underemployment and unemployment.
It would seem the time has come and passed for a radical student movement to emerge from the ether. Instead we are stuck in a situation where even the unmitigated disaster of the centralised grants scheme (SUSI) has seen relatively little protest. Why is this though? Michael Noonan, the Minister for Finance famously declared in June 2011 that “Ireland is not Greece.” Instead we are the poster boys of austerity, the one’s that turn the turn the other cheek. If the IMF and ECB say “jump” we only respond “how high”. The great experiment in annually contracting the economy by removing money from circulation and expecting it to grow will soon enter its 6th year. But Eoin, you’ve jumped from SU elections to the affairs of the nation without even a paragraph to separate them I hear you cry.
Yet the circumstances of our local unions’ are indicative of a general disengagement and apathy that pervades Irish society. How many people do you know that you consider being “politically active”? How many people do you know that regularly engage with and question the very circumstances we find ourselves in? Yes people are willing to complain and get angry, but anger is only a starting point, a cornerstone for further analysis. The persistent suggestion by both state and private media that “there is no alternative” only adds to the depoliticised nature of the debate. Apparently we are living in a post-ideological age in which capitalism has prevailed and it seems an alternative can’t be imagined in the Western world. We must leave ourselves at the mercy of the “markets”. Now that the cheap credit and light regulation have left the party it is time to try and build a new “smart” economy.
Our recent Students’ Union elections saw a turnout of roughly 25%, this is down on last year’s 29% (I have compared turnout in the Presidential race for some sort of fair comparison). Maynooth’s elections have seen a significant increase in turnout since I started here back in 2008 We regularly have voter numbers equivalent to those in other colleges despite the face we have much smaller number of students but it’s still nothing to be proud of. It seems to have 1 in 3 students voting would be the most we could hope for in any one year. That’s a massive 66% of the student body that seem to have little or no interest in who represents their interests to both the University and USI. Can people really be blamed for their disengagement? Year after year people are elected on false promises, inadequate policies, and bad campaign videos. Then they seem to be wholly unaccountable once elected. In another comparison to the national situation Pat Rabbitte recently admitted on The Week in Politics that it is the done thing for parties to tell lies to the electorate in the hope of getting elected. Is this what we can hope for in Ireland? To continue to let our Students’ Unions be a breeding ground for a politics that have failed repeatedly to provide the circumstances for Ireland to flourish as a well educated and resource fuelled economy on Europe’s periphery.
It is becoming quite clear that no matter what type of character gets elected to office in Students’ Unions that little progress can be made in one year. Instead the roles are dominated by layers of University bureaucracy that leaves officers little or no time to actually achieve the goals they were elected on. This in turn leads to the union being seen as a service provider for students. It is a case of “what can the union do for me” instead of a collective group based on broad solidarity and understanding. To move beyond these impediments it would take the union’s internal democratic structures to be working to their fullest potential, but year on year there are major problems with Union Council not reaching quorum due to rampant absenteeism by class representatives. How will this all be fixed you ask?
Well if the will is there for student’s to come together and campaign on one or more issues it would seem that more can be done by organising and educating outside of the union’s bureaucratic layers. By agitating and educating in an autonomous and democratic way you are actually doing the work of a union.
Up until this year Free Education for Everyone (FEE) had a fairly active branch on campus but due to graduations and emigration this organisation has run its course. The period it was active encouraged a very healthy political circumstance in Maynooth. While people would have their reasons for not agreeing with their aims or tactics it cannot be denied that they forced a chasm between left and right. In a country where two parties with very similar ideologies have dominated politics for 90 years, with the two being particularly inseparable in recent years, it is important that colleges become an ideological battle ground, a place for debate and engagement.
I will leave Maynooth this summer all going well. I will leave with great memories but a certain cynicism has developed in recent months. As college fees and grant cuts make 3rd level education more and more exclusionary it makes me fear for the campus of the future. Are we really going to see elections dominated by vacuous policies referencing buzz words such as “inclusion”, “transparency” and “progress”? A wasteland of promises that have been made before but cannot possibly be achieved (see second ATM and most things to do with commuters).
This is not what your union is for. Its primary role is to defend and improve the conditions in which you study. Everything else is secondary to this; the bar, the free condoms, the clubs, the societies, are pushed to obscurity if you can’t stay in college due to ever increasing fees and your grant being cut. It is time the student body engaged more fully with the issues facing themselves and our society. Whether this is through your union or not, take the opportunity to consider how things could be run more effectively. How everyone could have an equal and fair opportunity at education. You will never have a better opportunity to be radical in your thinking as you get for the years you are in college. And for those who say it isn’t possible I point you to both Chile and Quebec, where well organised and democratic campaigns have toppled governments and challenged the neo-liberalisation of their campuses. Don’t be remembered as the generation who ignored their duty as the conscience of the nation.