Please vote and we will shut up

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Livia Scott is Wonkhe's Community and Policy Officer

Mike Day is International and NUS-USI Director at NUS

When you’re bodding about a campus you’ve not been to before trying to get the feel of the place, the first thing Jim and Mike used to do was look for posters.

It’s one of the things we’ve been looking out for on Day 1 of the Wonkhe SUs study tour to the Republic of Ireland, where a group of student leaders and SU staff are on a two day tour of Dublin’s students’ unions, student life bodies and related associations and projects.

Posters are, of course, relatively hard to come by these days – except during elections. Here at Trinity College Dublin it’s that time of year – and on first glance the usual collection of high politics, prosaic promises on space and campus costs and the odd “amusing” candidate (“Vote Ralph- it’s pronounced ‘Rafe’”) all look perfectly normal.

If anything what’s extraordinary is the seventeen pages of breathless coverage of the process in Trinity News, one of the two student newspapers on campus.

There’s commentary on each of the candidates’ manifestos, an exit poll, ideological analysis of each of the promises and comment pieces on engagement in the SU, the role of sabbs and “joke” candidates.

It’s interesting because whenever a campaigning organisation assesses the democratic health of a country, a free press that’s capable of critique of the state and has diversity of media opinion that offers alternative interpretations of news and events is considered as essential.

That’s usually an analysis that’s about oppressive regimes – but what if there’s no clamping down, just a lack of activity?

As local media in communities declines, it’s why the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) exists – a topslice from licence fees paid to the BBC, it supports “democracy” coverage of mayoralties, combined authority areas and Police and Crime Commissioners.

But whenever we’ve read a democracy review from one of the usual suspect consultancies, an equivalent for SUs and university decision making never comes up. A democratic community isn’t just about voting or union councils, nor is media just about SU marketing – it’s about students offering up this kind of commentary on SU and university issues in a way that promotes debate and sparks interest.

It’s worth serious consideration if an SU’s student newspaper is part of its past rather than its present.

Democratic cults

To get on the ballot paper at Trinity you just have to turn up to a particular meeting of Union Council – which in and of itself is interesting because the tradition in Ireland is that all of the class (course) reps make up the democratic council body.

For reasons long lost in history, most UK SUs moved away from that model a while ago – and now struggle to make those bodies work. A glance at the minutes of councils across Ireland reveals a really strong link between the day to day student issues that students face and the issues discussed democratically that are elevated through student leaders – restoring that umbilical link to programmes feels like something many unions back in the UK ought to consider.

Over at UCD students’ union, to get on the ballot you have to have 250 signatures, something that shocked our delegation, who found DCU’s approach – removing all of those barriers – much more familiar. That said, having to demonstrate that kind of support to get onto the ballot does mean that even before the vote opens, you’ll have had to engage with students whose ideas and conversations then build the manifesto.

Unnecessary barriers are daft – but sometimes the barrier can really help sift those who will be better at that getting out and talking to students thing – even if 250 feels like a bit of a stretch.


Both because SUs aren’t charities in Ireland and because Irish politics tends to be less closely aligned with Israel, there’s plenty of pro-Palestinian activism amongst the SUs we’ve seen so far – and the size of the country plus the relative size of USI (Ireland’s NUS) means there’s plenty of national campaigning on “students as students” issues too.

USI’s Cost of College campaign – which has had some notable wins from a centre-right government in reticent years – aims to address student financial challenges by demanding changes in accommodation policies, abolishing student contribution charges, increasing funding for higher education, and aligning the minimum wage with the living wage. The campaign encourages lobbying local TDs for support, offering resources like email templates and phone scripts for effective communication.

The housing crisis in the capital is a few years on from the UK – with things getting so bad that TCDSU President László Molnárfi says students are “sleeping in cars, couchsurfing with friends or dropping out of education altogether”. USI is demanding protection for renters, enacting a rental cap, and subsidising affordable student housing, and last summer a number of SUs around Dublin collaborated on a “Digs Drive”, proactively asking homeowners in the city to make their spare rooms available to students either temporarily in September or ideally for the whole of the academic year. They’re now lobbying for better protection for students in digs. The country, unlike any UK countries, at least has a national student accommodation strategy.

Biting the hands that feed?

One thing we have noticed in a a few unions we’ve seen so far is student partnership agreements, often annually updated, which appear to set out both the way in which student influence in the university (via the SU) will be enhanced, and the joint commitments to improving the student experience that both the university and the SU through its funding will make. There are MOUs and policies in the UK, but this kind of annually negotiated set of commitments appears to be more nimble and able to take into account officer manifestos – even if some of the SU’s we’ve met are cynical about progress off the back of them.

At Trinity College, for example, previous highlights of this approach include Consent Workshops, improvements to postgraduate education, including increased recruitment targets and the creation of new programs, a student Leadership Development Framework that promotes the growth of student leaders through workshops, seminars, and networking opportunities, and the development of additional indoor and outdoor spaces for studying and socialising especially tailored to postgraduate students – as well as a new mechanism for resolving conflicts between students and the university without formal litigation, and the expansion of mental health services, academic skill development, peer mentorship, and library resources.

It’s also worth noting how PhD students are organising in Ireland. Workers in All but Name is a report by the Postgraduate Workers’ Organisation (PWO) examining the employment status and conditions of PhD researchers across Europe that highlights the discrepancies between PhD researchers being considered students rather than employees, leading to a lack of fair pay, social security, and employment rights.

By comparing the situation in Ireland with other European countries, the report explains the inadequacy of the current model and advocates for contractual employment status for PhD researchers, including all associated rights and protections. The report also discusses the negative impact of the “student” label on PhD researchers’ financial stability, professional recognition, and working conditions – arguing for systemic changes to acknowledge and compensate their contributions fairly.

More tomorrow, when we’ll be travelling out to Dublin City University, Maynooth and the Technical University of Dublin SU – a merger of the sort we could be seeing much more of in the UK soon.

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