We know, it’s bananas

Livia Scott is Wonkhe's Community and Policy Officer

Mike Day is an international student experience consultant and student movement historian

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

If we think about some of the problems faced by UK SUs, many relate to a tendency to centralise everything.

There’s been a tendency to pull everything into the purview of the Board since SUs had to register with the Charity Commission around fifteen years ago.

But that often means that the sort of governance and decision making you might need for, say, a student activities operation sits uneasily with the sort of democracy you need for a representative organisation.

It can overburden sabbs. And often, the need to advocate for Block Grant funding can mean that the representative function can feel cowed into silence or worried about reputation.

So the model in use over at DCU Students Union in Ireland is super interesting. The legal, autonomous umbrella body is actually called “DCU Student Life” – a kind of student foundation – which in turn is made up of DCU Students Union, Club Life (for sport) and Society Life (that’s right, for societies).

OSL’s mission is to enhance and support students’ DCU experience – both inside and outside the classroom – providing “opportunities for growth and development” through “holistic experiences”. Each year a percentage of students’ registration fee is put into one big pot called “capitation”, and that money is then given to DCU Student Life to fund clubs, societies and the SU.

In many ways there’s three SUs for the price of one, each with its own leadership team, and it enables the SU itself to focus in on student voice and campaigns.

Its governance is interesting too – the Board’s membership is made up of the SU President and one other sabb, the immediate past SU President, the Director of the Office of Student Life (like the CEO), the Director of DCU’s Student Support and Development, and DCU’s Head of Financial Planning.

That’s a key way in which a strong partnership is maintained while the SU remains fiercely independent and autonomous. And UK SUs could adopt it – registering the SU as the “94 act union” while keeping an umbrella holding charity, allowing for separated leadership and strategy for each body that is more focussed and student friendly.


That’s one of the things we came across on Day 2 of the Wonkhe SUs study tour to the Republic of Ireland, where a group of student leaders and SU staff have been on a two day tour of Dublin’s students’ unions, student life bodies and related associations and projects.

We’ve seen lots of examples of interesting and assertive partnership work. UCD SU’s Student Representation and Partnership Agreement outlines a collaborative framework between the university and its students, facilitated by the SU, to ensure effective student representation across all levels of university governance.

It emphasises inclusivity, acknowledging the diverse student body, and values student participation in university governance as essential for enhancing the quality of the student experience. The agreement details the roles and responsibilities of student representatives and leaders, including their involvement in decision-making processes and committees, and introduces a Student Partnership Forum for further engagement. It also includes schedules listing student participation opportunities, university committees with student representation, and a template for an annual partnership plan.

At Galway, the Student Partnership Agreement focuses on enhancing the university community by promoting student involvement in decision-making processes, offering training for students and staff, and ensuring regular, open communication between the university and the SU. Additionally, the university commits to funding various programs to support student orientation, community building, academic skills, health, well-being, and personal and professional development.

SUs in the UK can learn a lot from this approach – partly in the framing of an annually negotiated document that can take in officer priorities, underline partnership, drive university accountability and set out representational and educational priorities of the SU that the university then works on.

PGR work

There’s plenty of interesting PGR work going on here. The Fair Postgraduate Researcher Agreement by the Postgraduate Workers’ Organisation (PWO) advocates for the recognition of postgraduate researchers as employees, offering them full employment rights under Irish law.

It outlines specific terms for employment status, guarantee of livable pay, working conditions, equitable treatment, rights to research and communication, support for non-EU researchers, anti-discrimination policies, and guidelines for supervisory relationships. The document emphasises fair pay rates for various academic duties – all aiming to ensure postgraduate researchers can work under conditions that respect their contributions to academic and research institutions.

Meanwhile, 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. It 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.

Meanwhile USI demands reforms to end discrimination against non-EEA postgraduate researchers, which include abolishing fees for the renewal of the Irish Residence Permit and the points-based system for scholarships, providing Hosting Agreement Schemes, covering visa and related fees by HEIs, and counting research time towards residency for naturalisation.

It advocates for working rights for spouses, equal access to healthcare, and the cessation of higher tuition fees for non-EU researchers. These demands align with Ireland’s goals to attract international talent, as outlined in the national research strategy Impact 2030, and address issues like visa refusals and the need for policy reform in family reunification and healthcare access for non-EEA PhD researchers.

Cost of college

There’s some great cost of living work going on too. At DCU the Pantry is a support initiative for students, led by a student intern, that isn’t just a food bank – it’s a wider strategy for students affected by the cost of living crisis, offering free breakfasts, essential bags, hot water, period products, contraception, and microwaves on campus. The strategy is designed to ensure students have access to basic necessities, promoting well-being and support during challenging times, and reducing stigma.

Nationally, USU’s “Cost of College” campaign 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. Key accommodation demands include protecting renters, enacting a rental cap, and subsidising affordable student housing.

For college costs, it calls for the elimination of hidden fees, transparency in fee setting, and enhanced SUSI grants. The campaign encourages lobbying local TDs for support, offering resources like email templates and phone scripts for effective communication.

Peer to peer

We again saw lots of examples of peer support to build belonging. The UCD Peer Mentoring Programme, initiated in 2006 and universal by 2011, was Ireland’s first university peer mentoring initiative. Over 7,400 students have served as mentors to more than 65,000 first-year undergraduates, making it the university’s largest volunteer programme.

The programme aims to ease the transition for new students by fostering friendships, involvement in campus life, and providing guidance on academic and personal support services. Peer mentors undergo mandatory training, and their roles include organising group meetings, sharing information, and maintaining contact with mentees, offering benefits like improved leadership skills, increased confidence, and enhanced employability for the mentors.

That’s run by the university – as is S2S (Student 2 Student) an initiative aimed at providing a support network where students can receive information and assistance from around 700 volunteer peers. It offers a platform for students to find a friendly face, have conversations, and ask questions, especially when they are unsure of whom to approach. Students are signed up to a group of 20 students automatically.

But it was DCU’s version that was probably the most impressive. DCU Peer Mentoring program is a student-led initiative that supports first-year students by connecting them with experienced peers from similar courses. These peer mentors, who have completed at least their first year, provide guidance through a short training program to ensure new students’ transition into university life is smooth and enjoyable.

Each new student is placed in a group with a peer mentor, who organises social activities and meetings to create a welcoming environment and aid both social and academic development.

SUs in the UK should jump on this bandwagon fast – pretty much the whole of Europe is getting there fast.

Officers and alumni

Every year in May TUD SU holds an inauguration ceremony for the new SU officers at which university and community stakeholders, as well as students and families, attend. It marks the start of new elected officers’ terms and the official signing of the new SU Constitution by the President and Chairperson of the Student Council, witnessed by the Chair of the Electoral Commission.

This event also recognises the contributions of the outgoing officers who also make a speech. The ceremony includes public declarations of office by the incoming team, presentations of certificates, and the new President’s Address who sets out priorities for the year ahead.

Meanwhile its new Re:Union Network is a new initiative to reconnect with former officers and activists who contributed to its development, following the 2020 amalgamation of DIT SU, ITB SU, and ITT SU into TU Dublin SU. It aims to utilise the experience of past generations for capacity building and to support the union’s advocacy and representation efforts.

An inaugural event celebrating the union’s achievements will take place at the SU’s head office in Grangegorman in early September, highlighting the significance of this initiative. We’re hoping for an invite to see how it all works.

By comparison, SUs here are quite small in operation but no less effective. The SU core staff team at Maynooth, for example, is very small and so over 80 students are employed including in the Info Centre, marketing and comms, democracy and in events and facilities.

Each role is essential, from digital content creation and graphic design in MSU Creative to administrative support in Democratic Affairs, event management in Events & Facilities, financial support in Finance, customer service in the Info Centre, and retail service in the Londis Shop. And MSU is a proud living wage employer, ensuring employees receive a wage that supports a minimum acceptable standard of living in Ireland.

Leave a Reply