Union should consult its grassroots

The Students’ Union needs to shore up support against fees once again if they want the full confidence of their members, argues Eoghan McMahon.

Another college year dawns and tuition fees are once again high on the social and political agenda. Their reintroduction has been on the cards since 2002 and the debate has become increasingly topical since then.  But I don’t want to debate the merits of bringing back fees here. Instead, I want to discuss the fact that the events over the past two years have genuinely shaken at least some of the support for the Students’ Union’s current anti-fees stance; and that student representatives shouldn’t ignore it.

Despite the fact that the Union in UCC held a referendum in early 2009 to legitimise this stance, an issue that was at one stage over and done with amongst students has re-emerged, largely due to changing economic circumstances both globally and at home. The reasons why this is occurring are, I imagine, centred around the fact that the full extent of the crash is now beginning to kick in, and the dire straits in which the country finds itself has led to doubts about previous decisions and arrangements.

The arguments for reintroduction have been getting louder, and the arguments against have gotten more unsure. This is not just in the media, but on campus itself. This doubt as to the legitimacy of the union’s stance has to be tackled, and in my opinion has to be done sooner rather than later. Do the reasons why we voted to oppose tuition fees in early 2009 still stand? Have things changed, changed utterly? Does student opinion now favour a more subtle approach? Or indeed, does student opinion now favour a more militant approach?

The best course of action to deal with this, in my opinion, is to re-ignite the debate ourselves, and at least reaffirm the reasons for which we have taken this past viewpoint. Whether or not it’s to lead to another vote, opening up debate on this issue again opens the possibility of getting a more accurate reading as to what the student body really thinks of fees. It could be the case that there’s an appetite for fees in a completely different manner to how the government have been planning to go about it, but if so the student movement leaders would want to recognise this. The problem is that it’s currently a (near) total unknown. If the current stance that is being taken is correct, then the powers-that-be within the Union should have nothing to fear from explaining it, justifying it and if necessary seeking an updated mandate. Things have changed since early 2009; it may be time to ask again.

Regular debate and reaffirment of purpose is the only way in which a representative organisation can claim to be truly democratic and legitimate in its actions. A failure to facilitate and encourage debate and critique can only lead to an organisation looking unreasonable and self-serving. We all accept that there is a huge shortfall in funding currently available to Universities to do what they need to do. It is a genuine problem affecting students that we should be speaking out about. A blind eye turned to the fact that the leadership of the student movement may no longer have the necessary mandate to legitimise its current stance (or any stance), on the reintroduction of fees will do no-one any good.

When there are activists on the ground who are becoming unsure of the current path being taken then representatives should be seriously taking note, because it is only through these activists that any real change can be affected; in any direction. The success of the movement depends on having the support of the students. The leaders of the movement need to convince the student population they’re right in the line they are taking, or the movement as a whole runs the risk of becoming irrelevant and students both now and in the future will suffer enormously.

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