Students’ Unions Questions: What Do Northern Ireland’s Students’ Representatives Have To Say?

By Aidan Lomas – Editor-in-Chief

I believe that, much like the mainstream media organisations in the UK and Ireland, the purpose of student media, amongst other things, is to hold our elected officials to account. Much like when a Prime Minister, MP, Taoiseach, or TD is questioned by the press on their policies, political persuasions, and other such thoughts, student media should offer the electorate – in this case the many thousands of students across Northern Ireland – an insight, if not a complete deep-dive into the minds of the people they voted to represent them. So, with the potential strike action coming at the end of this year, I decided to reach out to our elected officials, and ask them what they thought about said strikes.

So, what did they have to say?

Nothing…

I corresponded with each of the QUBSU Student Officers, only to be told they could only speak through the Uachtarán/ President herself. No surprises then that the SU refuses to make any formal position regarding the strikes; instead, they refer to the Student Council for guidance. Now, it’s true that the SU’s policies do often come from the Student Council; as a matter of fact, any decision taken by the Student Council automatically becomes SU policy. But, considering the fact the Student Council rarely ever holds sessions – the QUBSU website itself states that these only happen around six times per academic year – surely there’s room for the odd political position to emerge from what is fundamentally itself a political position; perhaps, and maybe this is radical, Student Officers could produce manifestos which they are expected to adhere to.

I see no reason, or should I say no valid reason, why the SU remains perpetually petrified of making a stand. For our readers and writers from Ulster University, I regret to tell you the situation is even worse; not even a response on their part. A quick search on the UUSU website shows that the latest report on any strike action is that of those in early 2020. So, what can we make from this lack of leadership on both QUBSU and UUSU’s parts?

QUBSU President, Katie Ní Chléire, was elected on a manifesto which, amongst other things, stated her commitment to “continue to fight for free, accessible, lifelong and liberated education”.

In her manifesto from earlier this year, QUBSU President Katie Ní Chléire states that she wants, or perhaps wanted, “to continue to fight for free, accessible, lifelong and liberated education”. Delving into the Gown’s own archives, a piece from our former Editor-in-Chief, Peter Donnelly, reported on the stated objectives of the then Welfare Officer. In said objectives, President Ní Chléire stated “Our students are in crisis and we can’t wait any longer”; how ironic this reads considering the waiting game we’re enduring, unsure as to whether or not our Union will take a stand of any kind. But when asked if she recognised that strike action would certainly void, at the very least, her accessibility policy, all the Gown received in response was the same generic, on the fence response we’ve published in other articles. In fact, for all of the questions we presented to the President, the generic answer was treated as a broad-stroking refusal to take a stand. If you’d like to read these questions, and the questions we presented to the other strikes-relevant members of the QUBSU, you can find them at the end of this article. The reason I’m happy to present these questions at the end of this article – despite my initial concern readers may realise the Editor-in-Chief of the Gown Newspaper is not a particularly wonderful inquisitor – is because that same generic answer, which can also be found at the end of this article, was the sole response we received. I would recommend reading the questions, as you may find some potentially very contradictory policies.

Overall, what can be made from this lack of leadership – at least on the part of QUBSU – is that the Student Union’s Student Officers have failed to read their own constitution. Just take for example this extract:

“An Executive Management Committee shall be formed, as a sub-committee of the Management Board, in order to deal with the Students’ Union’s day-to-day operations. This committee shall be recognised as the body with responsibility to act as the ‘driving force’ of the organisation

Section 11.1 of Chapter One of the Constitution of the Students’ Union of The Queen’s University of Belfast (18.12.2018)

Now I may not be a qualified lawyer, but to me the term “driving force” indicates that perhaps the SU’s President, and the other elected Student Officers, are supposed to take a degree of intuition and engagement; sitting on the fence is neither intuition nor engagement…it is cowardice. Even on the Students’ Union’s website, the Student Officers are referred to as those who will “represent you and your views, run campaigns and lead the Union”. Perhaps then, if not satisfied with that section of the Constitution, the QUBSU may wish to take note of this extract:

“…those elected members representing the Union must take into account the best interests of the Union members.”

Section 6.4.7 of Chapter One of the Constitution of the Students’ Union of The Queen’s University of Belfast (18.12.2018)

That those elected members representing the Union must take into account
the best interests of the Union members. I wonder – considering the results of our recent Instagram and Twitter polls – whether the interests of the students are being taken into account behind closed doors. With this in mind, allow me to publicly ask the Students’ Union President, and the other QUBSU elected Student Officers, a final question:

Where is your leadership?

Questions asked to the QUB and UU Students’ Unions.

To the President of the QUB Students’ Union:

  1. In your manifesto, you state that “I’m going to continue to fight for free, accessible, lifelong and liberated education”. Does the President recognise that failing to support or oppose strike action leaves students unsure about the future of their education with regard to its accessibility? 
  2. Students have felt unsupported during the pandemic. Does the President recognise that by failing to support or oppose strike action, students remain feeling unsupported considering many are themselves opposed to strike action?
  3. As President of the Students Union, why have you failed to act in a leadership role and help students feel secure in the future of their education, be this through supporting or opposing the potential strike action publicly?
  4. Does the Student Union as a whole recognise that, despite being elected directly by the student body of Queens University, failing to support or oppose the strike action leaves students without confidence in their student union?
  5. During an Instagram poll and a Twitter poll, whilst not scientific, the Gown found that the majority of those that voted in favour of strike action, be it in the capacity of private individuals or otherwise, were not themselves currently students, whilst almost all of those who opposed strike action were currently students. How do you respond to this? 

To the Campaigns and Engagement Officer:

  1. In your manifesto, you state that “Your student experience, whether undergraduate or postgraduate, should be driven by community, both in and outside the classroom”. Does the Campaigns and Engagement Officer recognise that by failing to support or oppose the potential strike action publicly, you are failing to support the communities here at QUB who are unsure about the short-term future of their education?

To the Education Officer:

  1. In your manifesto, you state that “When we all eventually return to campus, I want to ensure that the quality of your education is maintained. Does the Education Officer recognise that by failing to oppose the strike action, the quality of the education of students at QUB remains under threat? 
  2. In your manifesto, you state that “71.5% of students stated that they struggled with the pressure of deadlines”. Does the Education Officer recognise that strike action would force them into contradicting their own manifesto pledge as strike action would leave students without support during deadlines?
  3. In your manifesto, you state that “By restructuring how deadlines and feedback are given to students, this could alleviate undue pressure and improve students’ academic experience”. Does the Education Officer believe that strike action would leave students without the ability to receive any feedback at all and thus force them to contradict their own manifesto pledges?”

To the Welfare Officer:

  1. By not actively opposing the proposed strike action, does the Welfare officer recognised the mental health strain being placed on students who feel unsupported by their student union?

No questions were put forward to the Equality and Diversity Officer as it was not felt that strike fell within their purview.

Queen’s University Belfast’s Students’ Union’s response:

“It’s disappointing and concerning that universities and the UCU have failed to reach agreement on these long running issues of pensions, pay and conditions. We would encourage them to seek to resolve this issue in advance of any decision on strike action, and we have spoken to the University senior management to convey our concerns”

QUBSU President Katie Ní Chléire

To the President of Ulster University’s Student’s Union:

  1. Does the President recognise that strike action would leave students feeling unsupported?
  2. Does the President, or the UUSU, recognise that, after being isolated for months during the pandemic, asking students to support strike action is an insult?

By the time of publishing, the Gown Newspaper had received no comment from the President of Ulster University’s Students’ Union. We also reached out to Queens University for a comment; no comment was received in time for publishing. I expect this may be a different story come our next issue on the 28th of October 2021.

Published by The Gown Queen's University Belfast

The Gown has provided respected, quality and independent student journalism from Queen's University, Belfast since its 1955 foundation, by Dr. Richard Herman. Having had an illustrious line of journalists and writers for almost 70 years, that proud history is extremely important to us. The Gown is consistent in its quest to seek and develop the talents of aspiring student writers.

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