- 04 Oct 23
This is a torrid time for students in Ireland. But USI President Chris Clifford is planning to campaign fiercely for a better deal for everyone attending college. In his first major interview, he explains what the coming year holds in store for people attending college in Ireland.
How are you settling into the college year?
Things are picking up. There’s a lot of campus visits as students return to college. Obviously, with the budget coming up, we have our pre-budget submission, which has been released today. And students are dealing with the hassle of accommodation and the hassle of fees. So, we’re fairly busy!
You’ve only been in the role for a short period. Are you enjoying it?
I’m enjoying working with a bigger team than I had in college, and seeing the collaboration and the communication between such a vast number of individuals, from a lot of different backgrounds. There’s obviously more issues to deal with as well – the bigger the college, the more issues they’re going to have.
You’re coming into a local election year. How important is that?
We’ve plans in place in regards to voting registration. We’re actually kick-starting those plans on September 21. Basically, our aim is to sign as many students up towards the voting registration and then talk to those running for election and let them know that the student voice is there. I’m fairly confident that we can get a good message across.
Accommodation is a huge issue for students. At UL, approximately 40% of students are commuting this year – is that a reflection of the national picture?
From talking to Maynooth and SETU Carlow, up to 80% from both those colleges are actually commuting. So, it varies across the country. Our students are definitely struggling to find accommodation and are asking for more purpose-built student accommodation. When talking to the minister recently, we were pushing for emergency housing for students. So, for the first six weeks, hotels or hostels would be subsidised so that students could afford to stay near college while they’re looking for (longer-term) accommodation.
Some people argue that students are inevitably somewhere down the pecking order, when so many families are looking for accommodation. What do you say to that?
Housing is a struggle for everyone be they in the workforce, or students. A couple of our officers had the same issue. When we were all moving to Dublin, there was a huge struggle to find affordable accommodation. And we’re working full-time. If you’re a student, especially in Dublin, I can only imagine the struggles that people face. We’ve seen – and DCU have found the same in a study – that students are working during the week now, as well as weekends, just to be able to afford to live and actually commute to college.
Working like that can’t be good for your college grades…
It has been confirmed in studies that the more you’re working and the less time you’re putting into college, the lower your grades are. In higher-income families, obviously, students will perform better because they don’t need to work as much. That’s not what we want to see at all. We want to education to be fair for everyone.
Do you think that colleges have failed students in not anticipating the housing problem?
Yeah, absolutely. Looking back, I’ve seen articles from 2016/2017 calling for more student accommodation that went unanswered. I can see a bit of faith in what the minister is doing – there’s a big push on to create purpose-built student accommodation, especially through the technical universities. But sometimes, it’s the TUs that are slowing down the process.
Are there any strategies in place to help commuter students feel more included in college life?
What some student unions have started doing is – if there is an opportunity for them to have society events earlier in the day, like around lunch, they’ll try and do that. I’ve seen a few colleges attempting to do speed-friending or stuff like that. When students are commuting, they are really missing a vital part of the student experience.
What was your own student experience like?
Being in MTU Kerry as a student, and then when I was working in the students’ union, I found that cross-course communication is really lacking now, because there’s so many people commuting. Everyone seems to be stuck to their own courses, and – if they’re commuting – they can’t have that social element outside of the college. It’s very hard to build relationships in the classroom.
Youth mental health is a big problem in Ireland. Is that something that USI are focusing on?
There’s an increase in mental health services needed since Covid and it just doesn’t seem to be being addressed quickly enough. Once again, I’ll go back to MTU Kerry – when you see a student requesting a meeting with the counsellor and they have to wait up to two months, that’s very disheartening. We give the local student unions the resources that they need to make students aware of mental health supports in their area. In our pre-budget submission, we are looking for an increase in funding for those youth mental health supports.
Who will USI will be supporting in the next general election?
We’ll never recommend anyone to vote for particular people. We live in a society where everyone can make their own decisions. But our mandate is that we have no confidence in the current government. That’s our stance at the minute.
Last year, you worked on a campaign with Minister Simon Harris, on ‘spiking’ awareness. How have you found working with the minister?
That was last year’s team, so I wouldn’t have had any involvement. But I think it’s going well. Colette Murphy, our welfare officer, is working on spiking awareness campaigns, again produced for local student unions. Last year, MTU Kerry was one of the first areas, once everything opened up, to have a spiking incident, that we were aware of. That kickstarted a massive student union drive on spiking. We ran a number of campaigns, mainly to make the victims aware that something like this is not their fault, which is vital because that’s something that can often be missed.
Is safety on campus a big issue for USI?
In terms of general safety on campus, we’re aiming to provide students with the information and to make them aware of what to do in whatever situation they might find themselves in. We’re making sure that the student unions are well equipped to deal with all that stuff. We also welcome the active consent workshops that the minister has made mandatory now for first years.
A decision was announced by the Minister for Education, Norma Foley, not to proceed with continuous assessment for the Leaving Cert based on the threat posed by AI. What would you say to students tempted to use AI for papers or theses?
I think AI can be good and evil. It’s great software, great to be used as a tool – but it can also be overused. I would say for your own learning, it’s great as a resource, but not to overstep the mark using it for assignments or your thesis. It comes down to academic integrity as well.
Are there any new initiatives you’d like the student body to be aware of?
We’ve a demonstration in Dublin on October 4, based around the government’s €65 billion surplus – what they’ve called a rainy day fund. Well, it’s raining right now. We’re requesting that they actually dip into that and use it for students. We want more than students there. Parents often have to pay for their children to go through the system, so we’re calling on parents of children of all ages to attend.
If you were given the option, how would you like to see that €65 billion spent?
From the student perspective, we’d be looking for that to go into mental health supports, free education, accommodation – purpose-built student accommodation. Another one of our big asks is ‘digs’ legislation. That legislation needs to be put in place for the student, but for the homeowner as well.
Simon Harris has been very vocal about wanting to have part-time learners, or mature learners, included in the SUSI system. Is that something USI would encourage?
Absolutely. We’re pushing as well for PhD students – we want to increase the stipend to €25,000. A lot of PhD students are mature students. With the price of rent and of day-to-day living going up, any support that can be given towards students is very much welcomed.
A lot of people see the presidency of USI as a learning period before getting into national politics. Is that something you see a future for yourself in?
Not at the minute (laughs)! But you never know. I don’t have a political background. When I was MCU Kerry Student Union President, I got into that through the events and engagement side. My campaign for the presidency of USI was run on engagement as well. I took more of a humorous approach at the start to try and increase that engagement – and then ended up winning. It was kind of a shock for me to win, especially coming from a smaller union.
How can students get involved in USI?
We’ve sent pamphlets around the country explaining what USI is, and what we do at the national level. But it’s always good to utilise your local student union in order to get in touch with us – that’s the best way. Obviously, we see our local students unions a lot more than we’d see on-the-ground students. So get the information to the local student union, and then that will be relayed to us. We can either use that at a national level or collaborate with that student.
Do you have any idea who you will be voting for in the next election?
I have the same perception as my mandate. We have a no confidence mandate in the government, so I think it’s fairly obvious who I won’t be voting for in the next election.
Read the full Part 2 of the Student Special in the current issue of Hot Press, out now: