As another college year comes to a close, so erupts a plethora of student politics. This time the, often overlooked, University of Limerick Postgraduate Students’ Union are at the focal point.
Nominations for the 2023/2024 sabbatical officer positions closed on May 25, with a number of students keenly interested in the positions advertised. Much like UL Student Life, the ULPSU sabbatical officer positions are full time and paid – and this year they have upped the number of positions from two to three: President, Vice President (Academic), and Vice President (Engagement).
“So going back a few years, there was just one role, it was the President’s job to be here full time,” Louis, 2022/2023 ULPSU President, clairified. “That was kind of quite a big burden to place on one person, particularly as student numbers grew. So then we had a part time Vice President – it was 10 or 12 hours a week. And then student numbers grew again and the Vice President became a full time position.
“After that, we brought the Research Officer role in so we had two and a half officers. Now numbers have grown again, to the point where we’re going to have two full time Vice Presidents, focusing on different areas, the Research Officer part time and the President.”
Over the last year, postgraduate students have taken up a lot of news coverage across the country, and rightly so. Protestors have been succesful in securing a higher standard wage for research students – but there is still much more work to do.
Speaking to Louis and Vivin Viswanath, Vice President 2022/2023, I got the impression these students live and breathe for bettering the quality of life for postgraduate students – so, did they actually enjoy their time in office? What did their year entail?
“Every day is different and brings a new challenge,” Louis beamed. “You get to work with some brilliant people, both within the union and university and it’s a unique insight into how big institutions are run. Not many graduate roles involve going on a board of directors and, you know, most academics have to work a long time before they get on to Academic Council. So, it’s great to have those platforms to project the student voice and make sure that the the issues are heard and hopefully the right decisions are made.”
“What Louis mentioned applies to me as well,” Vivin nodded. “But there are a few extra points which I want to highlight here as an international student.
“It was a tough decision to make, whether to run for elections or not, because for all international students the prime focus will be to get a job, which kind of revolves around getting a visa. So, I made the decision to run for the elections, because when I was a student here, I was already involved with Student Life, so I was aware of the way unions function in a university, the importance which the university gives to them, as well as the impact they make on students.”
Vivin continued: “In this one year as Vice President, the experience which you gain, it’s just like so immense, it’s beyond compare. I worked in corporate for eight years and there’s no comparision – here you’re learning so many different things that you could never predict – that’s the best part of it.
“Even coming from India, the largest democracy in the world, the amount of importance the university gives to this democratic body and to these roles is incredibly vital. I don’t think students are aware how important it is. Even when I talk to my friends, they think this isn’t a paid role; but in reality, this is a full time paid role. That’s the kind of prominence this post has,” the VP grinned.
He added: “So I would say, I would like to see and increase in international students coming forward for these roles and to get this experience, because they need to know how a university functions and the importance of the student voice in it. This is the perfect place for them to groom their skills, learn a lot, and it will definitely have a positive impact on their life, without doubt.”
Going forward, the pair have high hopes for the union.
“I want to see the student voice in each and every nook and cranny of the university,” Vivin stated. “Students should be aware of their rights and their duties. They should never feel alienated or suppressed in any manner. The ultimate aim of unions should be to give the best student experience, so, for me, the dream would be that if you ask any student, irrespective of the course, irrespective of the nationality, race: ‘How was your experience in UL? Did you miss your home?’ – the answer would be no, UL was the best part of their life. That’s what we’ll be aiming for. That’s what my ambition will be.”
“In terms of the union, each subsequent generation of people, they’re bringing their new ideas and they’ll bring new stuff,” Louis commented. “I think class reps is an area to be worked on. But I think what we need more widely is working rights, visas and immigration aid for international students, better funding all round, particularly for PhD and research students… And then there’s wider societal issues like accommodation or housing, also affordability and quality relating to that. I could write a list, I suppose… a long list.”
“As you might already be aware, we were strongly pursing getting International PhD students, especially non EU PhD students, a minimum wage, on a national level,” Vivin built onto Louis’ statement. “Right now they are getting far below it, but like, we kind of achieved a step towards our main aim… it’s not fully achieved, but still we are on track.
“Also, in terms of visa renewals and insurance, there are a lot of improvements needed. For a international student who’s doing a master’s 160 euro is the premium rate for health insurance, whereas a PhD student has to pay 660 euro every year. It’s a massive difference and the reasoning for it is a high court ruling stating that PhD students should be considered normal residents, which they are not because they don’t get the privilege of anything after their four years. So, as Louis said, there’s a lot we want to see improved.”
After spending a significant amount of time invooved in student politics – why do Louis and Vivin suggest students should get involved with ULPSU?
“Because you can make a difference,” Louis stated, simply. “If you like people or you care about people, this is somewhere you could be effective, which is very, very fulfilling. We have 5,000 students studying arts, humanities, business, health science, science, engineering – such a broad wide variety of people, but each of them, no matter where they come from, have a different skill set and they can all be applied here in a different way, equally effectively. There’s really something for everybody.”
“Back in India, we have a saying: ‘Everyone complains about the dirt in the house, but nobody wants to get involved in the cleaning of it’,” Vivin explains. “If you want to see a change, you should be running for election, getting into the post and implement the changes you want to see. You’re spearheading the differences you want to see in the world. You can see the changes. So, bring your talents here, apply them, and see the difference. That’s it.”
Follow along with An Focal as we keep track of the ULPSU elections over the coming weeks.