This year’s SU elections are shaping up to be some of the most contested in recent memory. Not only are there a wealth of candidates vying for most positions, particularly in the presidential and welfare race, but this year’s incoming group of sabbatical officers can expect to face some of the more unique challenges in recent years.
The ongoing accommodation crisis, a possible general election in 2016, and the removal of communications from the remit of the University Times’ editor spell a new set of issues that candidates will have the address as campaigning begins in two weeks.
The increase in student fees by €250 next year to €3,000 per annum marks the final increase in this government’s plans to raise the student contribution. However, with the 2016 general election falling in their term, it will be incumbent on the next president to engage with political parties, alongside the Union of Students in Ireland (USI), to ensure the best outcome for students in the next programme for Government. The threat of a more substantial fee increase is one that many stakeholders are encouraging, and the next president will face this issue from a number of fronts.
The ongoing shortage of accommodation for Trinity students is an issue that is unlikely to abate any time soon. The announcement in Trinity’s Strategic Plan 2014-2019 of efforts to build college-owned accommodation is something that the president will have to deal with carefully, to ensure adequate services and facilities. Furthermore, in the short term, the president with the welfare officer will have to continue to organise a method of assisting students to find housing for the next academic year, hopefully with the benefit of having appreciated the stressful experience of this year’s accommodation crisis.
The term of the next president will begin after the referendum on marriage equality, and the harnessing of enthusiasm for this campaign for the other policy areas which the SU is mandated to campaign for is a significant opportunity for the next occupant of the highest office. The union is mandated to campaign for access to abortion, and with movements nationwide to repeal the 8th Amendment to the constitution, this is one area which the incoming president may find occupying much of their time in office. A similar mandate to campaign for an end to direct provision for refugees, and the prospect of further student-initiated referenda on issues such as water charges, lead to the conclusion that the incoming president will be required to come to grips with a range of social issues.
The ability to represent students from all areas of College is one that will serve whoever takes the reins well. The public profile generated by the immediate two previous presidents should stand to benefits Trinity students. Using the position to publicly make claims on behalf of students is an incredibly important thing to bear in mind, and is a quality which is of paramount importance. Primarily what we require of a president is to be a spokesperson, and in an uncertain period, is one which will directly benefit students.
The education office is uncontested again, for the second year in a row. Education is unpopular at the moment perhaps because the issues in the race – the same issues that have kept coming up in recent years – are thankless. The candidate or candidates will have to propose a method of dealing with levies on educational services: the increased commencement fee and the huge levy on supplemental exams.
Education candidates tend to zero in on similar problems that are hard to solve; library hours and exam timetables are the big ones coming up year by year. The problem is that when every candidate wants longer library hours and earlier exam timetables, it is harder to distinguish the candidates and focus on policies they’re more likely to change. Every SU will always look for longer library hours, but innovations and ideas you wouldn’t think of could win out over a manifesto that looks like most of the others. Many students are unsure of what the education officer can do in their role, besides asking for things that college has ultimate deciding power on. Showing students what a candidate will get done in their role, even small changes, could be enough of a statement.
More and more campaigns are coming through the SU by way of signature collection; this year’s education officer was in favour of raising the signatures needed to bring a proposal to tighten the number of campaigns and decrease the education team’s workload. Campaigns may be an important issue for those students running them and those who regularly vote, but most students will ignore them in favour of issues that affect them more day-to-day. Like any SU race, if the issues candidates choose are too similar, it will be decided on personality, likability and the number of people who know the candidate well enough to campaign for them.
Last year, the race for the sabbatical position of welfare officer turned out to be the most tightly contested election. This is unsurprising when you consider some of the roles of the position. Out of all the sabbatical positions, the welfare officer is the one that the average student is most likely to request assistance from. Their role can be very personal, often dealing with the intimate and immediate problems of individual students. These problems can, for example, involve mental health, financial issues, as well as accommodation trouble. Due to the highly intimate quality of some of these roles, students who generally do not pay heed to the elections might decide to keep a close eye on what is promised by welfare candidates, because of what is at stake.
A problem candidates are likely to address is the recent issue involving the student hardship fund. The fund, which offers students suffering from financial difficulties biyearly payments, has seen its funding cut by the Higher Education Authority (HEA), despite an increase in demand. Some fear that the combination of these two aspects could mean the fund will be unable to offer assistance to all who need it. Last year’s welfare officer, Stephen Garry, ran a group of successful fundraisers to keep the fund afloat, which Trinity News highlighted as one of the best aspects of his sabbatical year. This year’s candidates might attempt to offer a permanent solution to the maintaining of the fund, or stress innovative and effective ways of fundraising.
Last year’s campaign saw both candidates offering suggestions on how to improve the support systems for those suffering with mental health issues. Since college can be a place of high stress, the topic of mental health within the welfare campaign is unlikely to abate. Candidates may take influence from the unfulfilled ideas of last year’s losing candidate Dan McFadden, who suggested the creation of a welfare blog where people can share their own stories regarding mental health.
Finally, this year’s Michaelmas term began with an accommodation crisis, causing the Accommodation Advisory Service to take immediate actions in finding more rooms for students. While improvements are in the process of being made, with College having plans to build more accommodation, welfare candidates may decide to offer more immediate responses to the problem. These could possibly include ways to raise awareness for Dublin locals of the benefits of offering rooms in their houses as digs, as well as campaigns offering current and future students advice on how to avoid housing deposit scams.
Conall Carlos Monaghan
We are privileged at Trinity to have so vibrant a community of societies, the likes of which no other Irish university can boast of so wide a range. Each caters in different ways for different groups within College. The large ones throw elaborate balls and host trips abroad. The small ones run sparsely-attended weeknights catering for a fringe interest (shout out to the board-gamers). Almost every interest and every type of student is catered for. Interestingly, of the large number of the societies falling into the academic category, many concentrate more on the social side than the academic. Engineering Soc, for instance, which could reasonably expect to have a membership of close to a thousand, has put on only three (loosely) academic event this year, one of which was a tour of a concrete factory, no less. (Photographic evidence suggests that as many as twelve people made the trip out.) The business and economic society’s calendar is dominated by its annual trip abroad and the BESS Ball, and you’d be hard-pressed to remember the last time an economist spoke to its members.
Given this plethora of societies that often prioritise social events, it’s not obvious why a university-wide entertainments body is required. And it’s even less so when we consider what that body has to-date offered. As it stands, Ents is most relevant in the first and last week of the academic year – during freshers’ week and come Trinity Ball. During the first, Ents concentrates exclusively on alcohol-fuelled club nights. Freshers’ week can be a very lonely five days for a friendless newbie, and Ents ought to be providing entertainment that encourages interaction with other students. It doesn’t. Filling the void of friendly day-time entertainment has fallen of-late to College’s two society Goliaths on campus, the Phil and the Hist. This year, a treasure hunt, speed dating, cable-tie adventure and all-day movie series were some of the events they put on. For many students, myself included, these provide invaluable opportunity to integrate with often fully-formed friendship groups that continued from school.
While officially hosted by Ents, the organisation of Trinity Ball has all but been appropriated by MCD. It therefore has little involvement in it other than promotion. A Ball ticket costs €80 and attiring oneself can cost upwards of the same amount. So the flagship event hosted by the student-funded Ents office costs as much as five-percent of the student contribution that so many struggle to afford. Hardly inclusive.
Ents’ relevance on campus wanes during the rest of the year. With so much variety of entertainment existing on campus and in town, there simply isn’t a need for much of the entertainment it currently provides, so a reappraisal of its role is required. If it can’t offer original entertainment that excites students, what can it?
Rather than the “student deals” that invariably are not exclusive to Trinity, perhaps a different Dublin eatery per week could be persuaded to provide a genuinely good student deal (maybe outside of lunch hours) in return for the custom that would inevitably come way.
Given financial constraints, many small-to-medium sized societies replicate the same events as each-other – the themed movie night being a favourite. Ents could reinvent itself as a facilitator of societies, helping them to jointly-host events thereby raising the bar of what they can organise. In order to take advantage of economies of scale, the alcohol drunk across all society events could be centrally purchased. In essence, Ents could become the framework of society activities.
It is unlikely one person is going to enact these change; it’s going to take a succession of similar-thinking ents officers to do so. The current one, Finn Murphy, has made a step in that direction by promising a film festival, which is set for later this term. It will be interesting to see how successful that is and whether it captures the interest of students.
Communications and Marketing
The new sabbatical position of communications and marketing officer was created in the wake of a constitutional review that concluded towards the end of Michaelmas 2013. It recommended the separation of the communications brief from that of University Times editor in order to allow the allow the communications brief to be more fully “exploited”, in the words of then-SU president Tom Lenihan. Whilst some mooted that the role should be merged with that of the entertainments (Ents) office, that change was nixed after the then-Ents officer, Sean Reynolds, and officer-elect, Finn Murphy, spoke against the change at a meeting of the SU Council. Despite opposition by some who believed the new position should not have been designated a paid sabbatical, the changes were passed by students in a referendum held at the same time as last year’s sabbatical elections.
The change makes the SU’s sabbatical team unusual, but not unique, among Irish student unions in that it will have a full time sabbatical officer charged with its public relations; University College Cork has its own dedicated Communications and Commercial Officer, but neither NUI Galway or University College Dublin have a similar position and, in contrast to Trinity’s six sabbatical officers, the University of Limerick’s students’ union makes do with with a mere three: president, welfare and academic.
So what will the lucky new officer be doing? The addition of “marketing” to the brief and absence of any predecessors to compare with, means the new officer will have a pretty blank slate to act as innovatively or shoddily as they please. But some things don’t change: the winning candidate will still be paid a generous wage and will probably still live happily ever after in that incestuously large Front Square apartment with the other SU hacks elected next month. As a former sabbatical candidate recently summarised on social media, “It’s a free room in the middle of town, [with] a healthy dose of pocket money in exchange for showing up to six councils a year and worst case scenario having Vincent Browne make you look like an asshole on TV3.”
The upcoming leadership race will mark the first time that communications officer and University Times editor will be contested as two separate positions, following a review of the SU constitution during the last academic year which concluded that a split was necessary to ensure that both aspects of the job received adequate attention.Now able to focus solely on the paper, there is an opportunity here for candidates to further develop some of the ideas of previous editors who were also juggling the communications officer role. Redoubling efforts to generate revenue for UT through advertising sponsorship is an example of where this could be done, an area in which Leanna Byrne, last year’s communications officer, experienced considerable success.
While communications candidates in the past could divide their manifesto promises between plans for UT and the other side of their position, candidates for editor this year will perhaps need more ideas than in previous years. And so, while improving on initiatives already in place would be worthwhile for candidates, it will be the fresh approaches and plans that they offer that really grab attention that will be the decisive factor in the race. Byrne undertook the creation of the UT iPhone app, while Samuel Riggs pledged a new health science correspondent position for UT and a series of writing workshops. Contenders will need to show that they have the innovation and determination to maintain the quality of the paper, as well as to fully exploit the additional time that the editorial role now has to focus on UT.
Prior to the move to split the roles, there was some concern that the editor’s job could be compromised by their dual function as communications officer. When the decision was first made, Tom Lenihan, the then-SU President, also recommended the formation of an oversight authority for UT to guarantee transparency in the paper and prevent the SU from interfering if UT ever printed unfavourable information about it. Now that the separation is about to come into effect, candidates may seek to emphasize the paper’s editorial independence from the SU through this or similar initiatives.
Photo: Conor O’Donovan