Leah Keogh, a final year Social Work and Social Policy student, is this year’s sole candidate for Welfare officer. She is running on a platform of continuity, transparency and a renewed focus on student finance.
This marks the third year in which the Welfare race has gone uncontested, raising questions of engagement with the Student’s Union on campus. Reflecting on the issue of engagement Keogh referred to the 2017 Welfare race, which was contested by five candidates, and said she would “definitely be looking at what has changed between then and now”. Keogh aims to tackle this issue with an increased focus on “inclusion rather than engagement” through the introduction of Unconscious Bias Training. She cites a perception of the union as “insular” and the perceived existence of “hack culture” as possible causes of frustration with the union but maintains that “if I can infiltrate the union, anyone can”.
Keogh is active in the union, having twice served as Secretary to Council, a role which also includes acting as Chair of the Union’s Oversight Commission. Speaking about the role she explained “…as chair of OC, my job was essentially to make sure the officers were doing what Council wanted them to do, so I hope to bring that kind of level of transparency [and] accountability to the role, so it will be working from the inside out”. She pointed to her plan to publish an anonymised annual report of the casework data in order to highlight the issues faced by students. Keogh hopes this will “legitimise funding applications for the union or specific areas, and just to let people know what’s going on, the work that we’re doing, because right now nobody’s seeing, kind of, the extent of student struggles”.
Keogh identifies continuity as one of the challenges faced by the union, and hopes that the anonymised casework data will aid future officers in understanding the key areas of concern regarding student welfare. Keogh highlights her desire to “build on a lot of things that Aisling [Leen, current Welfare officer] has done this year, so that we’re not starting from scratch, because often there’s a lot of fallout”. Last year Leen ran a campaign which, among other themes, focused on the issue of consent, something which Keogh wants to carry over into her term. Keogh facilitated consent workshops in Halls, and is also a first responder for issues of sexual misconduct. She intends to work with the college’s consent intern to “ensure that a policy, a sexual assault policy, is passed, and I can implement that next year”.
Keogh highlights student hardship as one of the major issues at both a local and national level. “Just from speaking to students, one thing that keeps coming up is student finance. Like if you can’t afford to be here it’s very difficult to engage, if we’re talking about engagement in any other areas of life, if you’re struggling financially.” She plans to target this problem through a student welfare partnership with the Academic Registry.
Asked about the feasibility of tackling the long-standing issues students face with the Academic Registry, Keogh is quick to assure that she has already made contact with the department. “We chatted and agreed that it was feasible for Welfare to meet AR on a regular basis next year, and also as Welfare Officer I’ll sit on different bodies, so, the student finance committee, so I will have a vote and my voice will carry some weight on those committees to evoke kind of tangible change, so I’m hoping that that will go in the student’s favour next year…I’ve definitely established that level of communication”.
Keogh cites the late registration fee as an issue that she will broach with the Academic Registry, who she says are open to discussion. “They were very open minded to the idea of change and recognised students’ frustration.” She also aims to help students who register with the disability services after the due date with requests for reasonable accommodation, as there exists “a discrepancy maybe… in communication, and I aim to solve that in my regular meetings with AR, so I think that’s something tangible that the students will see. I can propose individual cases, I can be an advocate for those students.” Keogh also plans to open a conversation about a more accessible instalment plan for fee payment. “So right now, obviously we do two instalments, but I was hoping to propose a more accessible one, that would maybe include additional dates, just to alleviate some financial pressure from students, and I think this idea of student partnership will really help that, kind of, progress.”
The issue of alcohol and substance abuse is another issue Keogh wants to address, and much like student finance, it is an issue which she sees as both a local and national concern. Her manifesto includes a plan to organise a drugs and alcohol information and support campaign in Trinity in conjunction with the Union of Students in Ireland (USI). “One of the major areas I want to target is the idea of a drug policy. Right now I’m working with Students for Sensible Drug Policy…they are currently drafting a policy and will present it to College, and I would love to work on the implementation of that policy next year. Counselling runs a fantastic addictive behaviours drop in group and it’s really well attended, which is showing that there’s a need for…more information in the area, so I think that’s a huge one too.”
The third major challenge Keogh wants to tackle is mental health, something she again identifies as both a national and local issue. “There was a mental health report released by USI this year and I was shocked by a lot of the figures in it. Counselling services are up to their eyes and I think that’s an area that needs to be targeted nationally, and I think they [financial hardship and mental health issues] go hand in hand, financial issues and hardship can lend to mental health issues.”
In tackling these major issues, Keogh leans marginally more towards a focus on campaigns over casework, but argues that there is room for both, stating that “it’s not a counselling role, but there is room for counselling within the role”. When asked about the qualities of a good Welfare Officer she described the role of Welfare Officer as a “triage role” maintaining that a good Welfare Officer should recognise that “maybe you don’t have all the answers but you’re willing to find someone who does”.
On the perennial question of whether the students’ union should focus on local issues or national issues, Keogh is diplomatic, maintaining that “it’s very difficult to evoke local change if the national structures aren’t in place… you have to take it by a case-by-case basis”. She points to the overlap that exists between local and national issues on matters like student hardship, drug and alcohol abuse and mental health issues.
In recent years universities like UCD and UL have voted to disaffiliate from USI. When asked about her stance regarding USI Keogh stated that “it’s an interesting one, people are starting to challenge the different structures that exist, as they should… I enjoy having a say on what they’re working on at a national level, and I think that when we don’t have a voice on that level that’s when issues can arise. I think it’s important that Trinity has a say in national issues, but also not to forget the local issues”.
In describing the Welfare role Keogh says “it’s all a balancing game, the idea of welfare and equality, casework and campaigns”.