Candidates for Graduate Students’ Union (GSU) sabbatical officer positions fielded questions from postgraduate students this afternoon in a virtual hustings, marking a break from the traditional town hall format due to Covid-19 restrictions.
The hustings – which faced some “teething pains” in the form of candidates’ connectivity faltering – took place over a Facebook livestream, with 32 viewers tuning in at its peak.
In her opening speech, sole candidate for GSU President Gisèle Scanlon drew on her experience as the union’s vice-president to outline how she has worked to support postgraduate students in the past, referencing events she has organised and activist movements she has participated in. In particular, she covered areas such as student welfare, employment supports, racism, the housing crisis, and Take Back Trinity.
Scanlon turned several times to the idea of “care”, which she has adopted into the slogan of her campaign. She suggested that by progressing from vice-president to president, she is “offering continuity of care”, and stated: “I am running for president because I care.”
Scanlon, the union’s incumbent vice-president and former Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (AHSS) Officer, described herself as a “quick, practical, passionate” person and promised to create a “caring, listening and aggressive union; one which holds College and the government accountable”. She committed to “champion reforms as we face new challenges” and to provide postgraduate students with “essential supports”.
Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) President Laura Beston posed a question to Scanlon on how she would make use of links to external unions such as the Union of Students’ in Ireland (USI) and the Services Industrial Professional and Technical Union (SIPTU). Scanlon outlined that she would look internally at researchers’ needs and work with USI to obtain those, particularly with the USI Vice-President for Postgraduate Affairs: “I will stand up for research. I have always stood up for research, whether it’s stood outside in the rain or around tables.”
On supporting PhD workers in laboratories during Covid-19, Scanlon said that she would give attention to the practicalities of how social distancing might work within the lab environment. “I will ensure that anyone who’s going back is safe,” she stated. Later, Scanlon discussed the issue of pay for PhD students working as casual staff and emphasised her communication with College and TCD PhD Workers’ Rights, a campaign group set up this year. She promised to “champion reform and champion supporting research”.
Questioned on her approach to conflict resolution, especially among teammates, Scanlon said: “I’m a good listener; I’ve done a lot of listening this year.” She expressed that she felt the GSU needed to formalise its processes more to “take an active approach” in thinking more about its communications”, suggesting that “because everything will be online, we’ll have to change the ways things are done”. She outlined her plan to meet regularly with members of the union and its subcommittees: “We’ll listen to everybody and make time for that and hopefully have a peaceful, listening, positive union in 2020.”
In the race for vice-president, Joseph Keegan outlined his desire to help postgraduate students through “these unprecedented, turbulent times”, describing that during his time in Trinity he has “seen the college go on leaps and bounds… but there is still more to do.” Keegan cited his experience as a class representative while studying in Dublin Business School and in Trinity and described his desire to find solutions for students’ problems.
Keegan, who holds a BSc in Management Information Systems from Trinity and most recently studied for Trinity’s postgraduate certificate in creative thinking, innovation and entrepreneurship, emphasised that his focus in the role would be to “address with vigour the traumatic changes that Covid-19 has brought both at home and abroad” through using Zoom clinics to engage with students, liaising with College, and working with communities across college.
He referenced campaigning for postgraduate spaces on campus, support for LGBT+ students, and housing. “This is going to be the hardest year for postgraduates and your representatives in the history of Trinity,” Keegan said. “I feel I have the empathy, know-how, confidence, and experience to help you all through future challenges.”
Abhisweta Bhattacharjee opened her speech by outlining her vision to “build a home away from home” for postgraduate students, focusing on plans to “serve and work with empathy and honesty and make students comfortable, while looking at their welfare and safety”. She referenced the work of incumbent Vice-President Gisèle Scanlon which she said has supplemented her knowledge of the role of vice-president.
Bhattacharjee, who is currently pursuing a masters in applied psychology, particularly considered academic issues faced by postgraduate students and said that one of her key aims would be to maintain a smooth education experience for students. She discussed her desire to assist postgraduate students with academic problems, including the appeals process for assessments, which led into her consideration of how to support international postgraduate students, particularly in relation to visa extensions and working with embassies.
Discussing PhD students, Bhattacharjee said that supporting the PhD community is “extremely, extremely important, as they are the pillars of society”. She outlined plans to work on creating virtual spaces for postgraduate students and developing online forms of communicating with students: “Even though physically apart, the aim is to make the next session as smooth as possible.”
The candidates for the vice-presidency were asked to describe their plans for how to support postgraduate students during the housing crisis. Drawing on her perspective as an international student, Bhattacharjee emphasised the union’s role in sharing information with students on where to find quality accommodation, referencing the additional barriers likely to be posed in finding accomodation this year due to social distancing. Keegan agreed that social distancing would be a challenge to securing accommodation, but referenced the strain on the housing market caused by short-term rental schemes such as Airbnb and suggested that, from his perspective on the rental situation, the “quality of rentals will go up” and rent would go down due to a lack of customers for Airbnb at the moment.
Discussing student welfare, Keegan described that he would be “in tune” with students’ issues and take a “discrete and compassionate” approach, while Bhattacharjee outlined her plan to build a “listening space” for students and to increase referrals of students to other support services.
A question posed to the candidates on how they would protect PhD students working in research laboratories that have not been shut down, and how they would fight for any earnings potentially lost by PhD students if they were not rehired as laboratory demonstrators in the next year, attracted similar answers from Bhattacharjee and Keegan. Both suggested that this issue would fall under the remit of the GSU president, but they would communicate with the president on the issue and emphasise the welfare of students.
Discussing financial difficulties faced by postgraduate students, Keegan said he would watch the steps taken by College to alleviate the impact on students and would “lobby” for postgraduates, while Bhattacharjee said that she would “be the students’ voice” and seek to ensure College administration was “working for the benefit of the students”. With reference to PhD workers’ rights, both vice-president candidates suggested the establishment of an online portal to engage with PhD workers and offer support.
Responding to a question on how the candidates would fight for postgraduates through their seat on University Council, Keegan referenced his experience in sitting on the student council at Dublin Business School and said that he would bring that experience to the vice-president’s role. Bhattacharjee said that she would fight for “whatever is in the welfare of and makes a student feel at home”, mentioning the importance of having “positive debate” on issues impacting postgraduate students.
Asked about the union’s approach to GDPR regulations and giving students the option to opt-out of union emails, Bhattacharjee said that “it is your right to opt out of receiving emails from organisations you don’t want to hear from,” but that “all of our welfare is interconnected” and “that is the vision with which the emails are sent”. Agreeing with Bhattacharjee, Keegan said that the union was trying to “generate a family”, and being part of the university means being “part of being informed”, expressing concern that students might “miss something” if they did not receive an email.
A second hustings with a write-in format for questions is due to take place next week ahead of online voting on May 27, 28 and 29.
An independent online elections company, Mi-Voice, has been recruited by the GSU’s electoral commission to “ensure that the election is completely secure and fair in these unprecedented times”.
Nominations for both races opened on May 11, while campaigning began on May 18.
The GSU annually elects two paid sabbatical officers; a president and a vice-president. The sabbatical officers sit on the union’s executive committee, which also includes part-time officers.