Candidates for officer positions in the Union of Students’ in Ireland (USI) outlined their stances on student issues over a livestream on Monday in a bid to attract delegates’ votes from students’ unions around the country.
The livestream acted as an “online hustings” as part of the USI’s three-day national congress, which has been replaced by online meetings due to social distancing restrictions amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
Each candidate was asked questions submitted by students that ranged in issue from direct provision to how they would handle the Covid-19 pandemic. Voting is due to take place on May 26, with the successful candidates announced on May 27.
Vice-President for Postgraduate Affairs
Adam Clarke, a postgraduate student in the Institute of Technology, Carlow (IT Carlow) running unopposed for Vice-President for Postgraduates Affairs, stated that he wishes to “establish and build upon existing postgraduate networks within campuses” and to be there regularly “by phone” or “by email”. He wants to ensure that postgraduate officers are communicating with postgraduate students to “ensure they are settling in”.
When asked about supporting postgraduates who are looking for extensions and alternative funding methods, Clarke said that he wants to be there to offer support “where it’s needed” and that if necessary he would organise a campaign “to ensure that students aren’t being left behind, now more than ever”.
Leas-Uachtarán don Ghaelige
Clíodhna Ní Dhufaigh, who is running unopposed for her second term as Leas-Uachtarán don Ghaelige (Vice-President for the Irish Language), outlined her plan to work with #Gaeilge4All campaign. She explained how she has been part of its committee this year, looking at the best ways to implement a policy on Irish in the education system. She suggested that there are “people all across the country who are learning Irish for fourteen years and can’t speak a word of it” and there is a “huge problem” for students when it comes to exemptions, expressing that that “instead of telling students that they can’t or shouldn’t learn Irish”, they should receive support.
Responding to a question describing discrimination against the Irish language in colleges on an academic level in Northern Ireland, Ní Dhufaigh explained that it is something she is “passionate” about and “conscious of”. She said: “For next year I would really like to improve the relationships between USI and students in the North.”
Vice-President for the Dublin Region
Running for Vice-President for the Dublin Region are Megan O’Neill of Technological University of Dublin Students’ Union and Dean Murphy of the National College of Ireland Students’ Union, who fielded a question on how the USI can stay “more connected than ever” in a post-pandemic world. O’Neill explained that over the summer months she plans to create a strategic plan on “ways in which we can adapt to post-Covid-19”. This will include how to host meetings and use online platforms such as Zoom. O’Neill would hope to hold “weekly check-ins” with officers to see what issues arise and how they can be tackled.
Murphy explained how he would “be there” for each member organisation to offer “direct support” through weekly “check-ins” to see what issues arise for students and “how I can provide solutions”. He spoke about providing training during the summer and creating a “close-knit community” across the Dublin community through check-ins.
When asked about the accommodation crisis in Dublin, both candidates for the Dublin region expressed how students’ voices need to be heard. Murphy explained that he wants to “ensure there are pillars in place to ensure the safety of students and that they don’t continue to be charged extortionate rates” and “ensure our voices are heard on this serious issue.” O’Neill expressed that having “purpose-built” student accommodation “rather than luxury” is essential for students. She expressed how students are “not cash cows” and students “need to boycott these student luxury accommodations”. She also said that 4% rent increases are “not okay” and need to be amended.
Vice-President for the Southern Region
Running unopposed for Vice-President for the Southern Region, Ciara Kealy, the current Deputy President and Campaigns Officer of University College Cork Students’ Union, discussed the support she would offer to unions in Institutes of Technology (ITs) undergoing mergers. She explained that “the first thing that’s absolutely key is for me to sit down with the relevant teams” so that they know “what they want to achieve through those mergers”. She noted the difficulties for union officers to have meetings with management in these institutions. She explained how she would work with those unions and institutions so union officers could gain a “seat at the table” for merger discussions.
On how to support part-time officers within students’ union, Kealy explained she would have “localised” training for all PTOs on an “institution by institution” basis. When asked about how she would resolve conflict within teams, Kealy explained that she would “be able to sit down with the officers in question” and “have to be open and honest about conflict within the team”.
Vice-President for the Border, Midlands and Western Region
Gary Tobin of the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology is the sole candidate running for Vice-President for the Border, Midlands and Western Region. He expressed that the most important job for the regional vice-president is to facilitate an environment for union officers to grow. Tobin explained how “allowing the sabbatical officers to grow within their roles and doing that from the ground up” and “getting to know their campuses individually” is an important element of the role and would be a “point of reference from which to drive the region”.
Vice-President for Equality and Citizenship
The sole candidate for Vice-President for Equality and Citizenship Marie Lyons was asked how she plans to engage students in equality events during Covid-19. She spoke about the moving of existing USI events online that has already occurred, including a webinar series, and that the team would hope “to continue that next year”, as well as pursuing projects such as a a podcast to “get students on to hear their stories” and “give a voice to students on the ground”.
When asked about how she would tackle direct provision, Lyons, USI’s current Vice-President for the Border, Midlands and Western Region, said that the “first thing” she would do is “speak to students who are involved in sanctuary schemes” and that she would work with students’ union and students lobbying “on the ground”, as well as linking in with external organisations to “have a national campaign”.
Responding to a question on what new aspects she would bring to the role, Lyons expressed that she wants to “increase communication” and have an increased presence through online events, and to give a new focus on disabilities.
Vice-President for Campaigns
Running for vice-president for campaigns, Aodhán Donnelly and Craig McHugh both emphasised their previous experience in campaigns. Donnelly, a fourth year Trinity student, explained that during his time in college he was involved in the “Take Back Trinity” campaign and has been involved in occupations as part of the Raise the Roof campaign. McHugh, who is the USI’s current Vice-President for the Dublin Region, outlined his involvement in the Raise the Roof campaign and described the importance of speaking “to people in language that they understand to truly democratise your movement”.
Questioned on how they would tackle housing issues impacting students in Northern Ireland, McHugh expressed that “rents are way too high” and that he would to “step up how we’re campaigning on this issue” by working with tenants’ groups and listening to students. Donnelly explained that what they need to do is “engage” with students’ demands, garner further public support, and ensure that politicians in Stormont “listen to what student activists on the ground are telling them”.
When asked about how they would organise mass student movements during the Covid-19 pandemic, Donnelly outlined: ““There definitely are still ways we can engage with radical activism that both adheres to social distancing and also what we do online, can maintain the punch and power that on the ground [actions] always have.” McHugh explained how the current pandemic has “given us the opportunity to think about how we can do things differently”, especially where protests can be moved “online”. He expressed how this is a great opportunity to “be creative” and “catch people’s attention” and said that he would “blend” actions between “online and on the ground”.
Vice-President for Welfare
In the race for Vice-President for Welfare, Clare Austick and Ruairí Weiner both spoke extensively on providing support for welfare officers across universities. Austick, the current President of the National University of Ireland Galway Students’ Union (NUIGSU), wants to ensure there are “regular check-ins” with officers so that they have the tools to support students, whether in regards to accommodation, stress, or online learning. Weiner, the Oifigeach na Gaeilge & Gnóthaí Cultúrtha of Maynooth Students’ Union (MSU), mentioned knowledge of referrals as a “really important” tool for officers, as well as practice training sessions to make sure welfare teams were prepared to give students advice.
Weiner drew attention to mental health and his desire for “students to have access to fully resourced mental health team similar to what they would get in their own community from the HSE”, while Austick focused on “wellbeing as a whole”, whether it be physical, mental or sexual, and ensuring students have access to support services.
When asked about increasing USI engagement with sports clubs and societies around the country, Austick agreed that it is “important to focus on all the different groups that we have” and “empower women to take part in, for example, the 20×20 initiative” which she was an ambassador for this year. Weiner hoped to “make contact” with club captains around the country and “see how they would feel about being involved in campaigns”, especially those centred on physical well being.
Vice-President for Academic Affairs
Running for Vice-President for Academic Affairs, Kevin McStravock and Fergal Twomey were asked how they would see USI engage with the European Students’ Union (ESU). McStravock, running for a second term in the role, expressed that “Erasmus mobility” will be among one of the most pressing issues for students. He explained that as the current Eramus program is due to expire, they need to “make sure there is access to Erasmus for all students in Ireland”. Towmey, a postgraduate student in NUI Galway, expressed that given the Covid-19 situation this is “especially important”, they will need to compare “the response of different countries” and integrate the response with “educational services” so that Eramus may continue for students.
The candidates for Academic Affairs were also asked how they would ensure the rights if the Gaeilgeoirí are protected. Towmey said that the “crucial” issue is to ensure that everyone has “free access” to Irish lessons and “the opportunity to meet with and speak with other irish speakers”, while McStravock said that USI needs to be pushing for Gaeilgóirí to have access to courses through Irish and to “ensure we are truly representing and truly advocating for these speakers”.
On student partnership agreements, the candidates were asked how they would ensure that agreements made between students and colleges would not be co-opted by colleges and instead maintain students’ agency. McStravock expressed how this is something he is “hugely passionate about” and explained that he has been “pushing for the Department of Education to sign a national student partnership agreement” to ensure that “the rights of students in terms of partnerships are advocated effectively”. Twomey said he believed the USI should be looking at “politicising all aspects of student life and ensuring that students have a voice on all political issues”.
Lorna Fitzpatrick, the sole candidate for USI President, fielded questions on student levies, direct provision and campaigns in her race for a second term as the union’s head,
In response to a query about campaigning to remove student levies, Fitzpatrick outlined her experience working with unions around levies and recommended undertaking a formal investigation to improve understanding of student stances across the country and to allow the USI to “take a formal stance”.
On direct provision, Fitzpatrick emphasised the importance of supporting students currently living in the system and the need to “ensure we don’t see any more students being faced with deportation orders”. Fitzpatrick also hoped to work closely with “other NGOs and activists on the ground who have been championing the movement against direct provision” to build on their work.
When asked about what practical steps she would take to increase the visibility of USI’s campaigns and initiatives, Fitzpatrick said that she would work on “ensuring the campaigns are visible and inclusive across all platforms, whether that be in person or online”. She added that she would engage in “conversations with organisations which are working on online campaigns” to ensure they are “visible” and “inclusive” across all platforms. She expressed that the USI are “working on online campaigning” to “make sure campaigns moving forward will be as strong as they possibly can be” in light of Covid-19 outbreak.
Speaking on how she plans to engage and mobilise students’ during the current coronavirus pandemic, Fitzpatrick said that “Covid-19 will change the way in which we operate quite drastically in some areas”. She explained that “USI has a role to play in ensuring that students are feeding into whatever campaigns we are running” and making sure they are “accessible to all of our students across the board”.
On supporting current Leaving Certificate students entering higher education during Covid-19, Fitzpatrick stated that the USI has been working with Irish Second–Level Students’ Union (ISSU) to “to make sure that we can offer our support on the issues they are facing”. She expressed that she wants to make sure students facing issues coming to third level education during the pandemic will be addressed, whether by individual institutions or through government initiatives.