Education race: Daniel O’Reilly wants to enhance every student’s access to education

STEM convenor and Education Officer candidate expresses an interest in ensuring transparency and accountability for TCDSU and finding systemic solutions to student problems

“Everything is an access issue if you want to boil it down,” says Daniel O’Reilly, current STEM convenor for Trinity College Dublin’s Students’ Union (TCDSU) and a fifth year Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering student. O’Reilly is one of two contenders to be the union’s next Education Officer, presenting a pragmatic approach to his suggested policies, whilst maintaining honesty regarding the effort needed to see them through.

Previous EMS convenor, class rep and Head S2S Mentor for Engineering, O’Reilly is aiming to give access for every student to education by looking to combat  financial barriers.

In an interview with Trinity News, O’Reilly suggested that the common theme between his policies is accessibility. Pointing out how financial barriers are “blocking out people from a lower socioeconomic status from higher education” and lack of services as “blocking out people with physical disabilities,” O’Reilly concluded that access impacts most areas of student life.

Appearing unfazed by the online format of the campaign, O’Reilly discussed, as he outlines in his manifesto, that “there is value to be captured from online stuff”. One such value being his decision to make himself his own campaign manager, something that would not have been as feasible in a physical campaign. O’Reilly claimed that these radical changes can be seen as opportunities, ones he thinks College and the SU shouldn’t lose when campus reopens. Discussing the benefit of online classes in regards to students’ commitments to part-time jobs, O’Reilly said that “online doesn’t mean students have to choose between class and being financially stable”.

When discussing Covid-19 and the resulting mental health issues facing students, O’Reilly detailed how these problems “aren’t just because of College” but because of fear of unemployment and career prospects. He discussed how he could not pretend that he could do anything, in the role of Education Officer, to “meaningfully solve” these problems. However, he could ensure that students facing issues were aware of the existing resources in place to assist them with personal problems. O’Reilly praised the Student Counselling Service as a “fantastic” service he would signpost for students. He likewise wanted to ensure that students were conscious that no problem was too small to reach out to existing services.

“An SU that relies on engagement with students isn’t doing its job very well.”

Discussing student engagement, O’Reilly was definitive in his view that students should have clear opportunities to engage with the union, but that it should not be a mandatory requirement. This opinion differs strongly with the usual stance on the issue among union members, which is that student engagement is too low and must be increased. And whilst O’Reilly acknowledged that the percentage of students who were aware of their ability to engage was too low, polling just over 50% according to O’Reilly, he likewise insisted that “an SU that relies on engagement with students isn’t doing its job very well”. O’Reilly pointed out that there was a difference between engagement and the opportunity to engage, and whilst every student should be given the opportunity to engage, they should also be given the opportunity to disengage. O’Reilly pointed out that if the union solves an issue that students are having, those students then disengaging with TCDSU over the issue is not something to be concerned about.

An establishment of an online module for lecturers to partake in online learning themselves is a priority for O’Reilly. The “Walk a Module in Our Shoes” is what O’Reilly considers as his“most ambitious” policy. The aim of this policy would be to educate lecturers in online learning, “improving the way they teach”, he explained. O’Reilly’s concern stems from the “lack of empathy” he perceives lecturers to have regarding students enduring online teaching, due to their own lack of experience being taught online. This concern for O’Reilly comes from his own personal experience as a teacher and his awareness of student difficulties concerning online learning. This policy would see lecturers enroll in five credit intro modules on Blackboard, participating in the subject, submitting assignments and gaining a more empathetic approach to online teaching. O’Reilly does not consider lecturers to be unsympathetic, he clarified, but simply unaware of the difficulties of online learning. However, he appears confident that “they would take the opportunity to develop empathy”. This policy intends to benefit online learning practices, a practice O’Reilly seems confident “is here to stay”.

The policy would be carried forward through locating the lecturers who are interested in this kind of learning. He believes it can be done through a collaboration with interested students from the Education Committee and Academic Practice Unit, people he believes to be interested in this kind of resource. A complication he acknowledged, however, is the fact that some lecturers may not want other academics in their classes as volunteer students.  

O’Reilly’s “Planes Trains and Erasmus Information” seeks to assist students in choosing module combinations for Erasmus. The project would see the consensual collection of personal data belonging to students who had previously gone on Erasmus. Acknowledging the legal difficulty of publishing student’s data, O’Reilly proposed the way the policy would work would be through publishing student data online, dividing the information by host institution, while still maintaining complete anonymity. Students would then be able to compare other student’s previous module combinations with their own options and be put in contact with the student who had made similar choices, with complete anonymity being maintained for both parties.

O’Reilly stated that the Erasmus office would support something like this, “they just haven’t really figured out a way to do it properly.” This policy, he explained, was an opportunity for TCDSU to help students assist each other. “It shouldn’t be the sabbatical officers doing things, it should be sabbatical officers setting up opportunities for students to help each other,” he stated. 

O’Reilly criticised the “resource being lost by focusing on what the five sabbatical officers can do”.

Emphasising the importance of accessibility to his campaign, O’Reilly’s policy of “Accessibility in Every Form” would seek to introduce measures making Trinity more hospitable to incoming and existing students, who have been put at a disadvantage by certain campus features. Constructing basic surveys of buildings, such as the Hamilton, O’Reilly identified certain architectural deficiencies in the building, such as lack of wheelchair access. With these surveys, O’Reilly intends to identify more of these deficiencies so as to create greater access to education for students.

Describing the project as one of his “less ambitious ones”, this policy could see the introduction of a map onto TCDSU website, a resource O’Reilly criticised as being “absolutely not used”. The map would be “basic”, but detailed enough to allow incoming students to find “classrooms, labs and toilets, etc”. With this policy, O’Reilly also intends Trinity not to lose new features of College life, such as online learning. According to O’Reilly, recorded lectures save students from paying extortionate fees to attend college and should not be forgotten when College reopens.

We need a “line of accountability so the union can do nothing in secret”

O’Reilly likewise wants to introduce a “line of accountability so the union can do nothing in secret”.  He criticised the union for its refusal to publish minutes and what he described as a “massive issue” in transparency. O’Reilly admitted the issue of transparency was so prevalent that even he, a longstanding member of TCDSU, was not aware of how many committees existed. In his policy “Who’s Representing You”, O’Reilly would seek to implement a feature on the union website detailing clearly the identity and contact details of TCDSU members, as well as a list of every committee the union had a representative on and the function of that committee. O’Reilly would also seek to publish minutes of meetings on the website, increasing accountability of the union.

This promise for greater accessibility and transparency continues in his policy “Feedback in Four Weeks”. O’Reilly, discussing policy, claims that much of it is student friendly but not being followed. This policy will seek to address the issue of students receiving feedback later than the 20 days College policy permits. When asked whether he would accept the stress of Covid-19 as an excuse for late returns from lecturers, O’Reilly pointed out that the current situation falls into College policy as an acceptable excuse for late postings of grades. Lecturers need only notify students of the delay, something which is not widely practiced.

O’Reilly explained that he would like to see more comprehensive feedback for students to assist them in their learning also. When asked whether he would be willing to confront lecturers flouting policy, he responded that he has “done it before”. In addition to this, O’Reilly intends to implement a simplified version of College Policy on TCDSU website, assisting students in learning what their rights are.  

He would also seek to assist students facing what he described as the “hidden costs” of College, with his policy “Getting our Money’s Worth”. When asked how this policy would be carried out given Trinity’s current financial difficulties, O’Reilly admitted that this issue wouldn’t “be fixed in a year”. However, he could hope to make small incremental changes, easing the difficulty for certain students.

O’Reilly explained this issue could be solved through “using the guy with working knowledge of the school”. When discussing this policy, O’Reilly touched on his preference to work at ground level with individual schools and convenors to find a systematic solution, rather than lobbying College.

According to O’Reilly, several of the policies he outlines in his manifesto have already been started in some form. His belief that “when you have an idea you may as well go for it” is the energy that O’Reilly suggests could see his policies benefit students. 

“If I have the idea and I have the opportunity, it’s odd for me to not start now,” he stated.

Jamie Cox

Jamie Cox is the Higher Education Correspondent for Trinity News, and a Senior Fresh Ancient and Medieval History and Culture student.