Leah Keogh is no stranger to the students’ union. As Trinity College Dublin Students’s Union’s (TCDSU) current Welfare and Equality Officer, she has decided to run for a second term on the sabbatical team – this time, as President.
Why? She felt it was “time for some continuity so that the union can maintain that long-term vision”.
“It’s a critical time in terms of college decision making and where we weigh into that and I just thought that we can’t afford to wait three to six months for the incoming president to learn the ropes, I’m ready to hit the ground running,” Keogh told Trinity News in an interview.
Keogh is a recent Social Work graduate and the incumbent Welfare and Equality Officer in TCDSU. She was the Secretary to Council for the 2017/18 and 2018/19 academic years, during which time she held the dual role of Chair of the Oversight Commission. She was uncontested last year in the Welfare Officer race and was elected with 87.9% of the vote.
When asked about her current role as Welfare and Equality Officer, Keogh said that this area has always been her “passion.” “It was always a role I was drawn to.” She highlighted the importance of her role in last year amid the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. “Casework has been through the roof, students are really struggling at the moment with the isolation, mental health, working remotely.”
We wanted to know if Keogh would have done anything differently as Welfare and Equality Officer in hindsight. To this she said she has “no regrets” and she believes she has “only improved in (her) work since the beginning of the year.” “I’m really happy with where I’m at in terms of manifesto progress, I’ve still been able to fulfil the promises I made last year even though we didn’t have any idea that Covid would hit two weeks after we were elected.”
In her manifesto for the presidency, Keogh highlights that “each year the union falls short of its plans because of the revolving door of sabbats.” When asked how the union has fallen short this year, Keogh said she believes the union has “done well in the grand scheme of things.” “It’s really highlighted for me how dynamic the union is and how flexible we need to be as officers in responding to students’ needs as they change.”
Keogh also states in her manifesto that “this year of all years, we can’t afford to wait 3 months for our incoming president to learn the ropes”. We asked her if she believes TCDSU’s current President Eoin hand was too slow at learning the ropes. To this Keogh said she thinks that “anyone who comes into this role off the bat can’t automatically start unless they’ve had a year’s experience”. She highlighted the “dense” nature of College’s bureaucracy. “It’s an awful lot to learn initially and I think sometimes College relies on that naivety.”
“We need as much student representation on the College board as possible.”
On what she believes are the three biggest challenges facing the College over the next year, Keogh listed “Covid recovery” first for the “college specifically.” She pointed to issues surrounding “governance” and “student representation” next. She highlighted her concerns over potential changes to the structure of the College Board, saying “we need as much student representation on the College board as possible.” Finally, she pointed to the “transition of power with the incoming provost.” She said she is “delighted to see three women running”, believes this transition is “a great opportunity for change” and she would “love to be part of those early conversations.”
Discussing her views on student engagement TCDSU Keogh said she believes it is “a students prerogative to engage in whatever college organizations, societies, clubs, charities they wish to and to not engage where they don’t want to.”Although she does believe a “main focus of the student’s union should be outreach and the provision of services.” “I think our main priority should be to evoke change that students can see and feel without having to do any of the work.”
Discussing which of her plans she would prioritise should she be unable to deliver on all of her promises, Keogh selected progress on the student centre, saying the “project has slipped through the cracks” thus far. She wants to secure a project sponsor, preferably the Dean of Students, to “ensure that this project is prioritised, because it wasn’t by our previous Provost. That’s one thing I will progress if it’s the last thing I do next year.”
“We speak about engagement and there are so many students that can’t even access our offices.”
Keogh also said she would prioritise making House 6 accessible. “We speak about engagement and there are so many students that can’t even access our offices.” She says that they have already put in a feasibility study on this saying that “there are a lot of hoops to jump through, but we are ready to jump through tem.”
The final priority that Keogh highlighted was sustainability. “Trinity have committed to being International leaders in sustainability and we’re nowhere near there yet, it’s embarrassing.” If elected as president Keoghs said she would push for a “fully resourced office for sustainability and civic engagement.” Keogh has an entire section of her manifesto dedicated to sustainability with other promises she highlighted as priorities including a “plastic-free Trinity Ball” and stocking the TCDSU shop with “affordable menstrual cups.”
On whether she would focus more on local or national issues if elected, Keogh said she thinks “it’s very difficult to evoke local change without national structures.” “I think we can reach a compromise.” As an example, she highlighted her recent initiative to stock college spaces with free period products. She labelled this as a local “interim measure” as there is a bill that is currently going through the government to make these products free in public spaces. Although she did specify that her “main priority is absolutely evoking change that students can see and feel and often that is more local change” and she believes that students “are more in tune with the local issues.”
When asked if she believes she can bring TCDSU’s budget into a surplus, Keogh said she’s “hopeful” she can but “the main priority of the students’ union is to provide a service, we’re not a for-profit organisation”. She continued to say that although she is “ultimately hopeful” that they will reach a surplus, her “priority would be to provide an effective service for all students, and if that means running a loss, then I suppose it’s something that we’ll take seriously, but it’s a price we’re willing to pay”.
Keogh believes that racism is a “massive issue” on campus. “The university has a responsibility to tackle racism because it prides itself on being so diverse.” To tackle racism, Keogh points to the work she has undertaken in the last year on the collection of ethinc data, she also hopes to introduce “an anonymous reporting tool for racism” next year which she hopes to roll out “by October/November time.”. “We want to have an anonymous space for students to come forward and tell their stories and we’ll also have signposts included in that so students can go and seek further support and make formal complaints if they so wish.”
Keogh hopes to formulate a student working group that works to change Academic Registry’s “fractured systems.” “I want to be around next year to ensure that we’re not relying on the good will of other officers to follow through and to hold these bureaucratic institutions to account.” She said she wants to continue the work she done this year with implementing a policy of three fee installments for students instead of the usual two and continuing to wave the readmissions fee for students in financial difficulty.
Keogh “absolutely” believes that “the student contribution is too high.” She labelled the student contribution as a “massive barrier to entry” for students. Keogh plans to lobby the Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris on this issuem saying that it is “important that we push him to commit to the promises that he’s made and he’s gone on record to say that Higher Education is too expensive and so we will hold him to that.”
On the topic of accommodation, Keogh plans to launch an accommodation campaign “that informs students of their tenancy rights, how to resolve disputes with landlords, how to source reliable safe accommodation in Dublin at the most affordable price”. Keogh also said she would “absolutely be open to collaboration with the Renters Union (Trinity College Dublin Renters Union)” in her accommodation efforts.
Also on the topic of accommodation Keogh highlighted plans to launch an accommodation subcommittee that “looks at college accommodation structures through a critical lens and to make various suggestions and work for change.” She plans to lobby for “subsidised accommodation for students with disabilities.” Keogh also says that “Halls students should absolutely be part of this subcommittee.” She plans to introduce first responder training for campus security and assistant wardens in Halls. “We need to make sure that any interactions with security in times of crisis are trauma-informed.”
“If the College worked collaboratively with us, our voice would be stronger at a government level.”
Keogh firmly stated that frontline students should “absolutely” be paid for their mandatory placements. She highlighted the “considerable expenses” students face on placement. “I can’t begin to understand the additional challenges that students have had to face on placement this year.” She continued to say that the government has “shown that they can fund things when it suits them” and if elected she would “continue to apply pressure there.” She also believes that “if the College worked collaboratively with us, our voice would be stronger at a government level.”
Discussing the Provost candidates, Keogh said that her “final decision has yet to be made” on who to back. She said that she “really looks forward to working with the provost whoever she may be.” Keogh believes “this year will be critical to the results of the next ten years.” “I’ll only be around for a year if elected, but promises that I have the Provost make in that one year can continue for ten more, we really have a legacy to leave here.”
Keogh believes that her “institutional knowledge” and relationships she has developed over the last year “absolutely” puts her at an advantage in this race. “The groundwork has been laid.” When asked if she would favour a collaborative or a lobbying approach to college administration, Keogh said: “I’m not afraid of either.”
The election campaigns kicked off yesterday, with voting starting online next week.