GSU President Election: John Tighe believes “we should be working together not apart”

Tighe hopes to “rebuild” the GSU’s relationships with other College bodies

John Tighe is running against incumbent Gisèle Scanlon for the presidency of the Graduate Students’ Union (GSU). Like Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU), the GSU is a one of College’s student-led capitated bodies, which represents, supports, and provides services to postgraduate students. The GSU President and Vice-President are the only full-time, paid, sabbatical positions within the Union. President Scanlon has courted controversy this year concerning alleged breaches of the constitution and is currently facing stalled impeachment proceedings.

Tighe seeks to distinguish himself from Scanlon by a willingness to improve the GSU’s relationship with College and other organisations, including TCDSU, TCD Postgraduate Workers’ Alliance (TCD PGWA), the Union for Students in Ireland (USI) and the Irish Council for International Students (ICOS). Tighe believes that such relationships will strengthen postgraduate representation at local and national levels. He emphasises his intention to lobby both College and Government for changes in policy and legislation to benefit postgraduate workers and international students. To ensure “postgrads are not used simply as a cash cow by College and by colleges…we need to use our policy to protect our members”, Tighe says.

Speaking to Trinity News via Zoom, Tighe explained that he wants to be president because his experience “will help me in representing and empowering and protecting our students, both within the college and nationally”. As a member of the GSU since 2013, Tighe has “lived experience of both the taught and the research postgrad.”

Tighe has previously held roles within the GSU as part of the Executive Committee for two years. From 2016 to 2017 he served as Research Officer, then the sole figure representing research master’s and PhD students. He developed the current system of PhD representatives and vice-representatives (PhD reps) for each school. In this time, Tighe also served on the editorial board for the Trinity Postgraduate Review. In 2017, Tighe was appointed Oversight Officer, sitting on all five of the GSU’s governance bodies and ensuring constitutional adherence. He was also Chairperson of the Electoral Commission in 2017/18 and 2019/20.

Tighe attended the Union for Students in Ireland (USI) National Congress in 2017 on behalf of the GSU, arguing for the creation of a position representing postgraduate affairs. Regarding the GSU’s relationship with USI, Tighe says he has already been in contact with current postgraduate Vice-President Adam Clarke, and hopes to “work closely with [Clarke’s] successor” on “national issues” such as accommodation and immigration visas, “because [the USI] are the national voice”.

Tighe has promised to sign both the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) establishing the working relationship between the GSU and TCDSU, and the Student Partnership Agreement between both Unions and College. While neither document was signed by the GSU this year, Tighe sees these as “very important” means of establishing working relationships with College and the SU. He said: “it seems quite farcical that I have to state that I want to rebuild the relationships that should always be there.”

Created in 2017, the Student Partnership Agreement Policy formalises the relationship between College and the two Unions, aiming to reinforce their trilateral commitment to developing and supporting student representation and engagement in decision making at Trinity. Tighe says that by the union refusing to sign the agreement, postgraduate student rights are not protected.

“Such an agreement places the GSU at the very centre of decision making in the college, both allowing us to have a good working relationship with the College as well as being able to hold them to account”, his manifesto explains.

“A union working with other unions is just what you’re meant to do”

Regarding GSU’s relationship with TCDSU, Tighe argues in his manifesto that “a united student voice is the best advocate for the common issues that students face, whether those be undergraduate or postgraduate”.

At the GSU’s controversial EGM this year, a motion calling for GSU’s divestment from TCDSU was initially said to have passed, but failed on a re-run of the vote. Those in favour of divestment argue that it would ensure the GSU’s independence and clarify the relationship between the Unions, allowing for better collaboration and improved representation for postgraduate students. Asked about these arguments, Tighe responded: “Bollocks, utter bollocks.” Referencing the GSU’s status as a capitated body, he said: “College clearly sees us as equal but separate bodies…the SU doesn’t get the money and then the GSU is under that.”

“The SU has more members and therefore it has more resources, so why shouldn’t the GSU and the SU work together to pool resources to help each other?” Tighe says. “A union working with other unions is just what you’re meant to do”.

Tighe says he has been in contact with TCDSU President-elect Leah Keogh about “plans for collaboration” next year. He sees no tension between the SU representing all students and GSU representing postgraduate students specifically. By signing the MOU, “the SU would defer to the GSU’s decisions on postgraduate affairs, which would therefore strengthen postgrads’ representation”. Tighe views being “represented by not one but two different unions” as “better for postgrads”.

On the other hand, in the event that GSU were to disaffiliate with TCDSU, there has been discussion of the latter creating a postgraduate sabbatical officer. Tighe believes this “could end up reducing both undergrad and postgrad representation…[and] the student voice”.

Tighe also intends to reaffirm and develop the GSU’s relationship with the TCD PGWA, which has formally endorsed Tighe’s candidacy. At a meeting in February 2020, the GSU voted to support the campaign group’s work.

Tighe intends to uphold the PGWA’s charter by lobbying both College and Government to recognise postgraduate students as workers with contracts and formal recognition, which would ideally lead to fair pay, better working conditions, paid leave, and access to housing and welfare supports. However, he accuses Scanlon of failing the GSU’s mandate to support the PGWA which is “in breach of the democratic will of the GSU”. Tighe has talked with the chairperson of TCD PGWA and aims to develop “some sort of forum” between the GSU and PGWA. Tighe also plans to renew “dialogue” between the GSU and the Irish Federation of University Teachers (IFUT), which the GSU has previously worked with, in order “to make the college better for all workers”.

Asked how he plans to help postgraduate students facing shortfalls in funding due to the pandemic, Tighe explained that he would “have to take a look at the books first,” before determining “the level of support that [the GSU] could provide”, but “it would probably be a coordinated effort between ourselves and the College”. While Scanlon has proposed a GSU loan scheme for postgraduate students in emergencies, Tighe points out that postgraduates have access to loans offered by TCDSU. He acknowledged that the GSU has “limited resources…I could promise the moon and the stars to everyone but I’d be lying if I was doing that”. Meanwhile, Tighe promises to “support our students in any way possible at the College level if they need to fight for more funding”.

As well as campaigning for an increase in stipends and scholarships and the recognition of postgraduates as workers, Tighe’s manifesto promises to work with SU, USI and Community Action Tenants’ Union (CATU) to fight rent increases and lobby for rent controls. He plans to set up a “working group” to determine a set of standards for landlords’ inclusion on the postgraduate accommodation network on Facebook, including having registered their tenancies with the Residential Tenancy Board (RTB). Tighe will also lobby College to “ringfence a certain percentage of future college accommodation developments for [postgraduates] and to make it affordable”. When questioned, Tighe clarified that this percentage should reflect the ratio of undergraduate to postgraduate students.

Asked about whether the GSU should focus more on local or national issues, Tighe responded: “I mean it’s both…they’re not mutually exclusive”. He explained that the GSU has “a lot more control of the local issues” and can influence College’s policy through the College Board. However, by working with USI, other unions and the ICOS, the GSU will also have “representation at the national level”. Tighe intends to both “work at a College and national level” “to create policies and legislation that protects our members,” and “to hold the same powers to account when they don’t respect” those policies.

Tighe is keen to support the GSU’s international members, who he says have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. He hopes to facilitate “constant dialogue” between the GSU and TCDSU’s international officers, and the Global Officers of Trinity’s Global Relations Office, in order to inform the GSU’s policies. At a national level, he intends the GSU to work with the ICOS to lobby the government for multi-year registration of Irish Residents Permits for postgrads, and to propose a change in policy for spouses of PhD students, who currently cannot attain employment permits. Tighe was involved in the campaign that led to the Stamp 1-G Visa (which allows postgrads to work in Ireland) being extended from one to two years, and intends to lobby for its further extension for 2021 and 2022 graduates who have missed a year of employment due to Covid-19.

In addition to postgraduate workers’ rights and better policies for international students, Tighe cites “rights for minority groups” as a key issue he would address in his presidency, since “a union’s strength is in its members and its representation”. Recalling the GSU Woman’s Group which previously existed, Tighe hopes to create “focus groups” within the GSU on “race, disability, gender discrimination and sexual orientation discrimination” which can organise informally or formally, in order to guide the GSU’s actions and improve its inclusivity.

Tighe said: “I’m acutely aware that, as a white cis man, I am very, very privileged in the scheme of things, and it is very important that I and the GSU as a whole have time for the lived experiences of people and to shape our policies and our national lobbying attempts accordingly.”

Tighe believes that the current union has an “issue with engagement” and hopes to “[rebuild] a sense of community” and increase the union’s visibility. “I think that this year there’s been a lack of engagement because I don’t really think that the sabbatical team has tried as hard as it could.”

Tighe said that “there was much more that could have been done this year to engage with our members”, and suggested the creation of an “online engagement officer” who would organise online games and events.

In addition to the working groups on racial, sexual and gender issues, Tighe’s manifesto describes plans for “social integration”. He plans to create an Ents Committee to organise events, and to provide “the tools needed” for members to organise “smaller events”. He hopes that the GSU will be able to provide rapid antigen Covid-19 tests to facilitate larger in-person events.

“It’s not so much an issue of the students engaging with the GSU, I think the issue this year was that the GSU wasn’t engaging with the students”

Tighe also aims to establish a Communications Office, create a sub-committee on the subject of Postgraduate Renewal (an initiative similar to the Trinity Education Project), and reinstate the two GSU publications – Trinity Postgraduate Review and College Green.

Asked if it would be difficult to recruit for these groups, committees and editorial teams, Tighe explained that there “generally is a good uptake” of union activities by people who want to participate. “The backlash against the EGM and the subsequent impeachment proceedings show that there is a want to engage with the GSU,” Tighe argued.

“It’s not so much an issue of the students engaging with the GSU, I think the issue this year was that the GSU wasn’t engaging with the students”.

Regarding a possible return to on-campus teaching, Tighe promises to lobby College to create a “programme of vaccination” for unvaccinated students. He will also campaign for those “anxious about returning” to be given “the freedom to choose” as they “shouldn’t have to return until…they are vaccinated”. Tighe has not yet discussed the idea of a vaccination programme with College.

Asked about the GSU’s new constitution, introduced at April’s EGM, Tighe said, “there was nothing free and fair about that EGM, and to me the entire meeting should be scrubbed from the record”. If elected, Tighe will “look at the decisions taken at that meeting” to determine if they should be “revised”. He plans to “schedule an EGM within the first few weeks of my presidency” in order to appoint a Chairperson of the Electoral Commission.

Asked what checks and balances he would implement to ensure that motions are passed fairly in future, Tighe answered “I would follow the constitution”, pointing specifically to the GSU’s failure to form a full Electoral Commission this year. He has obtained from TCDSU permission to use their secure voting platform Eviabi for GSU meetings next year. In addition, Tighe promises to hold training for class representatives, which did not take place in 2020/21, and the “prerequisite number of GSU Council Meetings” as specified in the constitution.

Asked if he will work with incumbent Vice President Abhisweta Bhattacharjee if she is re-elected, Tighe replied, “if it’s the democratic will of the GSU…I will work with her to the fullest. However I will not be suffering fools; if it is looking like she is not doing her job, then I will ask the GSU to impeach her.”

Concerning Scanlon’s term, aside from the EGM and delay in impeachment proceedings, Tighe criticises “the relationships with the various groups around College”, referring to TCDSU and the TCD Postgraduate Workers’ Alliance. “A lot of this stuff isn’t rocket science…it’s just a case of being open to working together…[having] a clear and open dialogue and [being] open to compromise.”

Sarah Emerson

Sarah Emerson is currently a Deputy News Editor of Trinity News. She is a Senior Sophister English Literature and Jewish and Islamic Civilizations Student.