Running uncontested for the role of Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) Education Officer, incumbent STEM convenor Zöe Cummins received 90.5% of first preference votes in last week’s Trinity News poll, with the remainder going to re-open nominations (RON).
Though the proportion of undecided voters is quite high, at 43.0%, Cummins lead is so large that she can be all but certain of a very comfortable victory on Thursday (March 3). Uncontested races often have large proportions of undecided voters in pre-election polls, so this figure is not necessarily reflective of any specific feelings voters have about Cummins.
Her support is largely consistent among different demographics of voters, too. Her support among Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (AHSS) students was 89.4% and among STEM students it was 88.2% in the poll. The difference between these two figures is well within the margin of error. Female students were slightly more likely to support Cummins; 93.5% did, compared to 85.2% of male students. Her support was effectively the same between people who had at some point held a position in TCDSU and those who had not, with the difference also being within the margin of error.
As is often the case with uncontested races, Cummins has faced comparatively fewer tough questions at hustings, and has not had her campaign and manifesto examined in direct comparison with a competitor. Nonetheless, she has clearly demonstrated a wide knowledge of academic issues, and her focus on “not so sexy” problems faced by students shows a willingness to do the kind of behind-the-scenes, often thankless, work that characterises the education officer role. Which of those issues she chose to focus on also demonstrated a good understanding of what matters to students right now.
As pandemic-related restrictions on higher education wind down, for better or for worse, many issues surrounding curriculum accessibility are being re-examined. Students with disabilities had been calling for the online provision of course materials for years only to be ignored or rebuked by universities, but that position is much harder for College to maintain after a year and a half of online and partially-online teaching. Cummins says she will “fight for staff to have adequate training to provide quality lecture recordings” and push College to make “hyflex learning” available long term. If successful, this would not only be helpful for students with disabilities or part-time jobs, but also just generally useful for everyone.
Cummins has also pledged to “review the current system” of scholarship examinations (Schols), to “provide recommendations” to make it “more accessible to students, especially those from low-income backgrounds and students with disabilities”’. The fairness, or lack thereof, of Schols is a discussion that re-emerges almost every year, but objections to the existing system have become more frequent and more forceful of late. Some call for the institution’s total abolition. Though that seems unlikely to occur in the near future, it is almost impossible to argue that the current system is meritocratic. Acknowledgement of that reality by TCDSU would be a positive step, as would pressing College to do something about it.
Additionally, Cummins says she wants to push Trinity to introduce “modular billing”, allowing students to retake individual modules without repeating entire years or going off-books. The importance of this issue cannot be overstated. Cummins rightly noted in her Dining Hall Hustings speech that the cost of repeating a year is massive, and it’s worth remembering that an attempt to introduce large supplemental exam fees was what kicked off the “Take Back Trinity” occupation. But is it doable? It’s hard to say. Trinity has an interest in charging students for repeating, but it would also benefit if fewer students dropped out due to being unable to meet these costs.
Promises by candidates to lobby College on various issues are often hard to evaluate, since their likelihood of success always depends on factors outside the candidate’s control. It costs very little to make such a pledge, and voters would do well to be wary of aspiring sabbats who aren’t aware of (or deliberately downplay) College’s deeply-entrenched aversion to change. And since TCDSU officers generally do not seek re-election, failure to deliver on these promises gets them in comparatively little trouble.
But Cummins certainly seems to be saying the right things; she knows what students care about, and what issues are emerging and topical. And if the poll is anything to go by, that preparation is paying dividends.
The STEM convenor’s campaign also promises more direct intervention on some issues. Cummins has pledged to provide information to students about non-tuition “hidden” costs of College, to clarify what does and does not constitute plagiarism and what students can do when accused of it, and to create a portal for information on Erasmus and internship programmes. Again, this is indicative of a good understanding of how to best use the education officer role; it’s mostly a technocratic position, consisting of sitting on committees and trying to move the needle on certain issues. Finding ways to directly and immediately benefit students from that role can be hard sometimes, but demystifying Trinity’s bureaucracy is a good use of the position at the intersection of College administration and TCDSU.
Barring a huge upset, Cummins is set to be second-in-command of next year’s union. Only time will tell whether she can make progress on getting her desired College reforms implemented. But she demonstrably has a firm grasp of the issues, and clearly understands where the education officer’s strengths and weaknesses lie. She has run a very solid campaign, which voters seem to have recognised, and her likely victory in the election will have been thoroughly earned.