There is no doubt that throughout her time in Trinity, Zöe Cummins has established herself as a well-known figure within Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) and Trinity student politics. Currently on sabbatical while she serves as education officer, the astrophysics student claims she has “first-hand experience” of the role of president and the commitment it requires.
Speaking to Trinity News, Cummins says she is running to be the next TCDSU President because she wants to “proactively address” the issues she has seen during her role as education officer but does not have current power or time to do so.
“In my current role at education, the issues I’m seeing coming through day to day are so consistent with the state of affairs around country and state affairs as teams are facing and it’s, it’s not in my remit or I don’t have the capacity to be able to address the issues students are facing day today,” she said. “The likes of [students being unable] to go to lectures because they have to commute for hours due to accommodation issues or [students] having to work so they have to miss lectures. That’s campaign focus, that’s much more president remit. I feel like I can proactively address those issues.”
Cummins also cited her belief that she is the “best person around to carry on what’s been going on this year”.
“I think this year has been incredible, if I do say so, Gabi [Fullam] has done a great job,” Cummins added. “And I think continuing on from that, you want someone to be able to like build momentum or you want them to take the baton stick and forward on the mission and forward what’s going on. And that’s what I’m looking for. And coming out of [Covid-19] and like reinvigorating students and trying to re-engage students, and at a whole different level. And I really want to be a part of that”
Cummins noted her current role of education officer has informed her with firsthand experience of the role of President.
Cummins explained: “So the education officer serves as deputy president as well. So whenever the president is away, on leave or sick, I’m acting president so I’ve seen firsthand like the kind of day to day things you do where you approve finances and like you take on some of the burden while the president is away and so I’ve seen like firsthand what the role involves – a small part of it. Obviously there’s so much more to it than the bits I do day to day, when Gabi’s away, but it definitely informed my decision to run for president.”
However, her role of education officer has not been her only experience with activism leadership. Cummins has been involved in activism since she was 16. She has previously sat on the board of governance of Spun Out, a charity which provides information and advice to young people regarding mental health and well-being. She served as a class representative in her first year at Trinity and has assumed various roles within the union since then. By her own admission, “justice and fairness and equitability is at [her] core”.
With that said, there’s no doubt that Cummins’ role of education officer has somewhat shaped her campaign for the president role. Notable points of her manifesto regard improving aspects of education for students. One of these points include her plan to guarantee on campus accommodation places for access students.
“So basically, we’re looking at other colleges across countries,” Cummins said. “For UCL in London, they have it that a certain percentage of each campus [accommodation] has a certain amount of places for students who came in through access routes.”
She plans to negotiate these guaranteed accommodation places through a combination of “College bureaucracy” and student campaigns.
“So that’s where you’re gonna have student movement and student power. There’s a nice middle level of the college bureaucracy where you know, sweeten up the college officials and be in the meetings but then if that goes sour, that’s not going anywhere,” Cummins explained. “The college listens to student activism. If we throw a fuss and like take action or take occupation or it becomes a well known issue that this is what we’re fighting for, it looks bad for [College] PR wise, they’re very, very worried about their PR.”
Speaking on her vision from where this would come from, Cummins added that “if you are an access student, if you’re a TAP student, that if you want to live in the GNB, you can, because of the guaranteed place for someone who came through the scheme like you, so you’re not just put off to Goldsmith or Pearse”.
Cummins hopes to have 5-10% of beds in each on-campus accommodation building to be “reserved for access students”.
Cummins also mentions in her manifesto her plan to reintroduce a “grinds portal” for students in need of extra tuition.
“With the help of our IT technician, we would set up a portal with vetted people who are competent in the field they want to teach. In my job as Education Officer, it’s daily where people say “I’m really struggling with this subject, can you please help me?” and I don’t have the capacity to to find someone to tutor this person, so it can be such a utilised student service for students who are struggling”
Cummins noted that she’d hope to have this portal set up before the August supplemental exams, if not by September, at the beginning of the new academic year.
Several issues have been at the forefront of discussion amongst students and student politics this academic year.
One point of debate has been the TCDSU’s current membership of the Union of Students Ireland (USI). Cummins believes students should have the right to vote on whether the TCDSU remains within the USI or not.
“I can really, really see both sides, for students who aren’t involved in the SU, you don’t see any tangible benefits from being part of USI and I was the same when I was a student even when I was still really involved in the TCDSU. For me now as a sabbat, it’s a great network, I use it all the time to reach out to other sabbatical officers and ask “Is this happening in your college?”
“I think USI itself is in need of reform,” Cummins said. “I think it’s missing out on student engagement and student voices. In DCU, every two years no matter what, they have a rolling referendum on USI membership. And I wouldn’t be opposed to something like that so that students can decide where their money goes and how the money is spent.”
Cummins acknowledged the current issues post-graduate students are facing in Trinity and notes an aim to increase post-graduate representation.
“We now have post-graduate Class Reps, we now have post graduate positions on college committees, but that’s been very ‘made to fit for now’. I don’t feel comfortable that I created the system that is the post graduate representation system in the SU by myself,” Cummins added.
“I’m not a post graduate student, I never have been and I might never be. I don’t think it’s fair that we’re dictating how they are represented, they need to be the people making the decisions. Whether it’s they want to create their own union or be a part of us, I’m all for that but it’s gonna take a lot of buy-in from the SU no matter what, no matter who takes up this role next year. It’s not up to me to say what [post graduate representation] should envisage.”
Another hotly debated topic Cummins addressed in her manifesto was the issue of fair wages for students on work placement as part of their degree requirements, particularly nursing students. She stated she would like to see the TCDSU be a “main arbiter” in the campaign and lobbying for living wages for student nurses on placement
“This comes down to collective action and collective bargaining. So this is where the USI is really useful. Every single student on placement in the country is being fucked over by the current system. They pay for their food while there, they pay for their scrubs, they pay for their leap card to get there and they’re getting only €500 from the government to alleviate some of the pressure. I’m not saying I know how to do this but it has to come from us”.
Cummins also looks to address what she refers to as “hidden costs” which she claims are in many courses.
“Students who do labs have to buy a lab coat, in my first year, I couldn’t go to my first lab and I missed out on mandatory attendance because I didn’t have 40 Euro right then just to spend on a lab coat.”
She looks to make information about these extra expenses more publically available to students, with the aim of enabling students to accurately budget and to lobby the College to eliminate these costs. With this information on the union’s website, Cummins adds that students can “forecast” where these costs will come from, and it will give the union “more lobbying power” to have this data.
When asked about what she felt were the biggest issues currently in Trinity, Cummins noted miscommunication as a key problem.
“Miscommunication like, there’s so many departments that all work on the same thing but don’t talk to each other. I think we can be guilty of it as well, like we could be doing a project and so could CSC and so could some engagement office in the college,” Cummins said. “I don’t mind or don’t care about who gets to take the glory for certain projects, it’s that students benefit from them. So again, stream line that communication.”
Cummins was also questioned about the recent poor student engagement with the TCDSU, with several SU council meetings failing to meet quorum last semester. She admitted there was “definitely” a problem with student engagement.
“I don’t know if our council is fit for purpose. It’s such an echo chamber of a certain kind of people, who all are amazing people like we all want the same thing but I think we can get a bit lost within ourselves,” Cummins said. “Again, I think this comes back to constitutional review trying to make sure what we need is reflected in how we do things. I don’t blame people for not wanting to come to council because it might not be what’s for them but how do we make it for them? That’s the point. I don’t have the answers but I really want to be the person leading consultation making sure it’s reflective of what it needs”
Concluding the interview, Cummins underlined the importance of student participation and admitted issues with student engagement as a large challenge she will face if she is to be elected president.
“Trying to make sure students know what we’re doing and they feel empowered to be a part of the student process. Like the student walkout was amazing, but did we do enough follow up? I don’t think we did.”
Cummins continued to say that students “need to feel engaged, students need to know why they walked out in the first place”.
“I think that’s something we could’ve done better as a team. I’d love for all our councils to have quorum, I’d love to have really high turnout for elections, I want more people running for sabbat next year.”