Sabbatical review: have the promises been kept?

Kate Palmer gives her opinion on whether this year’s Students’ Union sabbaticals have lived up to their pre-election proposals.

When voting, it’s easy to be swayed by utopian ideals set out in the glossy manifestos forced upon us during campaigning season. In a bid to gain votes, it seems nominees will promise almost anything to secure a much-coveted office in House Six. Now we are almost halfway through the academic year, Trinity News plans to look back at the promises of our current sabbatical officers, and decipher what was a realistic policy-pledge from pure electioneering.
Students’ Union President Cónán Ó Broin has undoubtedly made good his promise to fight fees, which he says have been at the “forefront” of his campaign. “It’s been an awful lot of work”, Ó Broin tells Trinity News, “It’s taken three and a half months of work, lobbying every TD and Senator. Together with the Students’ Union Presidents of UCD and DIT we’ve met with over 40 politicians on the matter”. Ó Broin describes the successful prevention of tuition fees as “sheer euphoria”, in a campaign which has put the Students’ Union into the national limelight. However, this is not the first time fees have been on the Government’s agenda, as with a previous scare in 2002, and Ó Broin admits there is a “strong prospect” the issue may arise again. “The fact is, that the University is under funded by the Government, but it is unacceptable to assume tuition fees are the answer to this”.
Ó Broin’s work is by no means done, as the Students’ Union President is currently embroiled in a conflict with the University over the expenditure of the 1,500 Student Charge. Ó Broin explains, “only about 800 of the registration fee students pay actually goes on student services. Students are simply being charged for cuts the Government have made, and the College are trying to justify the rise in the registration fee by changing the definition of “student services” to include facilities such as the Library and ISS Services”. He describes the actions of the College as a “deception”, and is organising meetings with the Provost in order to solve what he describes as an “abuse by the Minister for Education and Minister for Finance, with millions of students’ money in question”.
Pressing demands in what Ó Broin calls the “toughest and most challenging” year to be part of the Students’ Union means he has not been able to promote Irish culture in Trinity as much as planned. He sees the installation of moveable GAA posts onto the Cricket pitch as “symbolic” event for Trinity College, which he says “proves that the stereotypical image of Trinity and stereotypical image of GAA are not necessarily incompatible”.
Both Students’ Union President and Education Officer, Ashley Cooke, have been at the forefront of the campaign for improved Library services. Success on the Library front has yet to be seen, as Sunday opening hours remain a point of contention. Cooke made promises to improve Library services back in 2008, and admits it is a situation which has left students “unhappy and angry with the current circumstances”. He explains the recruitment moratorium has been a major setback in the campaign, although is confident it is an issue he will “not give up on”, and expects Sunday opening hours to be operational over the next coming weeks.
Somewhat less ambitious, although infinitely more successful, was Cooke’s election promise to reform the grinds system in Trinity. The previous system involved e-mailing a page of contacts to individuals interested in getting or giving tuition, which was out of date and unreliable. Cooke has created an online database for which he has received a number of testimonials: “Lecturers have come up to me around College, telling me how useful the system is, and one of them even thanked me for the help it had given to their son. It’s something that not enough people knew about before, and I hope I’ve helped people who needed that tuition”, says Cooke. He has also made moves to ensure a 24-hour study space is available on-campus, although he says the lack of bathroom facilities and no access to books means it is “not enough”. He continues, “although we don’t have an adequate facility now, when the proposed student centre comes along, we are promised a 24-hour study space”, in reference to a proposed development in Luce Hall which has not yet received planning permission.
The proposed student centre has been part of an unfulfilled election promise of Entertainments Officer, Mick Birmingham. His 2008 manifesto says it is “ridiculous that we don’t have a venue for student gigs”, although now Birmingham admits the reality is “a little more difficult than it might seem”. He argues the new term structure has made it difficult to employ staff for a 24-weeklong academic year, and explains how the plans have been “rejigged” to double the capacity to 800. “I’ll say the student centre won’t be long off the ground”, assures Birmingham, “it will be up by the next time the Provost comes along, although if they say it’ll be ready in the summer we should probably expect it around January the next year!”
Trinity has yet to see an off-license on campus, although Birmingham assures this is an election promise which has not yet been broken. “It’s something the Junior Dean isn’t exactly thrilled about. It’s important in a position like this to pick your battles”, say Birmingham, who says it is important to avoid “pissing off people you need to have on your side”. Students have yet to see a Night Bus service provided by the Ents Office, and Birmingham explains the license fees associates with a regular bus service makes it a “lot more complicated and expensive than I first envisaged”.
The year is not up yet however, and Birmingham assures students he has “got a lot more to do” for the rest of his sabbatical, and “the exam season can give me a change to dot the ‘i’s and cross the ‘t’s”. Perhaps we can expect a lot more from Birmingham’s tenure, as after all, the biggest College event of the year has yet to take place. “The Trinity Ball is my biggest achievement so far”, says Birmingham, who has did not reveal the lineup.
“Welfairie” Cormac Cashman has mainly lived up to his election promises, so much so that he is running for a second tenure. The Welfare Officer promised in his “Need a hug?” campaign an accommodation advisory service, and help with student finance. Cashman describes the Accommodation Advisory Service as a “huge success”, enabling “three times as many students to get a place through the College service”. He tells Trinity News that countless students have come to his office for help with budgeting and financing, or just to have a “shoulder to cry on”. Cormac’s promise to introduce a Welfare week is planned for this March’s Mental Health Awareness Week, which is set to include free fruit every morning and ‘stress pigs’ for the overworked student. Cashman also plans to make a number of additions to SHAG Week, including a full-time pharmacists on campus, which will take place later this term.
Rob Donohoe has transformed the role of Deputy President to become Communications Officer. Scrapping the controversial Record, he is founder of The University Times, a Students’ Union funded broadsheet newspaper. Donohoe tells us how he was “thrown in the deep end” when his sabbatical position began: “When I started as editor for the University Times, I didn’t know a lot about what’s involved with editing a paper”, says Donohoe, “I thought the best idea was to change the direction of the paper, I didn’t want to just modify The Record because you’re always going to have the baggage of the old paper.” Donohue enlisted the help of Gearoid O Rourke, previous Trinity News Editor and designer to make the newspaper a success.
Donohoe was keen to reverse the policy of erstwhile Students’ Union newspaper, The Record, which banned criticism of the Union. He comments: “I don’t think The University Times is biased at all”, and says he has “no problem with reporting on anything which may be perceived as portraying the Students’ Union in a negative light”. Donohue describes his fellow sabbatical officers as “supportive” of the independence of the paper. “At the same time, I don’t just put in fluff about positive things the Union has done, and in that sense only include news into the paper”. Donohue describes his position as a “dual role”, combining that of a sabbatical officer and Editor, “I need to be independent, but also take some input from the Union. Sometimes I let my input as Communications Officer seep into an editorial role, because in the Union I might come across something newsworthy!”
Donohoe is evidently proud of his creation, which he describes as a “work in progress”. He says, “the paper has been improving with every issue that’s come out, and we’re going to keep getting better with the next one, and one after that!” Donohoe hopes The University Times will be available to students in years to come, “I hope people will remember that I founded it”, he adds.
“The main piece of advice I’d give for someone taking over the role of Communications Officer would be to make sure there’s continuity with staff on the paper”. Says Donohoe. He comments on the element of uncertainty surrounding the new publication during Michaelmas term: “I know how hard it is when starting from scratch, and the first issues were particularly tough because there weren’t many staff at all. Maybe this was because people would not know what to expect from the paper or didn’t expect it to change that much.”
“I hope that the paper can continue in the same light under next year’s Communications Officer. I’d hate to see the paper go in a completely different direction every year, although at the same time I recognise that each Editor would want to make his or her own mark”.
It seems this year’s sabbatical team have got on well so far without any major disagreements. “In this way I’m personally blessed”, says Ó Broin, who points out that he and Ashley Cooke have been working closely together on the ongoing campaign for improved Library opening hours. Rob Donohoe says, “It’s been fantastic working with the other sabbatical officers, we all get on well”, pointing out that he lives with Mick Birmingham. “We have all agreed on a lot of things. You know how it can be when there’s a weak link, it can let the team down, but we didn’t have that”.
As ever, some of the more grandiose issues of our sabbatical team have of yet failed to materialise. However, we should not let that overshadow the achievements of a Union which has represented, informed, supported and entertained the student body to which it is accountable. The national profile of Trinity’s Students’ Union makes it all the more important that we, the student electorate, choose a candidate most equipped for a position where impracticable daydreams rarely become reality.