TCDSU 2013-14 in review

We assess the performances of outgoing sabbatical officers

Dee Courtney, William Dunne, Lia Flattery

Staff Writers

This week saw the official changover of SU sabbatical officers. Tom Lenihan, Jack Leahy, Stephen Garry, Leanna Byrne, and Sean Reynolds have now moved out of their campus accommodation as incoming officers Domhnall McGlacken-Byrne, Katie Byrne, Ian Mooney, Samuel Riggs, and Finn Murphy prepare for the year ahead.

To mark the event, TN staffers cast a cold eye on the election manifestos of the outgoing officers and assess their performances. 

President president-portrait (1)

Tom Lenihan 

By Dee Courtney

Key election promises:

– Mental health

– Internships

– Student kitchen

The three pillars of Tom’s manifesto were mental health, internships, and a student kitchen. At this point, I have to congratulate Tom on the mental health front. This year’s mental health week had more events than any other week I have experienced, TCD had its first ever canine therapy room, and the student population seemed aware of Tom’s focus on mental health. Tom has also assured me that College has agreed with the SU on the importance of internships and put them in the College Strategic Plan for the next five years, and that the student kitchen will be built in the next year.

I suppose we can call it a success on the kitchen front, but when the  Strategic Plan is buried somewhere in the abyss of Trinity bureaucracy, can we trust that more internships will actually happen? Of course, this is more of a problem with College, but so are many things that incoming sabbatical officer have in their manifestos – and should those things be in there? It may be the job of the SU to negotiate with College administration on issues that affect students, but maybe promises should not be made when they cannot be delivered on. The same is true for issues like third-level fees and the grant: though Tom says the grant was not reduced this year, partially due to SU lobbying, it’s unclear how much impact the union can have on fees and budgets, especially since the SU budget itself is  being cut for the coming year. He promised an earlier exam timetable, which is very ambitious, but they were released in the same month this year.

I brought up the issue of library hours with Tom, and he said that the SU has made huge progress over the past five year. He said that the entire Ussher tower will be open 24  hours in the future. However, his manifesto promises of heaters in the Berkeley, water fountains in the libraries, and an online booking system for study rooms have not been achieved, and how can we know if they are on College’s agenda?

Tom admits that communication with the student population is an issue, that students often do not know what the SU is doing, and why it does not succeed on every issue. The biggest point he makes, though, is that some goals and promises take more than a year to fulfill and that the SU has ongoing projects, so if something is not achieved this year it may still be in the future. That sounds fair enough, but communication problems make it hard for students to see what the timeline is, especially when College administration is involved. And if a long-term goal is proposed in a manifesto, should it  not be made clear that this is something a sabbatical officer will start, not something that we will see happening in the next year? Looking at Council minutes and speaking to Tom, it is clear that he delivered on most of his manifesto, sometimes partially and sometimes completely, but without doing the research, I doubt that many students would be aware of his successes.

Education education-portrait

Jack Leahy 

By William Dunne

Key election promises:

– Library hours

– Employable skills


Leahy’s campaign for the role last year was quintessential of SU elections – reassurances of his experienced within and keenness for the Union, an attempt at humour, and a healthy smattering of promises from the surprising detailed grand plans to the unexplained ones tacked on for bulk.

Four central promises serve as the best metric by which to judge the vision Leahy had for his position. Some of these were unassuming but effective if put in place, while others served to suggest the candidate had huge plans for radical change. One can probably guess on this basis alone which Leahy actually implemented over the course of this year.

Leahy’s first promise was sensible and realistic. That  the John Sterne Medical Library be made postpone the onset of its vacation opening hours, given that medics were usually still sitting exams  and has been achieved by a competent work with the Keeper of Readers’ Services to shift hours around from the dead period of Friday evenings. One wishes putting similar common sense proposals together for the Science and Arts libraries had been more of a priority as well. Instead, Leahy offered only the same demands for longer hours rather than positing a more innovative plan for limited College resources.

It is here, however, that the workable but dull proposals end and a mixture of strange and grand promises begin. Leahy’s second promise was to implement a “MyCourse, MyFeedback” system, where students could write about their experience of their course to advise more junior students. Leahy says while not yet implemented, it was always a priority for him and that he, Lenihan and Byrne are going to continue to work on along with a new SU website.

This seems strange; first why, in the almost entirety of his term so far has Leahy not implemented such a system or reported substantial work towards it if he believes it to be such a priority? But more importantly, why is it such a priority? Why are existing systems like social media, forums, S2S, the SU itself not used for something as simple as telling someone in the year below you what to expect? Something is going wrong on a much more fundamental level in either existing “systems” or the basic network that College and one’s course should provide.

Thirdly, Leahy promised to launch a review of every school and faculty, and where appropriate, introduce Christmastime exams. Leahy acknowledges no concrete progress has been made towards this but holds out the already planned review of courses like Science, and that College seems receptive towards the need for a method of assessment for students visiting for one term. All this serves to acknowledge is how pointless it was of Leahy to promise this change in the first place. The Education Ffficer has no authority to implement changes on assessment. It will be up to College if and when they do implement such exams, and whoever happens to be Education Officer will no doubt draw credit for it, but it is doubtful the degree to which any person in the role can quicken that process.

The last of Leahy’s promises was to arrange a series of seminars which will provide students with skills which make them attractive to employers. Such a scheme was never implemented and Leahy now acknowledges that this idea was “flawed” and that it “became quickly obvious that the Student’s Union should not be providing things College exists to do”. If the flaws in this plan were so apparent – as they were to the many who criticised Leahy at the time of his campaign – one wonders how they did not occur to him who was, even then, well versed in the capacities and purpose of the Union. Instead, Leahy triumphs their inclusion in the Senior Lecturer’s new “T-shaped” education plan for undergraduate teaching: that presentations, group skills, and interdisciplinary competencies will be included in all courses. Once again Leahy seems to take credit for a College change but more troublingly in a year where the Senior Lecturer has proposed new additions to College teaching, shouldn’t there be more critical engagement by the Education Officer and Union generally rather than merely tagging along to his talks and seminars?

In respect of his promises then, Leahy has proved himself the typical Union man. One advises that future promises, policies and priorities for the position must focus on education, on what is most needed and most workable rather than promise what is often too grand or unfocused.

But to view his work in this way alone is skewed. Leahy has done very good work managing the SU’s Electoral Commission, both for the Leadership Race and in responding to the unusually large number of student-initiated referendums. Furthermore, he has done good work on efforts leading to a new SU constitution, though the Education Committee failed to meet this year. There is also the hidden work Leahy has done on individual cases for students in need of assistance and representation,  an area where Leahy claims he is proudest, having had the most success and it being the area that motivated him; an area however, which by its nature, one can’t comment on. Much of Leahy’s work, like that of all SU officers, remains hidden: there is the constant lobbying for students on dozens of committees across College, the national campaigns and work for USI, the day-in-day out of small issues and questions which Leahy dealt with and still does.

Welfare welfare-portrait

Stephen Garry 

By Lia Flattery 

Key election promises:

– Campaigns

– Welfare Officer programme

– Fundraising

Stephen Garry’s campaign agenda for Welfare Officer focused on promises to develop and improve of three key aspects of the role: campaigns, collaboration with students and staff, and support.

Garry’s manifesto pledged that as Welfare Officer he would further develop existing campaign weeks as well as bringing fresh campaign ideas and initiatives to the SU. In accordance with this plan, numerous new campaigns were carried out this year, including the Equality and Diversity Week, Body and Soul Week, and TCDtalks. His success in ensuring a strong online awareness and support for such campaigns was particularly evident with the huge online presence of the TCDtalks initiative.

In terms of student support, Garry’s plan for a Welfare Officer programme, whereby student volunteers would hold office hours in off-campus locations and provide information, was indeed introduced and, while the scheme suffered some initial difficulties, after that it appears to have operated well. At the last SU Council, he commented that, “engagement with off-campus students on their territory is vital. I think this scheme has the legs to do that appropriately,” suggesting that there is room for development and improvement of the system in the future.

Promises were made to launch a series of fundraising initiatives in support of the Student Hardship Fund and throughout the year Garry used Ents events to fulfill this goal. “Whether it was a few grand for Headstrong or well over 12,000 for the Student Hardship Fund,” he told Council, “the funds we raised this year went a seriously long way.”

Over 100 people signed up as part of the promised Gym Buddy scheme, which matches participants with partners of similar fitness and goals. Of the programme, which he considered as having been successful so long as “it gave even one person that push to exercise a bit more”, Garry said that there is huge potential for future growth.

Despite these various successes, there remains room for improvement, as Garry himself acknowledged at Council. His manifesto proposed to assist students in their search for accommodation by holding a series of information evenings on the subject throughout the year. Despite this, he told Council, “we faced a bit of an accommodation crisis last September, and I anticipate this will reoccur this year.” Also still a work in progress is Garry’s promised training package for staff to increase their awareness and understanding of the needs of students suffering with mental health problems. His plan for Welfare Skype chats for students on placement and on Erasmus was successfully launched this year, alongside a Welfare Twitter function. But more publicity is needed to increase awareness of and engagement with these services.

 The efficiency and visibility of the Welfare Office were improved through the various new campaign weeks and schemes that Garry initiated. It seems that he will leave office having successfully brought a large number of the aspirations of his packed manifesto to fruition and with most of those left unfulfilled at least in development.

Communications communications-portrait

Leanna Byrne 

By Lia Flattery

Key election promises:

– UT App

– Student Hub website

– Supplements

Leanna Byrne’s 2013 campaign manifesto for Communications Officer was centred around promises to expand the University Times in terms of readership and technology, and to better engage students with the SU. 

Byrne had developed a prototype of the University Times App before her tenure began and promised to develop it further for both iPhone and Android devices if elected, with the overall aim of growing the paper’s readership while also keeping “up with the trends of the information era.” The Android version of the app has been available since the end of the first term. Financial difficulties caused a delay in the manufacture of the UT App for iPhones however, with the SU unable to afford the external development of the app, which could have cost up to three thousand euro, and having to have the work done internally instead. The UT iPhone app was not available until the end of this academic year.

As part of her campaign, Byrne proposed the introduction of the TCD Student Hub website where students could “share, discuss and ask questions about anything student or Trinity related.” The website was intended to help resolve the problem of disconnect felt by students with the SU. According to her manifesto, it was to be a discussion platform and source of information and tips on education, welfare, jobs and internships, and events as well as providing an interactive personalised events calendar for students.

Speaking at the last SU Council, Byrne admitted that the website was “still a work in progress” and that the project had been delayed by the absence of a Technical Officer in the SU this year. She said that she hoped to have the website completed before the end of her time in office however it remains offline.

Byrne guaranteed that, if elected, each edition of the University Times would be accompanied by a special supplement focusing on various aspects of student life, like finance management and mental health. All but one edition of this year’s University Times has included such a supplement. Each supplement has focused upon a different campaign week run by the SU, which Byrne claims, “made students think and discuss the messages being promoted.”

Also largely successful was Byrne’s campaign proposal to increase the funding received by UT through sponsorship. She secured approximately  €7,000 worth of new advertising during her tenure, a sum that covered 38% of the cost of print runs this year.

Overall, while Byrne’s aspirations for the expansion of the University Times were largely realised, she seems to have fared less successfully when it came to technology, with the delayed release of the UT iPhone app and the failure to launch the Student Hub website.

Ents ents-portrait

Sean Reynolds

By Dee Courtney

Key election promises:

– On-campus music events

– Society collaboration

– Bigger club nights

Sean Reynolds never submitted a written report of the year to SU Council, making it difficult to assess his performance in relation to his manifesto. Aside from this lack of communication, there are a couple of problems marring what was overall a fantastic year for Ents in Trinity.

Sean’s manifesto promised a network of society secretaries to encourage more collaboration between societies in organising events, an “Ents directory” with contacts for venue managers and DJs, and a travel and accommodation directory to make it easier for students to find reasonably priced companies for their events. I have trawled through the Ents and SU websites, and found no information on any of these directories. At the very least, they are difficult to find, and it is entirely possible that they do not exist.

Sean promised to organise on-campus entertainment and music, bigger and better club nights, and off-campus festival style events. Looking through the Ents Facebook page I cannot find anything about on-campus music, but it is certainly fair to say that Sean delivered off-campus. Trinity students enjoyed a variety of acts and venues, sold out club nights and mystery tours this year.

Besides all of that, there are some things Sean never put in his manifesto that should not be forgotten, the most important being the funds raised for the Student Hardship Fund. Sean used regular events to raise vastly more than in previous years, making Ents relevant even to students who are not involved. He also used the Ents Facebook page to advertise society charity events and protests, meaning they would reach a wider audience, since 11,000 follow the page.

It is a shame that Sean could not deliver on his directories, but more so that students could easily be unaware of all the work Ents has done for the Hardship Fund this year. It is clear that the problems in the Ents office were down to communication, right up to the lack of a report for the end of the year.