Leadership Race 2016: Education candidates interviews

Dale O’Faoilléacháin, Nicholas Spare and Patrick Higgins speak to Trinity News

Read other interviews here


Dale O’Faoilléacháin

Dale O’Faoilléacháin is a third year physiotherapy student. His manifesto focuses on four individual strands: student partnership, broadening education through non-curriculum defined modules, development of support services and accountability within the SU.  

When asked about what experience he can bring to the role of education officer, O’Faoilléacháin mentioned his current role as SU health sciences faculty convenor as well as being school of medicine convener last year and a class representative for physiotherapy in first year.  

However, he also spoke about his activities outside of the SU. “I know I am being branded as an SU person at the minute because I have a lot of experience in the SU, but I’ve done a lot outside of that as well,” he explained, listing his time as JCR sports officer and as an S2S peer mentor as examples of this. “So without even going into the SU stuff, I’ve broadened my horizons and have come across many different types of walks of life from people in Trinity,” he said.

One of O’Faoilléacháin’s main ideas is a student partnership, which would allow, he claimed, more students to become involved in course evaluation. The student partnership would entail an open forum with students and lecturers, which is “not about you slating a lecturer, but for both of you to work together and try to enhance the education of that module.”  

Asked if he thought College staff would be supportive of this, O’Faoilléacháin said: “Having met with staff and heads of schools, they’d be happy to implement it because it’s already happening informally in a lot of places in college.”

O’Faoilléacháin remarked that his student partnership policy is the one that he would most like to see implemented, saying: “It’s a problem I’ve always had with College, so I think the SU would benefit from it so much. It would increase engagement with the union and put everyone on a level playing field.”

The education officer attends meetings of the University Board, the governing authority of the College, and has a vote on the Board. O’Faoilléacháin also promises that he will make public the issues that come up at Board meetings and as well as how he will vote on those matters.

Referring to the failure of some previous SU officers to deliver on some of their manifesto plans, such the long promised couches in the JCR common room of St. James’s Hospital, he said: “I think those types of false promises are something that really disengages the students with the union,” he said, adding that students should not be afraid to tell sabbatical officers what they think they should be focusing on most.  

When asked if there is anything that he would like to do to change how the SU functions, he did not have any major changes in mind: “I don’t have any radical solutions in changing the union to be honest. I think if we just leave the union alone for a while, as opposed to introducing new positions, it’ll work.”

However, he did mention the need for the SU to prioritise certain issues and to “focus more on the actual problems and not on perceived problems.” “I think there should be a lot more focus on student contact hours and answering student problems rather than mandating this and that,” he explained.   

Regarding whether or not the SU should take positions on political issues, he said that while this “gets Trinity’s SU out into the public domain” and “is important,”  if national political problems become the SU’s “main focus, and all we’re doing is forgetting the students, then that’s not worth it, so I think there should be a healthy balance.”

The SU has been criticised in the past for failing to engage with the majority of the student body who do not attend SU Council. Discussing this, O’Faoilléacháin said that this lack of engagement cannot simply be covered up by creating new SU campaign and awareness weeks: “There’s no point covering it up with all these new weeks. The union provides all these services and then wonders why no one turns up to them. So what we need to do is actually ask why they aren’t turning up to them and why students aren’t engaging with the union. More often than not, it’s because students feel the union might not represent them and they’re not actually dealing with the students’ ongoing problems.”

Speaking about solving students’ problems with College administration, O’Faoilléacháin commented: “If I wanted to focus on what I think doesn’t work in College, it would be these type of structures like the Academic Registry and the problems that students are having with that.” Even if he “can’t completely radicalise the structure” of services like the Academic Registry, he would, at least, like to introduce a “student voice… in some way.”

When asked about a recent case, reported on by Trinity News, in which a student was told by College administration that she was eligible to sit the Foundation Scholarship examinations just two days before the exams began, he remarked that, if the SU was aware of this issue, there “should have been absolute lobbying for her to have been able to sit those exams and for her have the opportunity to have time to study for those exams.”

In relation to College’s plans to increase international student numbers to 18% of the student body by 2019, O’Faoilléacháin outlined how he would support these students: “I would hope that the education officer is going to bring that to the job this year, an engagement with international students.” He mentioned plans to work with S2S and the Global Relations Office in this regard. “They [College] obviously want to increase the amount of international students attending from a financial perspective, but it is important then that they also provide adequate services for them to fully immerse themselves in the college experience and to receive the same education” as other students, he said. – NL

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Nicholas Spare

Nicholas Spare is a fourth year law and German student, former class rep, and Piranha writer. During his years at Trinity he has actively campaigned against increased non-EU fees and been involved in the Students Against Fees movement. In his campaign for education officer, Spare emphasizes the appeals processes, a case work approach, the Trinity Education Project, and improved class rep training.

In his interview with Trinity News, Spare says that he thinks it is a problem that students do not know what the education officer does and that he wants to work for more student engagement: “The education officer is meant to be your primary advocate if you are in a tricky academic situation. So there’s a real problem when students don’t know what the role entails, because how are they going to go to you for help when they need it?”

He thinks this could be a result of the education officer usually running uncontested. “It has become really an insular position, and I think that’s because you just have whoever is next in line in the SU hierarchy kind of rising up to the position. You’ve had a lack of debate, and a lack of competition of ideas, and that’s what I want to bring to this campaign.”

One of the areas which Spare thinks is in need of change is the appeals processes. He wants the SU to give more support to students going through the process, as well as dealing with the college administration around the issues that could arise: “I think we have different mindsets in the sense that the administration is very interested in doing things by the book and I’m more about flexibility. Not everything is a medical issue. Sometimes students just get really really stressed. Or bereavement is another one. It’s way more complex than the system allows for.” He mentions a case where a student had to wait five months for the appeals process results. “That just shouldn’t happen”.

When asked about it, the appeals process is also what Spare mentions as the most challenging aspect of the position: “I’m not naive in the sense that I think that I could just walk in and say to this do that and everything is going to change, it’s going to be a struggle and I’m going to have to really really use every tool at my disposal including getting students engaged in the issues”.

In response to a question about what route of action he would have taken in a scenario similar to earlier this year when a student was prevented from sitting schols up until two days before the exam, Spare proposes a more assertive approach: “Obviously you have to be willing to negotiate, and you have to be level-headed, polite, and respectful, but you also have to be willing to not be so quick to take no for an answer,” he says. “I’m studying law, and I kind of want to use that as an advantage in this role and let my law background shape how I would approach the role as education officer.”

When questioned about whether he sees the role as helping individual students or lobbying for the student body as a whole, Spare says that it is a “balancing act”: “I really do want to put more of an emphasis on the case work aspect, but at the same time in order to lobby college you have to be in a position where you can negotiate with them all the time, so you have to be able to balance being aggressive and being assertive. Fighting for student interest and then being able to sit down at a table with the same people and convince them why your ideas for what constitutes student priority should be implemented.”

Spare sees the Trinity Education Project as a forum for change, where some of the things students have told him they want to improve in their programs could actually become reality. “According to the current education officer, it takes up 80% of her time. It’s going to completely reshape what a Trinity education is,” he says. “I would want to make sure that we don’t miss the opportunity to use the project to prioritize the things that matter most to students. What I want to do is hold forums where students can engage with the process. When I was talking to the manager of the Trinity Education Project she wanted this as well, she wants to see students brought into the process.”

Regarding Trinity’s plan to increase the number of non-EU students, Spare comments that he approves of the plans, but that college still has to be careful: “I think it’s great that Trinity wants to increase the number of non-EU students but they shouldn’t turn the Trinity education into a commodity for sale to wealthy non-EU students. It shouldn’t be something that only the rich can afford. There might be a big enough pool in North America, but what about other countries in the world where incomes are not as high? You’re limiting the type of student you’re going to bring in when you just keep hiking up non-EU fees.”

Spare sees the education officer’s role as mostly internally political, rather than political in general. “There is something inherently political about advocacy. But I would be definitely more focused on the internal rather than the external,” he said and added that he would participate in the SU campaigns when his “involvement would be relevant and helpful”.

With roots in the U.S. but having been brought up in several different countries, Spare thinks his international background enables him to relate to student groups that might not feel as represented by the SU. “I think it can help me relate to other students who might feel outside the fold because their part of some sort of minority group – groups that might not feel like they are fully looked after by the SU.”

The education officer sits on the College Board. When questioned about how open he would be about his voting there, Spare emphasizes his intentions of being transparent: “It’s a matter of public record. Minutes are public, but I would never hide the way I voted. I think there should be absolute full transparency with regards to that.”

Spare also proposes integrated internships for science students, as well as a student “buddy” system to welcome Erasmus students to Trinity. In addition to this, Spare wants to reshape the class rep training and allow for all class reps to be able to participate via extra Dublin alternatives or online training. “The primary way to engage with the student body is through class reps, and yet you have a system in place where the training doesn’t even allow for enough spaces for all class reps to be trained,” Spare says. “If they are not trained they are not going to know how to engage with the students as well as they could.”

When questioned about how his untraditional non-SU background could impact him, Spare concludes that he feels prepared for the role: “I have done an incredible amount of research into the position, and I have a very deep level of understanding of what the position entails. I had a 45 minute one-on-one meeting with the manager of the Trinity Education Project. I don’t lack experience, I don’t lack knowledge, and yet I can also offer a fresh perspective, and I think that distinguishes me in this race.” – GRF

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Patrick Higgins

In comparison with previous years, the race for education officer is not uncontested, something that according to  junior sophister candidate Patrick Higgins, is not necessarily a bad thing. For him, it means that the potential Sabbats must really try to prove themselves. Replying to a question on whether he thinks that a year in office is long enough to effect change, he states that “a year in office is long enough to set priorities to take steps towards a long term goal.”

As former online news editor of Trinity News and a student mentor, he says that he has “experienced first-hand” the frustration of students regarding college administration. Higgins believes that simply recognising a problem unsatisfactory; it must be analysed efficiently, and a solution should be sought: “criticism is not enough,” he states, declaring that as education officer it his “responsibility to take action.”

Suffering from dyspraxia, Higgins wants to use his role to illustrate that the difficulties involved with the condition can be overcome. It makes the organisation of day-to-day tasks that bit more demanding, but as a result of dealing with the challenges this has presented him in relation to education, Higgins developed an  interest in the structures and workings of the college.

The key points of his campaign are based upon educating lecturers and college staff on how to make more efficient use of Blackboard, in order to “make Trinity more online-friendly.” He sees it as a valuable but underused resource, where older lecturers are “not as willing” to make use of it, inciting frustration among the student body. He advances the idea of educating the lecturers on Blackboard through “organising a series of classes for lecturers on how to use it,” something he would like to implement as a long-term plan.  His focus is on ensuring that all lecturers comprehensively understand the mechanics of Blackboard, Turnitin and e-mail, believing that a “paperless academic administrative system” is the way forward.

Among his other proposals, he outlines plans for a “simplified Erasmus process with all the information in one place” and a system of “one-to-one grinds” to enhance the learning opportunities of students. This would provide a more in-depth approach in comparison to the current peer mentor structure, whereby there may be up to twelve students with one mentor, meaning not everyone gets the help they require.

Asked whether he thinks that students interact enough with their Student Union, he’s positive about the level of interaction, although he emphasises that there is always scope for improvements.  Following from this, he states that there is a need for a “more effective complaints procedure,” and that the education officer should make use of and “work more with the communications and marketing officer,” so as to make the role more visible to students, and thus enable a greater engagement with students.

Higgins is of the opinion that the role of education officer has become “much more [of an] activist role than in previous years.” Regarding this dimension within his own conception of the role, he sees the need for more funding in departments as a crucial issue, pointing out that the lack of resources and cut-backs in certain departments highlights  third-level institutions are “more underfunded than [those] at secondary level.”  When asked as to how he might go about securing further funding, he says that it is all about a means of “positive engagement” between students, departments and administration; seeing what can be done, what should be done, and whether or not a negotiation can be reached.

When questioned whether he sees the role as being responsible for the individual problems of students or as being one concerned with lobbying college to make improvements for the student body as a whole, he underlines the importance of the student, saying that it should have an “individual-first” basis: “[They] need to know that there is someone there to help.”However, it is fundamentally about balancing the two components together.

Transparency is an issue Higgins deems important, hoping to make students “more aware” of what the position of education officer actually involves.  When questioned as to whether he would make public the way in which he would vote on board issues, he made a commitment to doing so, emphasising that it would enable him to “better involve students in the issues affecting them.”  

Considering the recent story of a medical student who was prevented from sitting Schols, he again emphasises the lack of transparency within the system: “The student didn’t know what was happening,” stating there was a “need to walk her through the process”. If faced with a similar problem, he first port of call would be to “go to the department of the student and inquire as to the situation and what could be done.”  He does, however, state that he isn’t sure of the specifics of the issue, and doesn’t see how such an error in the college administration could have been wholly prevented by the education officer.

Higgins feels there is a need for Trinity  to reassess “how it deals with refugee students”in relation to non-EU grants, emphasising that an education should be there for “all bright students” irrespective of their background. Fundraisers were suggested as a means of improving the current schemes in place that enable refugees to study in Trinity, again emphasising the social activist role of the education officer. – BR

Niamh Lynch, Greta Rosén Fondahn and Brónach Rafferty contributed reporting to this piece

UPDATE 10/02/16, 15:55 – Nick Spare has withdrawn his candidacy for the Leadership Race