Inclusion, change and continuity at GSU election debate

The 5 candidates for President and Vice-President spoke in the only debate of the campaign tonight

After two days of campaigning, the only debate of the Trinity College Graduates Students’ Union (GSU) took place in the Jonathan Swift Theatre tonight, Tuesday April 25. With voting beginning on Wednesday, it was the final chance for the candidates to convince postgraduate students of their campaign.

There are two candidates for President, Sibeal Conway and Shane Collins, the latter being the current president of the GSU. The race for Vice-President sees Laura Matthews, Shonottra Kumar and Madhav Bhargav running. The debate had three phases, the first allowing candidates to outline their manifesto, the second seeing the moderator pose questions to all candidates, and the third allowing attendees to put a question to all three candidates.

The campaign has had issues with disinterest, with the window for applications for president extended in the hope that more postgraduate students would put themselves forward. At the original close of applications, just one candidate had entered the race.

Discussion was marred by confusion over the format of the proceedings, which divided the discussion into 3 stages, and a number of substages. Attendees complained that the format was convoluted, and that the moderators made changes to the format during the intermission without communicating this to attendees. The key issues were mental health, accommodation, and involving postgraduates in college life.

Opening statement

First to speak were the candidates for Vice-President. Laura Matthews argued that “postgraduates often spend their time [in College] feeling unrepresented”.

She wished to develop a better relationship with the TCDSU and Union of Students in Ireland (USI). She pledged to implement training programmes for postgraduates undertaking teaching positions to better prepare them for their roles. Matthews finished by declaring that she knew she was “the best candidate”.

Shonottra Kumar pledged to be “pragmatic about every issue that’s thrown at [her]”. She noted a lack of involvement from the community of postgraduate students, noting that when she was involved with the events committee, “we had events where 3 people showed up”. She promised to undertake more events throughout the year.

Speaking about discord between students and school representatives, Kumar promised to emphasise conflict resolution rather than “impeachment” and to “make a more peaceful structure”. She wanted to implement a mechanism for resolving issues arising between students and school reps. She spoke too of developing a relationship between the GSU and the new post of international students officer in USI.

The final candidate, Madhav Bhargav, claimed to have undertaken 150 hours of “voluntary work” with the Union while in college, including “spearheading” a number of events, including the marketing and communications strategy for next years GSU committee.

He emphasised unifying mental health bodies within College, ensuring more desk space, and addressing the endemic accommodation crisis, concluding: “as VP my aim would be to make sure that all present and future postgrads have a meaningful time at Trinity.”

The first presidential candidate was Sibeal Conway, pledging to bring a “fresh, innovative, and progressive perspective” to the GSU. She said that her experiences volunteering opened her up to the “differences” between people.

Conway promised to further involve postgraduate students in society life by implementing postgrad reps and events in societies. Conway also promised to establish a “postgraduate alumni service”, which would offer current postgraduates “advice” and accommodation.

Collins referenced his campaign last year in which he urged students to “be the change”. He noted that “this year, ‘being the change’ is being there for one more year”. He said his manifesto was predicated on a “year’s experience in the job” and was “based on evidence”.

As with the other candidates, Collins addressed mental health in his opening remarks, citing a Belgian study which claimed postgraduate students were two and half times more likely to have mental health issues than other students.

Collins went on to address visa issues for international students, pledging to push bodies on multi-year visa applications as well as highlighting the fact that this year was the first in which postgraduates were prioritised for accommodation on campus. Collins finished by drawing attention to new facilities in the 1937 postgraduate Reading Room.

Debate & clarifications

The next phase saw all candidates answer a question put to them by a moderator. The first question for Vice-Presidential candidates asked which areas candidates would focus on given the wide range of responsibilities of the Vice-President.

Madhav Bhargav was first to answer, drawing attention to the welfare aspect of the role. He promised a “mindfulness” programme in conjunction with the existing mental health services.

Matthews emphasised mental health, promising to focus on what was most important and “outsource where you need to”. She pledged to increase the representation of postgraduates, noting that they are underrepresented in TCDSU.

Kumar also focused on mental health. She drew attention to the “stigma” of mental health and pledged to help students through these issues. She highlighted her experience as a lawyer in managing hectic schedules.

Matthews disagreed with Kumar, citing that she was “not a trained counsellor” and would not feel comfortable in counselling someone through a mental health issue. Kumar said she would be there for someone should they not feel comfortable with a counsellor.

Both candidates for President were asked what they felt was the biggest problem facing postgraduate students in the coming year and what plans they would implement to combat it.

Collins named both mental health and accommodation as problems facing postgraduate students. Collins outlined a plan whereby students would pass on accommodation to other students upon the completion of their studies.

Conway drew attention to the transition postgraduate students undergo to their “real adult life”. She continued to describe a “lack of inclusion” in College society, arguing that if the problem of inclusion was addressed, it would solve a “plethora of other problems”.

Following the second phase of the debate, there was a great deal of confusion as those in attendance were asked if they wished any candidates to clarify points. Trinity News asked the candidates for Vice-President if they understood the difference between S2S and the student counselling service, referred to interchangeably throughout the debate.

The chair of the debate, Nikolaos Kandilas, questioned whether this was a point of clarification, which instigated a debate surrounding the procedural motion. GSU President Shane Collins argued that it was a point of clarification. The debate was adjourned with the question pushed to the question-and-answers phase of the debate.

General questions

On resumption of the debate, there remained further confusion as the procedures outlined prior to the debate were not followed. The debate continued regardless as candidates for Vice-President were asked about mental health issues and conditions. All candidates reaffirmed their commitment to mental health issues.

Candidates were asked how they would confront difficult situations. Matthews said that she could differentiate the “personal” and professional. Kumar said she too knew it was “not personal” but said she would “fight tooth and nail” to ensure students were best represented. Bhargev said the Vice-President should be “rational” in dealing with problems and that there should be no “grey spots”.

The debate then returned to the question about the difference between S2S and the student counselling service. Bhargev outlined the differences between the two but said he did not want to be specific as to which service was more appropriate. Kumar said that the appropriateness of each service would depend on a case by case basis. Matthews too agreed with a “case by case” basis and that the peer support network was most important when students did not feel comfortable speaking to a counsellor.

Candidates for President were asked about the recently defeated motion to boycott, divest and sanction Israel. Collins said that any student had the right to bring a motion to council and for it to be heard; Conway agreed.

Asked how candidates would build on the fundraising undertaken by this year’s executive, Conway said that she would continue this drive to ensure the GSU was well funded going forward. Collins pointed to corporate sponsorship as a possible avenue for funding.

Referring to Collins’ earlier assertion that the job was “not done”, Trinity News asked when both candidates would feel the job would be done. Collins said the job would be done when projects were finished. Asked again if he would rule out running for a third term, Collins did not commit to putting a limit on his term.

Conway agreed that the “job is never done” but said that continuity was not about “one single person” and that governance would involve developing relationships and handing over. She felt that a “fresh and current perspective” was desirable.

Candidates were then asked about their number one policy to improve integration. Conway said that cooperation with societies would help to integrate students. Collins pointed to the “largest postgrad orientation week” ever, but said that integration needed to begin before orientation week.

Asked how the President would deal with problems regarding immigration and visa issues for international students, Collins said that multi-year visas would prevent problems and “footfall” through the Immigration Bureau offices.

Conway said that international students were a “huge part” of Trinity. She highlighted the difficulties around visa applications and proposed on-campus visa registrations and workshops.

Additional reporting by Oisin Vince Coulter and Rory O’Sullivan.