Presidential candidate Shane De Rís discusses refocusing the SU

Third year Irish and German student is one of four candidates in this year’s President race

Shane De Rís is a third year Irish and German student. His campaign for the Students’ Union presidency is centralised on a promise to “refocus the SU,” with De Rís hoping that it will become “a union that listens and truly serves the students it represents”. Recently, he sat down with Trinity News to discuss his aims and aspirations for the role of SU president.

Questioned on his suitability for such a position, De Rís cites his previous experience in Trinity Hall JCR and as TSM convenor. Whilst in first year, he was elected class rep and subsequently organised a successful referendum against an increase in student levies, something he viewed as “College reaching into students’ pockets to fill the gap in their budget”. De Rís’s campaign resulted in 86% of students voting to oppose levies and led Trinity to eventually abandon attempts to introduce them. He claims that the success of the referendum spurred him to run for President of the JCR. Throughout his term in Halls, De Rís’s goal was for the JCR to “be of more use to students”. He states that he attempted to build on past successes of the JCR but also to “diversify what the role of the JCR is” by running workshops on essay-writing, house-hunting, and inviting members of the SU to speak to students in Halls.

An unfailing focus on students is at the heart of De Rís’s bid to become SU President. Indeed when questioned on how he anticipates the day-to-day running of the presidency, he is vehement that the attention of the SU must always be on students, “the SU is there as a union for students – talking to students, listening to students, seeing what they want done. A lot of campaigns in College have been grassroots movements started by students, with the SU then coming on board as a catalyst and developing campaigns exponentially. The role of the President is to steer the ship”.

However, the past academic has year highlighted a growing sense of disillusionment with the SU. In the 2017 class rep elections, 172 classes failed to nominate a rep and a movement pushing for the SU to allow students to voluntarily opt-out of the union was established. When quizzed on how he plans to deal with the existing unease around student politics in Trinity, De Rís is adamant that “it’s about showing students that the SU’s working for them…being a presence on campus”. He admits: “I wouldn’t like to see students opt out en masse…I’m running as head of this organisation, I don’t want people to leave it.” De Rís’s manifesto focuses particularly on transcending the boundaries of House Six and allowing the SU to become a more proactive presence on campus. In his eyes, “it’s about sitting on a couch in the Arts Block for an hour a week talking to students, it’s sitting in the Hamilton, sitting in TBSI, bopping over to D’Olier Street for a cup of tea”. Additionally, De Rís emphasises the necessity of highlighting to students the positive work the SU carries out on their behalf. Alongside uncovering what students want done, he draws attention to the fact that that the SU must then “let students know we are working for them. It’s about having an ear to the ground and being more in touch”.

With the recent announcement of a referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment, conversation in College has switched to musings about whether the SU has focused too much on the Repeal campaign, in lieu of other issues. When questioned over where the energy which has fired this campaign will find an outlet after the May referendum, De Rís maintains that while there has been a lot of focus on Repeal – “Repeal is a completely worthwhile cause” – he would up the ante on issues such as higher education funding, “things like the lobby group, which didn’t get up and running this year, have to be utilised in our call for publicly funded higher education. I think a lot of the momentum built up and things we’ve learnt from the Repeal movement could be directed to that campaign”. The re-establishment of a College lobby group is something De Rís is keen to kickstart. He admits that “this year it didn’t take off properly, much to many people’s disappointment. It could be of immense value to the SU and it is there, it just hasn’t been employed to its full extent”.

The lack of affordable accommodation for students should be high on the list of any potential SU President’s agenda. De Rís’s manifesto promises to expand Trinity’s Accommodation Advisory Service, run workshops throughout the year and lobby the the government to provide more cost-effective student housing. He says that he aims to mobilise “a proper, tangible campaign against price rises for college accommodation while also calling on College to fast-track the construction of more purpose-built student housing. We see UCD, they’ve made great tracks in building accommodation and Trinity is lagging behind”. When asked about how he plans to help alleviate the seemingly unsolvable student housing problem in Dublin, De Rís mentions that he has been ”talking to different stakeholders in College about accommodation and one avenue that I’d like to see explored would be Trinity entering talks with a letting agent to manage some of its commercial properties. I was looking at how accommodation is managed in the UK, and a lot of the colleges run letting agencies just for students. That model wouldn’t fit directly on to Dublin because it’s such a competitive market with so many different letting agents working but if College has some sort of affiliated letting agency which would be free to use for students – it could be another avenue they could use”. His time leading the JCR gave De Rís an insight into the student housing market, “I worked in Trinity Hall, in the offices, and we had landlords phoning up saying ‘I’ve a house, can I give it to students?’ and we had to say ‘there’s no mechanism for these houses to be kept aside for students’”. He believes that the concept of establishing a letting agency working with Trinity solely for Trinity students is a more tangible and creative solution to this problem, “it’s not pie in the sky, it’s realistic”.

Keeping college costs as low as possible for students is an issue De Rís feels passionately about, “I ran the referendum in first year against levies so I feel very passionate about student finances”. He strongly opposes the introduction of fees for supplemental exams, stating that “again, it’s about College looking into students’ pockets when they’ve a hole in their budget. It’s almost like a cycle with the College Financial Officer dusting off the books every couple of years and saying ‘right, how can we get money from the students?’”. Drawing the issue of supplemental fees back to personal experience, De Rís explains that he juggles a part-time job alongside his studies, and usually earns around €80 per week, “that’s three weeks of work to pay for one exam. Fees for supplemental exams are not fair and I reject the College’s arguments outright”.

When asked about how he plans to balance the SU budget, De Rís believes that SU finances require re-examination. He mentions class rep training as an example of an area which could undergo cuts, “it costs an extortionate amount of money so we need to look at how to get the best experience of that but not at the current cost”. He also raises the point that the SU shop and cafe should make up a significantly larger proportion of the union’s income, “there’s a lot of work to be done on the shops, for example, they don’t get the footfall they deserve. If you’re running a shop in Dublin city centre, it should be more profitable than it currently is”.

De Rís aims to continue the work of the existing campaign to remove Aramark from campus. He says that he was disappointed with the SU mandate passed in relation to this, hoping that the College’s contract with Aramark would be dissolved rather that not renewed. This leads De Rís to reflect:“I think the SU needs to be stronger in its mandates and in putting up a fight.” He also pledges full support to campaigns such as TCD Plastic Solutions, End Direct Provision, and the Disability Rights campaign. In the wake of the successful introduction of mandatory consent classes for students in Trinity Hall over the past two years, De Rís aims to expand this service to become a campus-wide initiative.

2018 will witness the roll-out of the new Trinity Education Project. De Rís, in his manifesto, promises to deal with any challenges that may arise throughout the introduction of the project. He quips that “it’s Trinity so nothing is ever going to pass easily” but mentions he has talked with certain working groups set up to smooth the implementation of the TEP and can see that “there’ll be some discontent among certain faculties. There are certain schools within College that won’t want to accept aspects of the Trinity Education Project and it comes back to partnership – students are partners in their education as well”. He says his role would be to ensure that students remain central to the actions of the TEP.

Lack of transparency in regards to the administrative side of Trinity is something De Rís admits he is struggling to “get a grasp on how to find a solution”. He broaches the idea of introducing a handbook which would collate information for students on how to navigate Academic Registry and thus streamline the administrative process for students, “thirty people will have gone through it before. We can cry all we want to College saying, ‘Why are your staff not helping us?’ but they won’t work any more efficiently. We need to look at how we, as students, can come together to help each other.”

When questioned on why he would like to occupy the position of SU President, De Rís states that “I’ve always done things because I like to help people”. He remarks that “in College I’ve put myself forward because I can see the SU making a difference in other people’s lives…We don’t need to reinvent the wheel every time, things that worked before get forgotten about. There were things done when I was in first year that aren’t done now. The SU has to focus on getting what it does right.”