We need the SU to be visible now more than ever

The Union has largely failed to hold College in check during the pandemic. That needs to change

College’s handling of the pandemic has been bad. From the rejection of a No Detriment policy for summer exams to the charging of full fees for a mostly-online semester, the needs of students have been marginalised again and again. They’ve continuously failed to keep us informed about provisions for the new year, let alone tried to include us in the making of those decisions – despite students being by far the largest stakeholder.

What’s perhaps more concerning is that there has been very little visible pushback from the students’ union on any of this. The open letter sent to College by Communications and Marketing Officer Philly Holmes in August is one exception. The criticism it contained was fair and necessary, not to mention effective. Trinity immediately committed to better update students on the developing situation on-campus.

But that was notable because it was novel. Scrolling through TCDSU’s official social media channels, the union’s public engagement on Covid-19 since the new team took office in June has been mostly limited to disseminating information – whether retweeting official Trinity announcements about mask wearing or reminding students to make module choices. There’s been some instances of questioning how College has handled affairs, but it hasn’t gone far enough.

To be fair, President Eoin Hand did say he was “very disappointed” that college laundrettes were closed for two weeks, and some other concerns were raised on social media around the publication of timetables. But as for Hand’s tweet, apart from tagging some official College accounts, he didn’t give public indication of any actual action on the issue.

All this at a time when the majority of students have felt completely abandoned and left in the dark about the next year of their lives, not to mention deep resentment at tourist access to campus taking precedence over students’. Trinity students are trying to conduct their studies during a once-in-a-century pandemic and the worst economic crisis since 1929, and their representatives aren’t representing them in a way that students can see and understand.

Ultimately, while it is important to keep people informed and to do casework with individuals, the union’s core purpose is much bigger than that, and it’s being ignored. It’s meant to be the collective voice of the student body, able to advocate to, and negotiate with, College in a way we can’t as individuals. And when College is neglecting students to this extent, the union acting merely as a deferential public announcement service isn’t enough. It needs to defend our interests.

“No attempt has been made to ask students if they’re happy with how they’re being treated, let alone to question any official decisions.”

Students should not only be kept in the loop as College draws a roadmap for the year, we should have a seat at the table. If nothing else, the decisions that College is making are fundamentally about our health; if there’s an outbreak in Trinity, it’ll primarily be students who get sick. But it’s also important because the way Trinity manages this year will have seismic effects on the lives of students more generally. Our financial wellbeing, whether we’ll need to pay rent in Dublin, whether we’ll be able to fit part-time jobs around our timetables, all of these things depend on decisions being made by Trinity. We have a right to be consulted about those decisions, and we haven’t been to the extent that we need to be.

And if College won’t confer with students of its own accord, we need to make them. And we should be able to do that through the Students’ Union. TCDSU needs to turn to its members, find out what their collective vision for a safe and manageable return to classes looks like, and then fight tirelessly for College to adopt that vision. Student concerns, needs and interests should be a central factor in absolutely every decision by Trinity.

That engagement by the union would have value in and of itself. If students are being ignored by Trinity, then it’s important that they feel like someone cares about their needs. Being listened to during a time of crisis and uncertainty can make a huge difference to people. And the discursive work towards a collective, student-led understanding of college reopening would be invaluable. A plan for what a student-centred college reopening might look like would be the first of its kind. We would set an example for other campuses around Ireland and beyond.

But the union can go further, and actually turn the students’ vision into a reality. It will, however, take more than tagging some Twitter accounts. Dialogue is the first step. TCDSU should make a direct, public and specific demand to College that students be consulted on every future decision related to the pandemic. Additionally, Trinity should be asked to sit down with student leaders to conduct a review of the decisions that have been made to date, and whether student welfare was adequately considered in them.

The union should clearly lay out the case for why College has a moral imperative to consult students, as I have begun to do here. Trinity, though it has been grossly negligent thus far, is run by rational people and there’s every chance they will hear the reason behind this appeal and act on it. But giving this rationale is also important, as College is sensitive to its public image and won’t want to be seen to reject a very reasonable list of demands, even if privately it would rather do so.

“If we back down and let Trinity throw students under the bus this time, they’ll never take us or our needs seriously again.”

If that fails though, escalation cannot be ruled out. With the exception of Take Back Trinity, student politics in Ireland no longer has the radicalism and experience with direct action that it used to. But if now isn’t the time, when students face one-in-a-generation hurdles, when is? College needs to be reminded that students, united, hold vastly more power than the Provost or the University Council. Sit-ins that shut down tourist areas on campus, withholding fees, public pickets – nothing should be off the table. It worked two years ago over repeat exam fees and it’ll work this time, because College is dependent on us and our goodwill. An escalation of this kind isn’t desirable, but we need to have it in our back pocket. If we back down and let Trinity throw students under the bus this time, they’ll never take us or our needs seriously again. We deserve to be heard.

Ultimately, if TCDSU isn’t visibly fighting for our interests, it’s failing us just as much as Trinity is. I believe it is capable of more. Joe Hill famously wrote over a century ago that “there is power in a union”. Let us use our power.

Jack Kennedy

Jack Kennedy is the Editor-in-chief of the 68th edition of Trinity News. He is a Computer & Electronic Engineering graduate, and a former Assistant Editor, Online Editor, and Deputy Online Editor.