Analysis: Divisions in the Graduate Students’ Union

What does the future of the Graduate Students’ Union look like?

The Graduate Students’ Unon (GSU) held an Extraordinary General Meeting (EGM) on Wednesday. The controversial motion to separate from Trinity College Students’ Union (TCDSU) did not pass. Two motions at the EGM however were successful, both aimed at improving the working environment of graduate students at College. The meeting was characterised by concerns raised by members over a shaky voting process. Since then, two petitions have been launched calling for votes of no confidence in Vice President Abhisweta Bhattacharjee and President Gisèle Scanlon. All this begs the question: What does the future of the Graduate Students’ Union look like?

The answer lies in the electorate. Successful motions at the EGM focused on employment rights for PhD students: one mandating the union to lobby for a living wage for PhD students working at the College and another that will create an additional sabbatical officer to represent PhDs.

Criticism was levied against the voting platform at the meeting, which had no verification check for membership of the union. allowed users to cast multiple votes, and which some members said they were unable to cast a vote through at all. The dysfunctional EGM induced the calls for votes of no confidence.

Despite a two-vote difference on the voting platform being visible on the divestment motion at the moment the voting was declared over, the Vice President, who was chairing the meeting, said each side had received 50%, that she would cast a deciding vote, and deemed the motion to be passed. In a digitally muted protest, students held up notes and renamed their Zoom profiles to messages against voting irregularities and their inability to vote. If the votes of no confidence were ran and passed, the union will face a crisis of leadership on top of the uncertainties brought this year by the pandemic. If they see out the end of their terms, new officers will be elected under normal processes in the coming months. Either way, the incoming officers are faced with a difficult task of balancing the internal desire for radical change with the need for diplomacy at the College level.

The GSU’s reformative policies and attempt to divest from Trinity can be interpreted as a testament to the dissatisfaction of postgraduate with their working conditions, and the lack of advocacy for them. However the current exacerbation of tensions in the union seems to be partially due to the treatment of postgraduates during lockdown. During the pandemic, pressures on postgraduates have mounted.
The GSU conducted a survey of 510 PhDs’ experiences in collaboration with TCD Postgraduate Workers’ Alliance. 88.7% of the respondents reported that their research was negatively impacted by the pandemic and that the majority of them had to purchase materials needed for remote-working out of their own pockets.

Provost-elect Linda Doyle won the votes of the GSU bloc, pledging to recognise postgraduate students as workers with a “fair and reasonable hourly rate”. While only time will tell whether the reforms will be satisfactory, this indication from above may help to smooth over fault lines.

Regardless of the results of the votes of no confidence – if they are ran to begin with – the new executive team taking power in the summer will be more familiar with the constraints of the pandemic and be able to seek a dialogue with the new provost on campaigning for postgraduates’ rights. With some fortune, the rapid testing programme currently in pilots may let students ease back onto campus, preventing further disruption to postgraduates’ studying and working conditions – but GSU officers will still need to take a long-term look at the union’s purpose.

Connie Roughan

Connie Roughan is the Unions Correspondent for Trinity News and a Senior Fresh BESS student.