Controversies and constitutional issues raised at GSU hustings

The three candidates for the union’s sabbatical positions were quizzed by students this evening

Candidates in the Graduates Students Union (GSU) sabbatical officer election faced questions from students at the campaign’s first and only hustings this evening.

The union’s presidency is being contested by Gisèle Scanlon, the incumbent, and John Tighe, a former member of the Executive. Current Vice President Abhisweta Bhattacharjee is re-running unopposed. Candidates were asked questions submitted by GSU members before and during the event, which took place over Zoom.

Constitutional issues

Both presidential candidates were first asked about recent concerns raised by postgraduate students over rules and conventions not being followed within the union recently, and how they will ensure the GSU is following its proper procedures in future.

Scanlon spoke first, saying that she believes they “have learned from engaging with new providers” over the last year. She used the example of the union’s current voting platform, Mi-Voice, as she believes it has “allowed for extra representation across campus” and “the old way of doing things had less representation”.

Tighe stated that he would “follow the constitution”. “The GSU president is under impeachment proceedings” and “If she respects democracy she will put herself forward for those proceedings” he continued. He believes the “lack of decorum shown by the GSU and its members” at the union’s extraordinary general meeting (EGM) in April was “scandalous” and “needs to be addressed” in order to “rebuild that trust” in the union.

On this topic, Scanlon was asked why she had not held another EGM after petitions calling for her and Bhattacharjee’s impeachment reached the necessary threshold of 60 signatures. These petitions were circulated in the wake of April’s AGM.

Scanlon said that she has not been “empowered” to call this meeting “because this matter is with the GSU Board”. She also said that “an external report has been commissioned” and “several people have been contacted to feed into it”. “Until the findings of that are discussed we’re tied to what’s happening at the board” she continued. She did not provide details on why the external review would prevent an impeachment vote being held.

Work and finance

All three candidates were asked about their plans to help postgraduate students experiencing financial hardship. Bhattacharjee said she wanted to see specific hardship funds established with “proper separate funding for different reasons,” such as living expenses or academic materials.

Scanlon proposed “a GSU scheme for small loans” which could be offered to students in “emergency situations”, similar to a scheme operated by Trinity College Dublin Students Union (TCDSU), while Tighe said that the union needs to lobby the government for the reintroduction of rent pressure zones and other rent controls. He advocated for working with the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) and Community Action Tenants’ Union (CATU), an accommodation advocacy group. Tighe encouraged GSU members to join CATU.

There was also discussion of PhD workers’ rights. Scanlon brought up her plan to introduce a third sabbatical officer to the union specifically to represent PhD students in addition to the existing Research Officer. She also highlighted the problem of workers not being given formal contracts “even though other institutions offer this”.

Tighe, who is pursuing a PhD, criticised the proposed sabbatical officership, saying that “the structure of most PhDs would disqualify a lot of people from applying for such a position” because “people would have to take a year out of their PhD”. He also said that he wanted the union to lobby the government to allow students to continue to claim the Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP) which is currently scheduled to exclude students from September.

All three candidates pledged to uphold the GSU’s mandate to support TCD Postgraduate Workers Alliance (PGWA). All three acknowledged existing difficulties in the relationship between the PGWA and the GSU, with Bhattacharjee saying “we just need a proper understanding”. The lobby group this week formally endorsed Tighe.

Executive decision-making

Both presidential candidates were also asked by current GSU Research Officer Serena Foo how they would ensure that all members of the union’s Executive were invited to all meetings. Foo specifically cited her own case, saying she had not been invited to any meetings of the Executive since December of last year. The University Times this morning reported that Foo had attempted to raise this issue with Scanlon, Bhattacharjee, and GSU oversight officer David Donohue twice since the beginning of this year, but received no response.

Scanlon maintained that “there has never been a situation where we have not invited an Executive member to an Executive meeting”, and that the only decision made without the input of every member of the Executive “was whether we should send an email at 11:30pm at night” and that this “was the EGM email”. The EGM in question was pushed back by two weeks after it was discovered that the initial schedule did not allow for the constitutionally mandated time for members to review documents.

Tighe said that “if you’re elected, you’ll be invited to all meetings”.

New GSU Constitution 

All three candidates were asked if they would respect and adhere to the recently rewritten GSU constitution. Scanlon began the discussion saying “yes, of course” she will adhere to the new text. She believes that the GSU is “now at an exciting juncture” and “things are much simpler” with the new constitution. She also said that the amended constitution is “more accessible” and “more rewarding”.

Bhattacharjee spoke next, saying the “updates and amendments made to the constitution are foolproof” and “ the postgraduate community understands what the constitution holds”. She is “more than excited to see the new constitution finally coming to power”.

However, Tighe disagreed with the other two candidates on this issue, saying that he has “already expressed [his] displeasure at the nature of the EGM” and as a result, “anything to do with the constitution should be put on hold” until the matter of the GSU Board’s report is resolved. If there is impropriety found to have occurred by this report, he believes the GSU should “come back and bring those decisions back again to the AGM or an EGM”.

The new constitution was deemed to have been voted in at the controversial EGM in April, despite some members being unable to participate and despite one of the relevant votes only receiving 51%, when the old constitution required a two thirds majority to be “added to, deleted or amended”. Another vote at the same meeting had to be re-run.

Memorandum of understanding with TCDSU

The three candidates were then asked if they would commit to signing the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the GSU and TCDSU anf how they would ensure postgraduate representation on committees where TCDSU has representatives and GSU does. At the last GSU EGM in April a motion was put forward to divest from TCDSU which failed on the second round of voting.

Bhattacharjee began by stating that the “entire spectrum of the postgraduate community is completely different” than that of the undergraduate community. She believes that “undergraduates have a different set of needs than postgraduates”. However, she said that she would be willing to “work together when need be”.

Scanlon spoke next saying that she would work “shoulder to shoulder” with TCDSU. However she wants the GSU to have “its own partnership with College ” and therefore she is not in favour of signing the MOU. She believes the MOU is “unsatisfactory for our union”.

Finally, Tighe noted that he made the MOU a centre point of his manifesto. He echoed Bhattacharjee’s remarks on the difference between the postgraduate and undergraduate communities. However, in his view, that is why the MOU is “even more important”. He believes that “it reaffirms the commitment of all three institutions to make campus better”.

The GSU election campaign officially began today with voting due to take place from Wednesday June 9 to Friday June 11. The results are expected to be announced on June 12 at midday.

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.

Kate Henshaw

Kate Henshaw is current Editor-in-Chief of Trinity News, and a graduate of Sociology and Social Policy. She previously served as Deputy Editor, News Editor and Assistant News Editor.

Bella Salerno

Bella Salerno is currently a Deputy News Editor of Trinity News. She is a Senior Fresh Middle Eastern, Jewish and Islamic Civilisations and French student.