Education race: Arnold comfortably heading for House 6 despite highest RON vote

Promising a “holistic” approach to education, the Deputy AHSS Convenor is expected to take four-fifths of the vote

Running uncontested for the role of education officer in the Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU), Deputy Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (AHSS) Faculty Convenor Catherine Arnold is expected to be elected comfortably to the position.

With 80.6% of first preferences in our Trinity News poll, the Deputy AHSS Convenor and Senior Sophister philosophy and sociology student is set for a straightforward victory in their uncontested bid for education officer, despite an unusually high re-open nominations (RON) vote of 19.4%. This is the highest The projected RON figure is almost twice that of the final RON percentage in last year’s education officer election, in which 10.5% voted to re-open nominations over the candidacy of Zöe Cummins.

Arnold received more outright support from female (82.7%) and nonbinary (84.6%) voters when compared with male voters on campus (76.2%), and is significantly less favoured by centre-right voters, among whom the RON vote is over 30%.

Though the proportion of undecided voters is relatively high at 45.8%, the highest of any of the six electoral contests, this is nothing unusual in polling for uncontested races, and thus Arnold can be quite confident of victory on Thursday.

Looking at the political beliefs of those polled, Arnold has the highest approval rating among the left, with 87.76% of People Before Profit voters giving Arnold their first preference. Students who would vote for Fine Gael in the next general election had the highest rate of RON as their first preference at 32%; this is 20% higher than the lowest amount of first preferences for RON from left-wing voters. 

As is the case with most uncontested ballots at student union elections, the education race lacked the intensity and scrutiny of some of the more high-profile races this time around. The election initially featured a second candidate, Senior Fresh political science student Elizabeth O’Sullivan, who dropped out of contention early on in the campaign, saying that her “timing was not optional”. According to O’Sullivan, the role of education officer “requires a candidate who can dedicate time and resources which I unfortunately do not have at the moment”. O’Sullivan subsequently endorsed Arnold, saying they would “do the role justice”.

Though this left the race uncontested, this did not mean Arnold would have a completely unchallenged path to election. At the various hustings, the Deputy AHSS Convenor was probed extensively about their manifesto policies and commitments, and about their plans should they become education officer.

Key to Arnold’s platform is wide-ranging reform of the Student Union, and to the college-wide curriculum. Their manifesto calls for the delivery of a new TCDSU constitution and the introduction of Senates covering welfare and academic aspects of student life, replacing the existing respective Committees within the union that “produce long term policy on Academic and Welfare issues with input possible from all areas of the student body”. 

When asked at the Media Hustings whether this was feasible given the waning student engagement with the union, Arnold said that the Senates would have “huge impacts for the engagement in and of itself”, and would bring about a “feedback loop” that would allow students to better influence policy decisions. However, the practicality of establishing these Senates in the first instance seems unclear, with the question of engagement continuing to hang in the balance. For all the talk, the lack of a plan for incentivising student engagement with TCDSU was a deficit in Arnold’s campaign, and may tell us something about the lack of student engagement in the Education race altogether.

At the College-level, Arnold proposed the creation of a “road map” for departments to further the decolonisation of the curriculum. At the Equality & Council Hustings, they committed to completing “groundwork” over the summer should they be elected to the Education position, undertaking a “full exploration with individual departments” to implement the decolonisation process. Departments have “realised they have loads of energy to decolonise the curriculum but they don’t really know the steps to go about it”, they told audience members at the subsequent Media Hustings last week.

Arnold also proposed to install an Erasmus portal that will provide students with information on their “destination university”. According to their manifesto, students on Erasmus will be able to “rate their experience on Erasmus and offer advice to incoming students” via the portal. In an interview with Trinity News, Arnold said that a student-led portal would mean students could travel confidently with realistic expectations and increased knowledge of their new academic environment.

Arnold was not asked about this proposal at hustings and therefore could not expand on the logistics of this portal. Current Education Officer Zöe Cummins also proposed an Erasmus portal in her own campaign last year. According to her latest report, she has “started data collection and building the infrastructure for the SU website with the SU IT technician” and plans to make this a “big project for the Education Committee”. If elected, Arnold will likely be able to pick up where Cummins left off in completing this proposed portal. Cummins also promised to introduce an internship portal to provide students with information on employment opportunities, which Arnold may also adapt if elected. 

Postgraduate education and representation was also a major theme of Arnold’s campaign, with them promising to introduce two part-time paid roles for such students within the union, working “in conjunction with the sabbatical team”. At Hustings, they clarified they do not seek the integration of the Postgraduate Workers’ Organisation (PWO) with TCDSU, but that the union would be able to support postgraduates in areas the PWO “can’t fully engage on” with regard to the academic board, ensuring that students have a “voice in policy”. The creation of the new positions is, at the very least, a very clear policy, though that would likely hinge on constitutional change – something Arnold themself has acknowledged has been tried and failed on multiple occasions in recent years.

Despite these promises, according to polls, postgraduate students are the most likely group to give RON their first preference; 33.33% of PhD students wished to reopen nominations, while 42.86% of masters students preferred RON over Arnold, a 23.46% difference from the overall average RON voters in the education race. 

When asked at Equality Hustings why their manifesto did not include any mention of LGBTQ+ students, Arnold acknowledged that they “overlooked” this area and that they think “that there are huge issues that are being faced by LGBT students”. They said they plan to “mediate” the process through which students can change their name and pronouns on Blackboard so they feel “supported in the classroom”.

“Holistic education” was a term frequently used by Arnold to describe their intended approach towards the role. Speaking to Trinity News, they emphasised the need for “holistic” engagement between the union, College, and more types of students, emphasising that students needed to be supported “past the front gate”. To achieve this, alongside the proposed Senates and support seminars for staff, they want to introduce more upskilling programmes for students, accessible to students via a “streamlined way of signing up” through the TCDSU website. At Media Hustings, Arnold explained that the streamlining of the provision of such services would alleviate issues created by the “lifestyle clash” that emanates from the current method of provision of upskilling programmes.

Though Arnold’s “holistic” vision for education certainly carries plenty of merit, it’s hard to quantify exactly to what extent these policies, if carried through successfully, would have a positive effect on the campus population. There were some notable omissions from the conversation that have been mainstays of the education race in previous years – in particular, discussion around changes that would allow students to retake individual modules rather than having to repeat the year or go off-books.

Arnold is also yet to reference Schols in their campaign. Given the recurring discourse around the fairness and modernity of Schols exams every January and April, the lack of a nod to it in the sole candidate’s campaign or hustings appearances is a strange one. Cummins promised to review Schols in her own manifesto when running for education officer; according to her most recent education report, she met with the vice provost and senior lecturer on the issue and confirmed that a review of Schols examination would take place this year. 

Arnold’s campaign wasn’t exactly short of detail, the usual buzzwords and politicking aside, but it can be said that much of their policy platform is overly tailored to specific groups and ideas, and has fallen short on a number of college-wide academic issues that affect the wider student body. This may very well explain the higher-than-average apathy seen in the Trinity News poll, both in terms of the projected RON vote as well as the nearly one-in-two undecided voters in this race.

Despite Arnold’s emphasis on student engagement and promises to increase representation in the Union through their proposed senate and “holistic” approach, students who “strongly disagreed” that TCDSU is representative of their own student experience were one of the demographics most likely to choose RON as their first preference. 38.64% of these students preferred to reopen nominations, nearly double the average amount of first preferences given to RON overall. One of the education officer’s main roles is speaking on behalf of students regarding academic affairs on several College boards, as well as handling daily casework from students regarding module choices, assessments, and other academic issues. Arnold, if elected, will have the challenge of proving to these students that TCDSU can in fact represent their interests with them as education officer. 

That shouldn’t demoralise the Arnold campaign, however, as the Deputy AHSS Convenor is still set to be elected by a comfortable margin to succeed the incumbent Cummins, barring any major shock on Thursday. As always, there are questions as to how effective the Education Officer can be in their role, in terms of carrying through with the promises they make at election time. Perhaps it was a smart move by Arnold to key in on certain issues they believe they can make an impact on in House 6, but with a victory on the horizon, only time will tell.

Additional reporting by David Wolfe and Ellen Kenny.

Evan Skidmore O’Reilly

Evan Skidmore O’Reilly is News Co-Editor for the 70th volume of Trinity News. He is a former Deputy News Editor, and is a current final year Business and Politics student.