Candidates outline plans for reform in poorly attended USI hustings

Trinity students can vote for their preferred candidates until 7pm this evening

At online hustings hosted by Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union yesterday evening, candidates for Union of Students in Ireland (USI) officerships outlined their plans to support students, with stronger campaigning and better communication with constituent unions being recurring themes across races.

Many candidates were absent from the hustings, with just one out of three candidates in the presidential race present, while fewer than a dozen Trinity students were in attendance, highlighting a severe lack of engagement with USI locally.

Sai Gujulla of the Comhalatas na Mac Léinn Ollscoil na Gaillimhe (CMLOÉG) was the only one out of three presidential candidates to attend TCDSU hustings. Candidates Chris Clifford and Patrick Curtin were not in attendance.

Gujulla promised to promote awareness of USI and what they do, among students. He understands that student awareness of USI is low and hopes to make “USI more accessible.”

He also vowed to work with “SUs across the country so they know what USI is doing” for a range of issues such as “lack of facilities, SUSI, accommodation, the cost of living crisis” and more.

The race for Vice-President for Campaigns saw TCDSU International Officer Zaid Albarghouthi and Christine O’Mahony of Dublin City University Students’ Union (DCUSU) both argue for a change of strategy in USI, albeit with differing priorities. Candidates Aoife Hynes of Maynooth University Students’ Union and Kieron Portbury of Queen’s University Belfast Students’ Union were not in attendance.

Albarghouthi, who is also chair of Trinity BDS, wants to make USI more known to students across Ireland, especially in the context of protests. Albarghouthi criticised the lack of momentum leveraged after USI’s national walkout earlier this year, saying that while it was “possibly one of the most attended direct actions taken by USI,” it was “certainly not the most successful”.

“We didn’t see any issues of engagement, we didn’t see a low turnout – the usual excuses weren’t there. But we also didn’t see a long term plan with any escalation strategies in case a goal is not met [within] a certain time period.”

Albarghouthi expressed hopes to make USI more accessible to students and encourage participation. “We must make USI an organisation that is able to be held to account by students”

When asked about reacting to time sensitive issues brought about by students, the candidate responded that “we need to see how good of a capacity USI has to deal with ad hoc campaigns.” He hopes to work with student movements on the issues that concern them.

When asked if USI should take a position of no confidence in the Irish government, specifically because of their failed policies, Albarghouthi claims that “I don’t think it’s really my place,” but is prepared to take a vote if its grassroots agree to it. He wants to instead “get pledges from parties when they run on what they will achieve and then get them to account.”

O’Mahony, who is VP for Diversity and Inclusion in DCUSU, heavily centred her campaign around trans and LGBTQ rights and inclusivity. She believes that the USI needs “to put students first so that USI can be a grassroots organisation” to support students and student issues.

When asked about what she will do to support trans students other than sharing information, O’Mahony promised to “get in contact ith LGBT societies,” because “that’s where you would find the most trans and non-binary students” so that she can reach out directly and open dialogue. She also promised to “make people aware of the issues people are facing when it comes to trans healthcare”.

When asked about USI’s stance on SUSI reform, O’Mahony recognizes that “a lot of students are missing out because of their parents salary” and hopes to expand access to SUSI to include more up to date information on students, and their own personal earnings and expenses, not just their parents’.

When asked about how to engage both member organisations (MOs) and outside organisations, the candidate recognised that MOs are the priority of USI but hopes to engage with outside organisations to make the union based more in grassroots campaigns.

When asked if USI should take a vote of no confidence in the government, O’Mahony took a different approach to her opponent: “I think definitely USI has to vote no confidence in this government… I absolutely do support the actions of students for change and protesting all these ministers that have caused student homelessness.”

VP for Academic Affairs is an uncontested race. Candidate Bryan O’Mahony of the South East Technological University Waterford Students’ Union pledged to work to make sure that there is more accessible and more thorough officer training and will work to provide stronger support for the officers because “if you want the students supported,” O’Mahony believes “you have to support the officers.”

O’Mahony also intends to work for curriculum and assessment reform in light of artificial intelligence (AI) tools such as ChatGPT because of the advantage it can give students, and to guarantee that students are all doing their own work.

O’Mahony, like many other candidates, spoke of SUSI reform, saying the grant system is “out of date and just isn’t working,” as well as indicating plans to consult with local students’ union officers to get a sense of issues on specific campuses.

In the race for VP for Post Graduate Affairs, Trinity PhD candidate Jeffrey Sardina faced off against Muhammad Mubasha Saeed of DCUSU, while third candidate Muhammad Sayyam Afzal was not present.

It is widely known that PhD stipends are far too little and that makes it difficult for people to pursue further education.

Sardina runs his campaign “in the full knowledge that [it] is going to come back and bite [him],” but vows to fight for PhD rights.

When asked if PhDs are students or workers, Sardina responded: “Workers. Period.” He went on to say that “work shouldn’t be done for free. Paying [PhD researchers] below the minimum wage should be illegal”. As workers, Sardina believes postgraduate researchers should enjoy the same pay and the same rights as any employed person has.

Asked how he would ensure that he would take responsibility for representation of taught masters students as well as PhDs, he admitted that this was a mistake he had made in his campaigning, and pledged a number of supports for masters students regarding immigration, fee support, and advice for international graduates coming to Ireland.

When asked about postgraduate students being properly represented in students’ unions, Sardina claims that they cannot be. “In the long term [postgraduate workers] need to be represented by a trade union” he claims. He hopes that this will guarantee workers rights for all postgraduate workers.

Mubashar Saeed acknowledged the same challenges faced by PhDs as his opponent, but put heavier focus on international postgraduates who “already have a hard time with accommodation”.

On top of lobbying for PhD pay and rights, Mubashar Saeed will also introduce ways for post graduates to “enjoy the student life” such as introducing a “postgrad olympics”.

When asked if he believes PhDs are students or workers, similar to his opponent, the candidate said that “they are workers and should be given full workers rights”.

Vice-President for Welfare is also an uncontested race. Candidate Collete Murphy is the current VP for wellbeing in DCUSU and hopes that her “experience working with students on the ground with case work to advocate for change on a national level.”

Murphy has a broad manifesto covering issues from finances to sexual violence and mental health, and placed heavy emphasis on sexual health and sexual violence at the hustings, promising to update USI’s consent messaging to be less outdated.

Sole candidate for VP for Equality and Citizenship James Curry from Technological University of Dublin Students’ Union (TUDSU) took a lot of heat from attendees about the fact that he has failed to produce a completed manifesto and hasn’t posted anything on social media about his campaign.

Curry said that he had been sick and catching up, but says that “anyone who has talked to me knows I am very passionate about the role” and is relying on his past experiences to attract voters.

Curry indicated plans to reform “Pink training” with more professional input, while admitting a lack of awareness about children affected by the 27th amendment planning to enter higher education following a question from TCDSU President Gabi Fullam on how he would deal with issues arising from that.

The race for VP for the Dublin Region is also uncontested, with sole candidate Nathan Murphy of DCUSU promising to lobby on issues of travel fares and housing, and saying that a Dublin-specific minimum wage is worth looking into lobbying for given the high cost of living in the capital.

The sole candidate in the uncontested race for Leas-Uachtarán don Gaeilge (VP for the Irish Language), Alicia Lewandowaska of South East Technological University Waterford Students’ Union, was not in attendance.

Candidates will be voted on at USI Congress on Tuesday, April 4 by delegates from students’ unions who are members of USI. TCDSU delegates are mandated to vote in line with the chosen candidates of their constituencies in an electoral college style system.

Trinity students can vote for their preferred candidates until 7pm this evening through TCDSU.

Madison Pitman

Madison Pitman is a Deputy News Editor and is currently in her second year studying Law with a minor in Political Science.