Whether you are starting College or deeply embroiled in the rigours of your degree, it can often feel as though you have no direct input in the administration of your own education. In a large institution such as Trinity, it is not uncommon for students to feel detached from those at the forefront of educational and institutional policy, and – amidst the hectic buzz of college life – to be unclear about their rights and the means by which to defend them.
For Trinity students, these means are provided by Trinity College Dublin’s Students’ Union (TCDSU) According to their website, it strives to represent every Trinity student through a united vision and voice in line with their view that “solidarity is strength.” Lobbying on issues including learning conditions, welfare, and inclusivity on campus, Trinity’s SU Officers are elected by the students, for the students. In their own words: “You’re the boss” when it comes to the character of the Union.
Along with four other full-time Sabbatical Officers, TCDSU President László Molnárfi will be leading the Council into its 55th year. Elected on an overwhelming mandate, Molnárfi’s core tenet is to “radicalise the student movement”, with his election manifesto pledging to “bring the union back to its grassroots.” Molnárfi spoke to Trinity News about his goals for the direction of the Union in 2023-24 and his ideas on how to increase student engagement.
“Molnárfi implores students not to be ‘afraid to be political”
Seeking to “deconstruct unfair power structures and replace them with democratic ones”, Molnárfi implores students not to be “afraid to be political.” With a chief purpose of the SU being to defend and enforce students’ rights through the strength of its 20,000-strong undergraduate and postgraduate membership, a key part of its efficacy is the active engagement of the student body. Such a sentiment is present in Molnárfi’s intentions to hand “power back to the Union’s membership” by “not running the Union in a top-down fashion.”
The Union’s structure is designed to reflect this representative function. Class Representatives who are elected in every course provide a voice for students within both faculty and departmental committees. With Trinity divided into 24 schools, and each school then split into three faculties, every school and faculty has a Convenor. Convenors, Class Reps and Sabbatical Officers all come together during Student Union Council – the Union’s chief policy-making institution. Meeting seven times a year, the Council has passed motions on issues ranging from the quality of food in the Buttery to “Repeal the 8th” (the proposal to legislate for abortion within the Irish Constitution), demonstrating the enduring importance of this body in influencing the political character of the University on both a College-wide and national level.
From Molnárfi’s words, it is clear that he intends to reaffirm the Union’s lobbying position on the national stage. Against the backdrop of the cost of living and housing crises, Molnárfi strongly believes in taking the battle for social change to the top, stating that his Union will be “a radical mass movement of students taking up the fight against an unfair socioeconomic system and a government that doesn’t care about social justice.” This includes combatting policies that adversely affect students such as “fee or rent hikes” through “direct action rather than bureaucratic manoeuvring.”
One way the Union promotes its works is via the Communications and Marketing Officer, Aiesha Wong. This year, she will be seeking to “increase financial transparency surrounding the Union”, develop existing relationships with brand partners and “promote engagement throughout Trinity College with regards to the Union’s activities and campaigns for the year.” Telling Trinity News that she herself found it difficult to engage with the Union during her time at College, Wong hopes that “by the end of the year, everyone sees the Union as a place they can come to and get involved with, because at the end of the day, the Union is a service that works for students.” She sees her chief role as “making sure the incredible work the team is doing is seen and heard.”
“her overarching goal is ‘to humanise the Union”
The Welfare and Equality Officer, Aoife Bennett, echoed Wong’s desire for open communication between the Union and students. While continuing the work of her predecessors, particularly in the development of “free period products and better off-campus supports”, Bennett posits that her overarching goal is “to humanise the Union” and “create an environment where students can feel supported.” During such a transitional time in one’s life, especially when starting out at College, the importance of effective welfare structures cannot be underestimated. Trinity itself has a number of welfare and mental health services, including one-on-one or group counselling sessions. Yet even here, the Union strives for improvement, with Molnárfi telling Trinity News of the SU’s advocacy for the Counselling Services to “meet the 1:1000 ratio to reduce waiting times.” First and foremost, Bennett recognises the importance of knowing that such support exists, informing students directly: “If you are struggling with anything, big or small, and don’t know who to reach out to, email [email protected] and we can work through it together.”
Another prominent issue that the Union has identified as continuing to have a serious impact on student well-being is the housing crisis. Bennett blasted the government’s failure to “intervene”, despite the problem posing a “major barrier to people’s education.” She recommends that those struggling to find accommodation “reach out to myself or the Accommodation Advisory Service.” Striving to do what it can for struggling students in spite of the disappointing national response, the SU has just completed a “digs drive” with the University College Dublin (UCD) Student Union and will complete a “flyer drop to encourage homeowners to rent their rooms out to students.” Molnárfi also expressed the Union’s intention to deepen “cooperation with the Community Action Tenants Union, create a Housing Justice Officer” and gain greater understanding of the next steps by conducting a “housing survey among students and taking inspiration from Students4Change’s accommodation report last year.”
In this effort to improve students’ overall experience at College, the Union also plans to re-focus on inclusivity this year, with Molnárfi expressing his excitement at the prospect of “installing more floodlights on campus to increase accessibility.” Bennett is also currently working with Ents Officer Olivia Orr in order to ensure “Ents events are inclusive, and people feel safe and respected.” Orr’s election manifesto focused heavily on safety, with policies ranging from a QR code reporting system for problems at events, free talks on the dangers of spiking and the circulation of helplines on the Ents website.
“Arnold also aims to push the curriculum past the purely academic”
Within education, Bennett will continue the SU’s collaboration with Trinity’s “Inclusive Curriculum Project” which seeks to “embed principles of diversity, equality and inclusion across all teaching and learning”. Education Officer Catherine Arnold ran her campaign with a similarly strong emphasis on accessibility accommodations, particularly for students who have caring responsibilities. Striving to reform the Union to better accommodate these needs, Arnold also aims to push the curriculum past the purely academic. According to her manifesto, Arnold’s “holistic education” plan intends to provide life skills to students in areas such as “budgeting, barista training and even baking.”
With the Sabbatical Officer Board and their policy goals arguably shaping both College-wide and national lobbying efforts, it is important to also be aware of ways that the student body can hold elected representatives to account. While any student can submit a question directly to the Board in Council meetings, the Electoral Commission and Oversight Commission are the two dominant bodies which seek to ensure the transparency and execution of the Union’s activities.
In addition, as part of the Sabbat Team, this year’s elected University Times (UT) Editor Clara Roche told Trinity News that UT will continue to be a means of “freely scrutinising the Union where appropriate and hold[ing] the Union to account as much as we hold College to account.” Despite being financially supported by the SU, the UT has guaranteed editorial independence, with the “collective strength of our staff and readership allowing us to hold those in power to account”. With Roche already overseeing over 50 staff members, students can expect to see “everything from coverage of developments within housing and higher education sectors, to explorations of trends within fashion and film.” She encourages all students to get involved in writing for the paper as another way of engaging in the current affairs of the College.
While effective political lobbying can often be challenging, it is evident from the words of the Sabbat Team that participating in activism at College can be as simple as submitting a question to the SU Council, or running for Class Rep. With a President who speaks so fervently about the need for “student radicalism” and whose primary goal is to “unequivocally stand up in defence of students against authorities, College or government”, it is clear that the 2023-24 SU will strive to be at the forefront of student advocacy.