It’s safe to say, all things considered, that this is perhaps not the easiest time to take on the role of Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) education officer. Between a 44-place slump in the rankings for Trinity, an enduringly bad situation for health science students on placement and lingering concerns about the Trinity Education Project (TEP), it’s perhaps no surprise that it’s not a hotly contested position this year.
The union’s education officer has a difficult brief, involving both casework and committees. They’re expected to navigate Trinity’s often labyrinthine academic structures on behalf of students who are sometimes in dire straits, and they have to speak up at meetings of College’s top officials on behalf of students.
Last year, a hotly contested race saw two candidates well versed in policy battle it out over a variety of academic issues. It was an election for the purists.
But Megan O’Connor, this year’s sole candidate, wants to calm the tide by starting at home: addressing the on-the-ground issues that students face and tackling engagement problems.
O’Connor brings a wealth of experience to her campaign, having been an active member of the union since her first year when she served as a class representative. She is the chair of the Nursing and Midwifery Society and is TCDSU’s current off-campus officer of TCDSU, a position re-introduced by incumbent Niamh McCay this year.
With issues stemming from TEP likely to continue to crop up as the programme enters its final year before full integration into Trinity policy, and as the lack of government funding in higher education continues to plague the College, there is plenty to discuss with this year’s hopeful.
Amid this mounting pressure, O’Connor is well aware of the importance of the education officer’s role as a support system for students, and proposes to bring the position back to basics: she plans to focus on creating simple solutions to the complex issues of engagement and communication.
“I want to be hugely open in the role. Part of my manifesto is just kind of putting things back to ground level a little bit and more on grassroots. I think the students’ union could possibly engage a bit more with people on ground level.”
Indeed, engagement has long been the Achilles heel of the union, with perceptions of cliquishness and widespread student dread at the thought of its often long-winded council meetings. This year the union got creative: it offered Pringles to those who put themselves forward to serve as class representatives, and attracted a record number of candidates. But while the approach was much-mocked online – prompting McCay to deny the link between Pringles and sign-ups – O’Connor calls it a “great idea”: “I’ve met people over the year who have said: ‘Oh, I signed up for a box of Pringles, but I love this.’ And now these people are more engaged and again it’s addressing the engagement issue that we were facing over the past few years. So, it was a great idea and I know it kind of got some slagging at the time, but it really worked.”
O’Connor is clearly a believer in the power of the class representative: “I think that class representatives are an incredible resource, because all problems start at local level. I don’t think anyone in a sabbatical position can adequately address an issue in a school that they’re not 100 per cent familiar with. So I think class reps are incredibly valuable because they can tell you realistically what things are like.”
But if O’Connor has a point about some problems starting small, it’s debatable whether it holds fully true as an axiom. It might not always be at the forefront of students’ minds, but higher education has for years battled intractable funding problems. Fees and funding, then, are crucial issues for an education officer to tackle.
With an election just weeks away, O’Connor says students must “stand up and fight for what they deserve through utilisation of class reps who are at ground level and getting everyone out”. But when it comes to the ins and outs of policy, she arguably begins to falter. She stumbles under questions about the Cassells report: after appearing not to have heard of it, she says “I saw this ages ago” after the details of the groundbreaking review are explained to her.
And although she says her views are largely aligned with the proposals made by the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) in its election manifesto, she diverges from USI’s long-standing opposition to Ireland’s €3,000 fee. “I don’t think I’d ever lobby strongly for free fees. I think it’s a great idea, but I think if we’re realistic and we want to consider the best possible option, then we should consider increased state funding.”
O’Connor is on more comfortable ground talking about local issues. She’s optimistic about TEP, calling it a “brilliant idea that was implemented with great intentions”. It suffers, she says, from a lack of clear communication, and she promises to solve the issue by speaking to each of College’s different schools about their issues with it. If one of TEP’s apparent flaws has been its rigidity, O’Connor says that if implementing it successfully “means that there has to be slightly different policies for different schools, then I think that should be implemented in that way”.
While TEP avoids her wrath, however, she’s quick to offer criticisms of another issue faced by many students: College’s off-books assessment system. She says the system can leave students helpless, with no access to resources from within the college, further reducing their engagement with campus life. The answer? Modular billing. O’Connor calls the return of the system – initially scrapped after the supplemental fees meant to pay for its implementation met historic student opposition – “completely necessary”, echoing comments made by Aidan Seery, the College’s senior lecturer.
Naturally enough, O’Connor comes into her own when discussing the working conditions of many of her fellow students studying health sciences, and in the Engineering, Maths and Science (EMS) faculty. While she stresses that students should continue to lobby for better working conditions for nurses and midwives, she argues that small and simple solutions are just as important and often the most effective. O’Connor mentions the potential impact of providing a safe space for students who are affected by their work to talk openly about the issues concerning them most: “It seems like something so small, but it’s so important.”
The candidate elected as education officer acts as a direct liaison between students and academic staff, making the position perhaps among the most demanding in the union. Given the myriad of issues facing students at both local and national levels, O’Connor will be expected to navigate uncertain waters with extra care and responsibility to ensure that students’ voices are not drowned out. With an outlook that seems to focus more on smaller specific issues rather than more general problems such as fees and funding, it will be interesting to see whether students will agree with O’Connor’s vision – or feel that it’s lacking in the bigger issues.