Often neglected by comparison to the more glamorous, flashy nature of its compatriots, the role of Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) Education Officer is arguably one of the most challenging positions on the sabbatical officer team. Upon their election, the successful candidate instantly becomes one of the most pivotal members of the College community, boasting a seat on almost all of Trinity’s myriad of committees and councils.
Whether it’s third-year politics and geography student Niamh McCay or Sally-Anne McCarthy, a final-year physics and astrophysics student, who emerges successful in the race for the office, they will be handed the unenviable task of guiding Trinity’s 17,000 undergraduate students through the challenges of College.
The fallout from the implementation of the much-maligned Trinity Education Project will likely take up the bulk of the work next year, as the project continues to plague students, while the government’s prolonged failure to meaningfully address the issue of higher education funding has matured into a legitimate crisis, with students – and Trinity itself – continuing to feel the impact.
Perhaps due to the the daunting nature of the job, the race has traditionally been uncontested, with both previous incumbents, Alice MacPherson and Aimee Connolly, running unopposed. As a consequence of that lack of opposition, policy pitches at last year’s hustings occasionally lacked detail, while in-depth discussion of the Trinity Education Project was frequently conspicuous by its absence. However, if last year’s campaign suffered from a lack of in-depth debate on the project, then both candidates have set their stall out early to remedy this.
McCay brings a wealth of experience to her campaign, having previously served as the JCR music officer. She is chair and treasurer of the Harmony Project and is the current Citizenship Officer of TCDSU, a position which has in the past been used as a launchpad for sabbatical campaigns.
The fallout from the implementation of the much-maligned Trinity Education Project will likely take up the bulk of the work next year
Meanwhile, McCarthy boasts extensive experience dealing with the Trinity Education Project. Having previously served as TCDSU science convenor and represented students on the College’s Undergraduate Studies Committee, she is currently the Engineering, Maths and Science (EMS) Faculty Convenor.
The confusion surrounding the implementation of the project has played into both candidates’ decisions to run for the role. McCay noted her concern that, in light of its rapid implementation, it is very easy for “staff to get the final say”, with the student voice being pushed aside.
While both candidates accept that the implementation of the project left a lot to be desired this year, neither was damning in their criticism of the project. Careful not to dismiss the difficulties that students faced, McCay affirmed her belief that in the long term “semesterisation will be beneficial for Trinity”, attributing the current issues to the failure of staff to update their methods of assessment in light of the new term.
McCarthy agreed, arguing that the project hasn’t been “the massive horror show it could have been”. In a view that is clearly shared between candidates this year, she is keen to draw attention to the perceived disconnect between students and staff when it comes to implementing the project: “I think what’s gone wrong is that a lot of students don’t feel that they have ownership over the decision making process.” She appeared clear that the when it comes to decisions on the project being made on high-level committees, it is the role of the education officer to be the voice of the students who can’t be present.
The education officer is the vice-president of the union and organiser of elections and, as such, candidates will have to confront one of the prevailing trends of last year’s presidential race, which saw flagging engagement with the union come rapidly to the forefront of debate. Despite a number of high-profile races, the election ultimately saw only a marginal increase in turnout. If the continued paucity of candidates for election displays anything, it is that the issue shows no immediate signs of disappearing.
If last year’s campaign suffered from a lack of in-depth debate on the project, then both candidates have set their stall out early to remedy this
Despite this troubling reality, McCay is quick to argue that while imperfect, engagement with the union is at a reasonable level. Regarding other grievances, such as those raised by last year’s opt-out campaign, McCay doesn’t display much sympathy: “When I sit in a room like academic senate where you have people from each school talking about issue-related issues or academic-related issues, it’s difficult to say that Trinity students don’t care to engage.”
Interestingly, in a year that has seen two councils fail to meet quorum, thus preventing votes on important issues, McCay explained that “engagement doesn’t have to be a packed Council room”.
“It doesn’t have to be full attendance at every meeting, it has to be, you have to be able to tick off the boxes and say we have catered to every student who has come towards us and our students felt like they could come towards us and talk to us”, she said.
McCarthy, who as EMS Faculty Convenor represents a group of students with historically low engagement with the union, is more concerned by the trend. Noting that the issue has been ongoing for years, she accepted that for students from her faculty, part of the issue is naturally “geographical”. However, she suggested that the main problem when it comes to engagement generally is a perceived disconnect between the union and the concerns of students, arguing that the remedy to to this is a more streamlined process that allows students a “a sense of ownership over the process”, reassuring that students that their “view will be heard when it comes to engagement with the SU”.
Arguably the main distinction between the two candidates during this race will be their contrasting views on the role of the academic senate. McCarthy appreciates the role the organisation plays as a deliberative body, highlighting in particular the utility of having “a place where your school convenors and your people who are actively interested in educational policy can get together and chat”. Noting that certain reforms are necessary, her vision of the optimal role of the senate is more narrow than McCay’s, stating that she envisions helping the senate develop to a point where its recommendations carry heavy weight at council.
McCay’s vision is striking in its contrast. She argues that the academic senate would function more efficiently with certain decision-making powers, suggesting that local issues may be more appropriately dealt with in such a forum. She rejected the suggestion that such measures could infringe on the work done by council, arguing that “academic senate and council could really go hand-in-hand that way”. Given their diverging views on the role of the academic senate, the issue could become one of the bones of contention between two candidates whose views frequently align in other areas.
The importance of the announcement that this year’s race is to be contested cannot be overstated. As one of the most impactful but least visible roles in the union, overseeing numerous aspects of its activities, from class representative training to educational policy, once elected, candidates can truly influence the direction of the union in a way that other officers cannot. How successful they are at using that power to achieve their vision will ultimately largely depend on their ability to handle the numerous competing demands of the office.