While polling for the students’ union elections this year, a number of older looking students I approached waved me away. “Sorry, I’m actually a postgrad”, was their excuse for not accepting my clipboard. I responded with a smile and explained that postgraduates are actually allowed to vote in the elections. They looked surprised and sheepishly filled out the poll.
This lack of awareness is understandable. Postgraduates are often in Trinity for very different reasons to undergraduates and run in separate circles. Speaking to The University Times, Ryan Alberto Ó Giobúin, a PhD candidate, explains that “PhD students will have their own social networks already founded” and that, more often than not, “they might be outside the university”. With students’ union’s events, committees and other activities a key meeting ground for students, there is often less of a desire for postgraduate students to become involved.
“The university isn’t as important. You don’t engage with it as much”, says Ó Giobúin. Masters students, only in the college for a year, may not see the point in giving up countless hours of their life to the union especially considering that they may graduate before they can enjoy the fruits of their labour.
Another important facet in Trinity is the fact that the College possesses a Graduate Students’ Union (GSU). While most universities in the country simply have a postgraduate officer, this specific union dedicated to facing down postgraduate problems means that these students have little reason to interact with Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) especially with its focus on undergraduate issues.
Two unions in one college may seem like overkill, but speaking to The University Times, President of the GSU Oisin Vince Coulter explains that “the students’ union does claim and in certain respects act as the union for all students, particularly on a national level”.
Having such a presence on the national scale is important and worthwhile but for Vince Coulter, only having one union would neglect the special interests of postgraduate population: “Our perspective as a GSU is that graduate students have very particular issues, quite different to undergraduate issues and it’s better to have a specific body that’s able to push on those issues.” He sees the two unions as carrying out different functions locally but coming together on a national stage to fight for common goals among undergraduates and postgraduates. “We act as one body on a national level and two bodies internally”, he says. He sees this national presence as a primary reason as to why postgraduates deserve to retain their voting rights.
For Vince Coulter, only having one union would neglect the special interests of postgraduate population
It isn’t just the fact that the union doesn’t tend to deal with postgraduate issues specifically that discourages postgraduates from becoming involved. Much like many undergraduate students, they see the union as a clique which is hard to get involved in. In an email statement to The University Times, Connor Hogg, a law postgraduate, says that, generally, “the internal dramas and elitist attitude that pervades student politics is exceedingly off-putting”. This reluctance can be exacerbated by the age gap. Postgraduates may not be interested in debating with an undergraduate at council in listening to candidates during union elections, who are likely ot have different priorities by virtue of their young age.
For other postgraduates, the main problem is the fundamental structures of the students’ union itself. “If you had to choose to be a member”, says Ó Giobúin, “then you might feel like you are opting in and you’re part of something that is important”. Postgraduates are left in a situation where they are paying for an organisation that does not represent their interests and embarks on nationwide campaigns that they may not be on board with. Afterall, postgraduates are often a lot less idealistic than their undergraduate colleagues. A good example of this is the fact that Ó Giobúin can see the point of the union cafe but is baffled by the referendum held on Irish unity: “[It was] an unnecessary way to alienate members of the community.”
Whether postgraduates are happy to stay on the outskirts of this particular aspect of student life or whether they are just generally uninformed – a fault that can only lie at the feet of the union itself – remains to be seen. However, what is clear, is that the failure to engage postgraduate students can prove costly. In the past, it has made them easy targets when the College coffers have dried up. While TCDSU and the GSU did join forces to reverse the decision to increase postgraduate fees and introduce fee certainty, it was a worrying time for these students.
This shows what can be achieved when postgraduates and undergraduates work together. Furthermore the union is meant to represent all students on a national scale as part of the Union of Students in Ireland (USI). With the GSU at their side, they have a large part to play in protecting postgraduates from fee hikes.
So what could the students’ union do to boost engagement? Speaking to The University Times, Antrip Bhattacharjee, who is currently studying for a masters in law, suggests that the interest is there amongst postgraduates: “I think the apathy has been generated because at the start of the first semester there was a lot of enthusiasm for doing something, being part of something, joining a club or doing something on behalf of the student union.” He believes a more abrasive attempt at engaging is what is needed. “Eventually that enthusiasm waned because everything just took too long, it took too much time”, he says. Hogg, on the other hand, is less enthusiastic: “Since arriving here last August I cannot say I’ve benefited from being part of the SU. Its activities and mandate don’t align with the things I have needed or wanted.”
“Since arriving here last August I cannot say I’ve benefited from being part of the SU. Its activities and mandate don’t align with the things I have needed or wanted.”
Postgraduates are an odd subset of Trinity. Some are only passing through for a year. Others, such as PhD candidates, to use Vince Coulter’s phrasing, are living in a “a halfway house between staff and students”. This puts them in an awkward situation. They may feel too mature for the pettiness of student politics. They may not think it’s not worth their time if they are only in the college for a year. Or they may feel it simply does not represent their interests and is a worthless endeavour.
It is clear their lack of interest makes them weaker in the face of growing fees. Take Back Trinity and the fee guarantee for postgraduates was an example of what can be achieved when postgraduates work together with the union. But for all of the reasons given, it seems unlikely that the postgraduate bloc will swing the result of this year’s election, or any SU election for that matter. In fact, most postgraduates will probably be blissfully unaware a election has even taken place.