The Graduate Students’ Union (GSU) elections this year have been so far a muted affair. Vice-President Gisèle Scanlon is running uncontested in the presidential race and, in an election taking place entirely online, she’ll likely be elected with little hassle.
The quietness of the elections, however, does not mirror the tumultuous year that the GSU has had. Scanlon was at the heart of a turbulent term for the body, having controversially questioned her president, Shaz Oye – who she ran on a ticket with last year – in the middle of a town hall meeting. Oye quickly hit back, laying bare the dysfunctional relationship between the GSU’s two elected officials.
Scanlon, however, is not keen to dwell on her very public disagreements with the Oye, telling The University Times in an interview: “I can only speak for myself. Let me be respectful in that manner.”
While Scanlon’s agenda is certainly a collaborative one, on the subject of her relationship with Oye she verges into generalisations on her working relationships across campus, rather than a specific reflection on her fallout with Oye: “I’ve developed a really good relationship with everyone across campus. When you’re trying to make change, it’s easier when you have that help.”
She’s happier when discussing research, a sector facing an existential crisis due to the pandemic. On the establishment of a Department of Higher Education and Research, argued for by leading Irish academics and advocated by Fianna Fáil in its election manifesto, she says: “I want a stronger focus on higher education and research, and research support, ideally with its own minister or junior minister. The main thing is the focus rather than the minister.”
The depth of policy knowledge Scanlon shows is impressive. But the feasibility of many of her pledges is simply unknowable given the lack of perspective on the country’s economic fortunes
Scanlon certainly can’t be faulted for a lack of ambition when it comes to research. Advocating for more “frontier” research and “research for research’s sake”, she pledges to use her role to ensure the arts and humanities discipline are properly funded, and she also speaks more widely of the challenges academics face from private enterprise in getting research funding.
“Academia is in this sort of unspoken battle with industry, and it is an ‘us’ and a ‘them’. I want a stronger focus on higher education and research and research support.”
It’s not all research, though – Scanlon’s manifesto is heavy on commitments. Her “I CARE” (Innovation, Community, Accessibility, Research and Enterprise) mantra dominates her approach to the role. While the manifesto itself – which is notably lengthy – sometimes sways into the abstract and intangible, the depth of policy knowledge Scanlon shows is impressive. But the feasibility of many of her key pledges is simply unknowable given the lack of a clear perspective on the country’s long-term economic fortunes.
While her slogan spells out her promises, it also wraps up her key message: Scanlon says she wants to lead a caring union. It’s a theme she stuck to as vice-president, and it’s a clever way of combining sentiment with specifics. Whether it’ll enable her to deliver in bitingly tough conditions, though, is another question.
On the prospects for postgraduates entering the workforce in the economic aftermath of the pandemic, Scanlon says: “I suppose we have to look at alternatives that are satisfying and offer a satisfactory solution to somebody who has spent four or five, sometimes six, years of their life on a single piece of research. Not everyone is going to get an academic job.”
“It could be good to have any other opportunities that might broaden someone’s horizons flagged, in terms of other career paths”, she adds. “I’ll be interested in doing that – there’s an appetite to do that with careers. There’s an appetite to do that with the research office. I think that’s a role that a president with the correct postgraduates and postgraduate team could effect change in that space.”
A day after the interview, Scanlon sends an email, unprompted, that goes into detail on the restructuring of College Board, and on other topics from the interview
While Scanlon’s ambition – and her awareness of the need of reform for postgraduate students – is commendable, it’s less clear if she’ll be able to reconcile that zest for reform with a university sector in deep financial deficit and an exchequer that is unwilling to meaningfully intervene in the sector.
Asked what she would do if there was any attempt to change the plans for postgraduate students in Trinity’s new strategic plan – in which postgraduates and research play a central part – she says: “What I want to do is sit down with a group of great postgraduate thinkers and come up with our asks: that certain things not be cut, where they are referenced correctly, where it’s a professional piece of work and it’s not just an off-the-top-of-my-head thought.”
Her frankness here could be seen as welcome, showing an appreciation of how policy is formed, especially in times of such uncertainty. But this move could also be seen as simply kicking the can down the road without reaching a definitive stance to bring to College.
And dealing with College is a crucial part of the role for any elected student. In the interview, Scanlon seems confused by a question about a proposed restructuring of College Board – which could see a radical size reduction for Trinity’s foremost decision-making body. “I think it’s extremely important that the voices that are there remain there, don’t you agree? Each officer brings a certain – I mean, the roles of officers are extremely taxing. The president of the SU is a hero, the hours she puts in.”
“Each of her officers has obviously their own schedule, and their own roles and you need backup as a student voice in that situation, but what’s your question exactly?”
A day after the interview, Scanlon sends an email, unprompted, that goes into detail on the restructuring, and on several other topics from the interview. She writes that she does not “believe that the actual structure of the Board should change”, and adds: “Fundamentally those making decisions on the governance Board must come from the College.”
While Scanlon will represent students on Board, her vice-president – either Abhisweta Bhattacharjee or Joseph Keegan – will sit on University Council, Trinity’s academic body. Asked how she’ll work with whoever is elected – a pertinent question, given her issues with Oye next year – Scanlon is frank: the roles, she says, are “very separate and different”.
But while this might be the case on paper, she’ll surely need to work more closely with next year’s vice-president than she did with Oye this year. A united GSU is crucial in the face of the challenges surely coming down the tracks.
Academia is in this sort of unspoken battle with industry, and it is an ‘us’ and a ‘them’. I want a stronger focus on higher education and research
Speaking about the relationship between the two roles, Scanlon says: “One of these candidates I’ll be partnering with next year, and you’re summing up how their vote is going to go. The stronger the vote obviously the stronger our hand and the stronger the vice-president’s vote, the stronger the vice-president’s hand.”
“There are lots of students to represent and both sabbatical officers this year – we led out in different ways, but we still led out on our own items we wanted from the manifesto to work on.”
Bhattarcharjee and Keegan, the two candidates for vice-president, gave a lengthy and fairly lacklustre performance at the GSU hustings, with the technical difficulties that plagued the event offering as much intrigue as the candidates’ speeches.
While Scanlon’s race may not present her with any real challenges, if elected she will be leading a union that will be responsible for protecting postgraduate students in the midst of a global pandemic with an uncharted economic landscape ahead.
Her real test will be reconciling a great deal of political rhetoric, and a relatively comprehensive policy platform, with representing postgraduate students in a university sector facing into a loss of income of potentially €500 million and a government unwilling to prioritise higher education and research.