By Áine Kenny
The last Students’ Union Council of 2018 took place in the Kirwan Theatre on Monday 27 November.
The council was well attended, boasting a three quarters full lecture hall.
Sabrina Vaughan, SU Council Chairperson, chaired the event.
The meeting began with a three-minute survey involving post it notes. Attendees were asked to write down one good thing about NUI Galway, and one thing they would like to change. SU executives then went around collecting the data.
Most officer reports were “taken as read” by their respective authors, anyone who hasn’t looked at them yet, you can read them here.
Victoria Chihumura, Ethnic Minorities Officer, passed around a letter to be signed by all council attendees. The letter will be sent to all local TDs, and it condemned the proposed closure of the Direct Provision centre at the Eglinton Hotel in Salthill. The hotel was sold to property developers who are planning on turning it into apartments. The letter also mentioned the overall “abuse of human rights” within the Direct Provision system, saying residents have “little personal freedoms”.
In the letter, TDs are urged to oppose Direct Provision more generally and provide more specific details about the Salthill closure. Some NUI Galway students are currently residing in this centre and it is worried that their studies will be affected, as residents have not been told if and/or when they will be forced to move out of the Galway area.
The first guest speaker at the council was Andrew Forde, Vice President of Postgraduate Affairs for the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) and former NUIG SU Education Officer. He detailed the USI’s advocacy plans for the following year: tackling the housing crisis and publicly funded education. “The USI also supports local Students’ Unions too,” he stated.
Forde also spoke about how the USI had successfully lobbied the government into bringing in legislation on rent caps for purpose-built student accommodation.
The second guest speaker was Aidan Harte of the University of Sanctuary Campaign. His campaign aims to make NUI Galway a welcoming campus for people living in Direct Provision and people from a travelling background.
“It was brought to my attention that two racist incidents happened on campus this week,” Harte said. “It is all fine and well trying to create a welcoming atmosphere, but we need all students to be involved in this process.”
When questioned about the nature of the incidents, Harte said that it was a verbal racist remark directed at someone due to their ethnicity.
“We are aiming to be a University of Sanctuary by 2020, to coincide with Galway being the European Capital of Culture.”
Anyone wishing to get involved in this campaign can email email@example.com.
Items for information at the council included an update on the Financial Aid Fund fiasco. An email has been sent to all students affected, and the amounts promised will be allocated. There is to be a meeting about reviewing the application process on Wednesday 28 November.
Sustainability was also a hot topic at the council. SU President Megan Reilly hopes to have a sustainability working group convened next semester. Class reps from environment and sustainability related courses expressed their concern at not being included in the meetings and processes so far. Reilly said she would ask the committee about getting further student representation for the working group.
Other students complained about the presence of single use plastics on campus, particularly at Smokey’s, saying that the Puro compostable cups have been replaced with the non-compostable branded SU cups, and that the biodegradable cutlery was only available behind the counter. Reilly said she would speak to the Director of Student Commercial Services in relation to this.
Rían McKeagney, Convenor of the College of Arts, Social Sciences and Celtic Studies, suggested a deposit and return scheme. “There have a lot of these schemes in Germany,” he explained. “You pay an additional cost to buy a can or plastic bottle, but if you bring it back you get this money returned to you, therefore encouraging people to bring their own mugs.”
Another item for discussion was issues with getting assignment feedback. Students across multiple disciplines expressed frustration with the lack of detailed feedback, many of whom simply received a percentage grade with no tips on how to improve. Other students in Biomedical Engineering received no feedback whatsoever on contingent experiments. This led to serious concerns they were losing out on a lot of marks, as they had to understand pervious experiments in order to complete the next one.
Eibhlín Seoighthe, SU Education Officer, implored the students to please contact her and she will chase up the respective faculties. “I can’t do anything unless I am aware there is a problem, so please email me on firstname.lastname@example.org,” she said.
At 7pm the final guest speaker, Deputy President and Registrar of NUI Galway Prof Pól Ó Dochartaigh, arrived. He started working in NUI Galway in 2014 and has said he wants to see “less emphasis on buildings, and more emphasis on improving teaching and learning.”
“During the 2000’s, NUI Galway developed a highly centralised structure, but we have seen a move away from this to a more devolved form of governance. This means the faculties have more power, and this is a good thing,” he said.
Prof Ó Dochartaigh also said that the college are in the process of appointing a new Dean of Students, to replace the retired Pat Morgan who was Vice President for the Student Experience.
He highlighted the importance of the Irish Survey of Student Engagement, and said he was in charge of making sure the Deans were taking the results on board.
He also mentioned that the college wanted to get more international taught postgraduate students.
Cameron Keighron, NUIG SU Postgraduate Taught Officer, latched onto this comment. He said that the University were not doing enough to support the postgraduate taught students they already have, with the SU picking up the slack. “The new Dean for Students will be responsible for all students,” answer Prof Ó Dochartaigh. “I don’t want to see any students fall through the cracks.”
Alex Coughlan, Gender and LGBT+ Rights Officer also questioned the Deputy President about the poor handling of the Financial Aid Fund. “We received no official information for well over a month, the University still have not admitted any wrongdoing, and this shows a complete lack of awareness about the stress and strain we were put under,” they said.
Prof Ó Dochartaigh said that he could only apologise profusely on the behalf of the University, and that they would ensure it wouldn’t happen again.
Rían McKeagney, Arts Convener, brought up bringing in a module carry over system to avoid students repeating one module for an entire year. This means that students would be able to carry the failed 5 ECTs or 10 ECTs over to the next year of study, rather than repeating. Prof Ó Dochartaigh said he welcomed the idea and had already convened a working group.
“We need to make sure we get it right – some modules, for example in languages, are building blocks for others. If you are failing German 1 there’s not point in doing German 2,” he said. “Also, for professional accreditation purposes, like for medicine, some modules won’t be able to be carried over.”
Sean Guinan, Class Rep for Final Year Anatomy, raised the issue of low marks. It was recently reported that NUI Galway has the highest number of pass rates, but the lowest number of 2.1 and 1.1 degrees. The Deputy President said that there had been a historical “tightness of marks” in NUI Galway, particularly among Arts, with most students receiving little over 70. He said he would like to see this change and he also wanted to assure people the college doesn’t have a normal distribution or bell curve for marks.
Scott Green, Convener of the College of Science, asked the Registrar what he meant by his “less emphasis on buildings” comment. He mentioned the “scathing” article about the current library building published in SIN, and questioned whether less buildings was a good idea.
Prof Ó Dochartaigh said that there were two main buildings that the college wanted to tackle. “The library is the President’s top priority. In the second half of his presidential term, we are hoping a new library will be built.”
Clare Austick, Welfare and Equality Officer, questioned the Deputy President on the lack of seating and relaxation areas on campus. “That is a theme that has been well-voiced, and not enough consideration was given to it with the new Human Biology building,” he said. “In early 2017, we submitted a request for funding from the HEA. This was for two main areas, the Arts Concourse and the library too.”
Prof Ó Dochartaigh then went on to cite lack of government funding as the reason for the slow progress and “lack of reserve funds” the university has, and urged the students to vote for politicians who support funding education.
The NUI Galway Deputy President then left the Kirwan Theatre after a brief round of applause.
After he left, a student commented that because there is an evident lack of government funding, was it the University’s fault for not funding a new library?
SU President Megan Reilly responded that despite the lack of government funding, the University still has a duty of care towards its students. She also mentioned the Save Our Spark campaign, which is an initiative seeking to get more funds for higher education. To sign the petition you can click here.