SIN speaks with the three candidates running for the position of Students’ Union President ahead of the upcoming elections.
By Mark Lynch
Alex Coughlan is running for the position of Students’ Union President on a campaign based on access to education and listening to the students of NUI Galway. The current Disability Officer spent two years as a class rep and one year as Gender and LGBT Rights Officer before taking up their current position on the Executive Committee. This experience, Alex says, allows them an insight into how improvements can be made to the Union. “From my experience over the past couple of years, I’ve seen what we can do, but I’ve also seen what we can improve and that’s where I want to look forward, to look into what we can do and to use the platform to try and better the experience for all students, and to make improvements where we can”.
Student consultation is a vital part of improving the Union’s representation of all students, says Alex. “I’m prepared to ask them what they want. One of the key things that I really want to do is to actually conduct a full review of the Union – what we do, how we do it, and whether or not it’s working”. This review, they add, would be wide-ranging, from the day to day running, to the election process, to the SU Constitution, and could take the form of focus groups, surveys, and anonymous feedback from the entire student body.
Housing, fees, and the general cost of education are the key issues that Alex feels are affecting students in 2020. However, they prefer to encompass these issues under the umbrella term of access to education. In keeping with the USI’s (Union of Students in Ireland) campaign, Alex highlights the fact that barriers to education can be physical and financial, and they are keen to break those barriers. “For example, if a building is inaccessible, that eliminates a good number of the population from being able to even access that in the first place. If the fees are too high for someone to attend from a low socio-economic background, then they don’t get to attend college, or they have to take on 2 or 3 jobs to pay for it, which obviously has a knock-on effect on your studies. I’ve worked 2 jobs my entire time as a student. So, it’s looking at access and all the ways that access comes up and various ways it presents”. Alex points to the way buildings are designed, the software that comes with the campus PC suites, and the expansion of support services, especially for those with disabilities, as examples of how to improve access to education.
In terms of how to go about these improvements, Alex feels having a written student-staff partnership focused on certain goals would be one way of ensuring the University has to “put their money where their mouth is”. This would look to bring in the practical changes mentioned above, as well as ensuring functionality on campus. “On a very basic level, people want basic services and infrastructure to work. That is something that desperately needs to be done and funding needs to be looked at for that. So, it’s obviously fighting for those things on a very practical level, more microwaves, more water coolers, more working lecture seats”.
Alex claims they are willing to negotiate on student issues with the University, but stresses the importance of taking industrial action when needs be. Given the example of the recent rent increase on student accommodations by Atalia Student Residences, Alex insists there are ways students can be heard, “Depending on the outcomes with the meeting with the Board, they may decide to reverse the decision, given the amount of bad press that they’ve gotten out of it. There are options, there’s protesting key meetings of Údarás (na hOllscoile) or UMT (University Management Team). There’s the option of strikes if it comes down to it, walkouts, like, there are options. It’s a case of looking at what the outcome of the next while is and whether or not that decision will be reversed”.
One of the most common criticisms of the Students’ Union is its ability to represent and engage with all students. Alex hopes to address this with open discussion. “If a group of students is coming to the Union and saying, ‘we feel that we’re not represented’, then that’s something that, as a body, we absolutely have to take on board and we have to ask why. It’s something that I hope the review I want to carry out would address, because it would give people a forum (for criticism)”. They continue, “It’s something that has come up this semester even with the referendum, that there were groups of students that felt marginalised by that push. As a student from a queer and disability background, the creation of those positions felt like being invited in and it’s a case of, if people don’t feel represented, then we need to look at how we can invite more students to the table”.
One of the reasons cited by the outgoing SU President, Clare Austick, for the Students’ Union referendum this semester was the inefficiency of having such a large Executive Committee. Alex feels the Exec is still workable with 19 officers. “It is something that is feasible and it’s about, again, sitting down and asking people how they feel is best to organise and finding what’s best for the most people. Scheduling is going to be something that comes up, but that comes up every year, whether you have 16 or 18 people, realistically. Especially when you have part-time officers, because realistically, in office hours, they’re in class, particularly when you have a lot of arts and science students. A lot of times, the time between lunch time and evening is just taken up by class, so it’s looking at what day works for people and then narrowing it down to a time within that frame and seeing who’s available when, but it’s something that’s absolutely doable. It just takes a bit of organising and a willingness to try new things at the start of the year”.
Alex has this final message for voters on the fence. “I believe in a rights-based Union. I believe in a Union that values its members’ voices as much as it values the voice of the President. Ultimately, I see what I’m doing as to facilitate, and to lead, yes, but also facilitate the work of others, to facilitate the work of VPs, part-time officers and to give people the space to run the kind of things they want. I’m pushing for a Union that is active and politically active on campus and that values input from everyone, all of our members, no matter what their experience is with the Union previously. That’s what I want to see, and that’s the kind of structure that I lead towards. I would hope that that is something people identify with and certainly I would ask for a No.1 vote”.
By Mark Lynch
Denis Mortell is a Final Year Arts student whose desire to run for Students’ Union President is long-running. Having been a class rep from the start of his first year, he was initially enthusiastic about being involved in the Student’s Union, before losing interest as he progressed through college and saw how the SU was run. “From the first day, I wanted to be President. I lost that a bit in second year, but now I’ve spent the last 3 months planning out all the things that I want to do. I was talking to people, some of my friends, who were interested (in the Students’ Union) in first year, who couldn’t even name the President or the Vice-President, and I think when it gets to that, it’s not good, because it’s the Students’ Union. It should go to every corner of the University; it shouldn’t just be a group of friends or just a clique. I find that it’s a clique these days more so than a union of students”.
Engaging with students is key for improving the Students’ Union, says Dennis. “One thing that I want to integrate is having open hours from the Convenors for students. Let’s say the Convenor of Engineering sits at the SU desk for an hour, 4-5, 3-4, whatever time they’re free, and any student from the engineering college can go up to them and talk to them. For me to find the Convenor of Arts, I wouldn’t even know their name and I’m a final year Arts student. (That would) bring the connection from student to Convenor to the Council in 3 steps”. Denis also wants to bring regular charity events to campus, to bring students together for worthy causes, with the students deciding which charities the funds would be raised for.
Denis feels that his work ethic and his belief should make up for his apparent lack of experience on the Students’ Union Executive Committee. “I’m a workhorse. And I’ve no problem speaking to people, I’ve no problem being the one voice for everyone else. 20,000 people is the same as 20 people. It’s just, if you’re the voice for that group of people, you’re the voice for that group of people, regardless of the number of students”. He added, “It’s not a thing of experience. I think at the end of the day, you can have more experience, but if I truly believe in myself more, I can definitely get a better job done. If someone believes that it’s just experience that makes them good at their job, then that’s the wrong way of thinking. If I believe and if I act on all my things, if I canvass the strongest, that should be the real decider. If I prove to all the students on campus that I’m the one who really feels most strongly, most positively about the Students’ Union, then I should be the one to go forward. Just experience isn’t enough”. He also points out that he still acts as an unofficial class rep for his economics class.
De-stigmatising mental health is also of massive importance to Dennis’ campaign. “It’s still something that’s being pushed under a table, everyone says ‘yeah, let’s bring a change, let’s bring a change’, but the University aren’t tackling it well enough. I’m lucky enough to never have had to avail of the counselling services. But, if I did, if things went not great for me in the next couple of months, I wouldn’t even know where to start looking on campus to find counselling services or anything, because I feel like they’re hidden away”. He feels that marking the counselling services with a large green X would take away from the taboo of walking in to try and improve your mental health. “We all go to the student doctor, we all take care of our physical health on an open basis and mental health is just taking care of ourselves still. Why should that be concealed? Why should that be hidden away? Why should that be quiet? It should be vocal, you should be able to say ‘oh look, there’s the counselling services’. It should be completely destigmatised and keeping it hidden away is something that riles me up too much”.
Another issue of utmost importance to students today is the price of student accommodation, which Denis feels the Students’ Union isn’t doing enough to combat. “Back when I was in first year, we had the Cúirt shakedown. Why isn’t something like that happening again? We made national news with the Cúirt shakedown. We need to vocalise when we’re being put down or stepped on. If we stand up to it in an organised fashion, the university will be scared almost to push us down again. We need to light the fire underneath the heads of the University and make sure that they don’t screw us over again. That goes across the board with private housing as well”. Denis also wants to see workshops brought in where student tenants in private housing can learn more about their rights, while he feels that he’s the right person to negotiate with the University on difficult issues. “I’ve no problem going there, and I know they’ll all be against me if I’m coming in with something like housing. They want to widen their pockets, but I’m ok to go in. I’m strong-hearted. I’ll go in and I’ll talk to them for hours and hours and hours until we come to an agreement that benefits the students, not this 10 or 12 people at the top”.
Denis is keen to maintain a strong on-campus presence should he be elected, which, he says, may come at the price of certain involvements with the USI at a national level. “If it’s something that benefits us and helps the people on our campus, then yes, 100%, but if it’s something where we’re going up to protest against something and it’s almost just a protest to protest, I’d feel like we should take a step back and focus on ourselves. That’d be a day where I’d be on campus. That’d be a day where the VPs would be on campus and that might make a difference. I want to be the President who’s on campus. I want to walk down the concourse and have people know me. So, I’m not saying to ignore the USI, but I think we should focus more so on ourselves than the USI”.
Denis has a number of other initiatives he would like to bring to campus, which are outlined in his manifesto. These include backwards vending machine, which would reward students with SU card points for recycling glass on campus, a one-day campus festival involving only students, and re-styling NUI Galway merchandise. He would also like to add more defibrillators outside on campus, bring back the shuttle bus from Corrib Village to Lidl and make sanitary products for women much more available on campus.
As a final message for voters on the fence, Dennis says: “You should vote for me because I bet you’ll have seen me on campus. That’s it. I’ll be shouting and roaring and making sure everyone sees me on campus”.
By Mark Lynch
Despite a promise Padraic Toomey made to himself in secondary school, to never get into student politics, the current Clubs’ Captain finds himself in the running for Students’ Union President after seeing, this year, how the SU can accomplish goals and help students. “(In the SU) You actually feel listened to, you have say and that’s why I got into the Students’ Union and got to love it again”.
Representing over 20,000 students is nothing of a deterrent for Padraic, as he points to his compassion and outgoing nature. “I love talking to people. I love listening to other people’s experiences. I think I can represent a large number of students just from the sole fact that I want to hear how people are doing, what they want in life and what they want from the Students’ Union. So, I think, I’m a good representative for the Union, and especially as President, because I can actually represent them and talk to them, because I want to hear what they want”.
Padraic is adamant that equality and removing the barriers to education are key to his would-be term of presidency. This includes financial barriers, such as the cost of accommodation. “I think students are being priced out of education and the University is trying to become more of a business than a public body. If you were to think of a primary school and there was a money-making way there, it wouldn’t be right in your head. Universities’ sole purpose should be for education and betterment of students and betterment of society. But that’s not seen a lot, especially when university-owned property is pricing students out of the place”. He continues with praise for the USI’s national campaign, Break the Barriers. “I love the Break the Barriers campaign, I think we really need to push for it, because there are barriers to education. The repeat fee could even be seen as a barrier to education. Everyone should have an equal opportunity for everything. I want to make sure students are always taken care of and always remembered”.
One of Padraic’s tasks this year as Clubs’ Captain is the organising of Clubs’ Ball, which, combined with his experience organising trips and events for sports teams, gives him event management skills that make his goal of a one-day campus festival realistic, according to him. “I want more events on campus. I want just a better atmosphere on campus, where we feel valued”.
Padraic also says that making things as easy as possible is an important step for any change, and simple things like giving out keepcups and labelling bins clearly and thoroughly can make a big difference, while as many classrooms as possible should be kept open for study in the run up to exams. These all make up basic issues, according to Padraic. “I feel like every university in the country talks about more microwaves and more water coolers on campus, but even water coolers come back to the environment. If people find it easier to buy a bottle of water, they’ll buy a bottle instead of refilling one. You need to make it as easy as possible. And microwaves – it should be a basic thing that you can heat up your food and enjoy your food. Even seating, the lack of seating, in my head, these are all basics – seating, food, water. It shouldn’t be easier to buy a bottle of Coke than refill your water bottle, which it is here on campus”.
On the point of student engagement, Padraic wants to take active initiative, including giving students the chance to meet the Executive Committee once a month for a coffee and a chat. He also spoke of the importance of including students of the College of Hotel Management in Shannon, and regular visits to that campus.
Physical and academic accessibility are also essential to Padraic’s campaign. He says he was a big fan of the University of Sanctuary initiative, which allows more people to access education. He also says, in terms of physical access, the University should have a system in place for students to flag broken doors, lecture seats, etc. to the buildings office, similar to the way that ISS works for technological issues.
Padraic then outlined how he would go about representing the students on important matters that need to be taken care of, using the example of the rent increase in Corrib Village and Goldcrest. “You need to show that students really care. Really, this isn’t affecting us. Right now, this is affecting future first years and future years on that, because it’ll just keep going and it’s the new people who get screwed the most. While it doesn’t look like it affects the rest, it does, because the private sector goes up as the public sector goes up. I feel like I get passionate about it because I really want it just to stop and I know the only way to do it is just if you make your voice very loud and show that you won’t stop unless it’s stopped. You’ll want the students raising their voice and protesting it. It’d be crazy if we didn’t protest it”.
As the Clubs’ Captain, Padraic has had experience of the inner workings of the SU, without becoming too attached. “I think I have the best of both worlds because I was on the outside and then this year, I got into the inside, I learned everything I needed to know, like best ways to talk to someone in the University and how to deal with people in the University. I think it’s a good advantage to have an outside view, but by being in the Union, you have a support network, but also find it easier to find out information on how to talk to University staff, let’s say, because it is an art in itself to even know what’s the best way to contact certain people”.
Having been captain of the swimming club before his current role, Padraic says he knows what it’s like to participate in and organise large groups. “I really enjoyed it and I learned that I love working with people and what’s the best way to work with people, how to make sure everything’s running smoothly and ensure people actually feel like they’re enjoying it too, and that nobody’s doing too much work because they’re sharing the workload”.
As a final message to voters on the fence, Padraic says: “At the core of it, I want students to be valued and I want the University to stick with what it says when it talks about respect and openness, and for students to feel respected even for the basics. For microwaves, for water fountains, for seating, they feel that they are taken care of and valued and respected because, at the moment, not all the time you do. They just keep adding students and don’t increase the funding and how we’re actually taken care of, so I really want students to feel valued”.