In an interview with The University Times, the third-year astrophysics student and TCDSU STEM convenor remarks: “Presidents can promise microwaves and student centres because that’s what the role is – education is the opposite.”
A highly technical role, the union’s education officer oversees academic affairs, from helping individual students with study-related problems to sitting on University Council, the final arbiter of scholastic decisions in Trinity. Thus, candidates would do well to have a thorough understanding of the structures underpinning both College and TCDSU. They also ought to understand that the job is significantly less public-facing than the president.
“If people have a better experience and they don’t realise that that was down to my hard work, I’m okay with that”, Cummins says, “because that’s what the role dictates”.
“Other roles are about getting the plaque on the wall, being like: I’m the person who did this.”
“When it comes to education, it’s the advocacy where you’re fighting for the people who don’t have a voice themselves, or don’t even know that they can have a say.”
Summing up her motivation for running, she says: “My whole manifesto is about making sure that students don’t fall through the cracks, that people aren’t forgotten.”
Cummins is also a current Student2Student (S2S) Head Mentor, President of the Trinity branch of Irish NGO SUAS and a Trinity Access Programme (TAP) ambassador. Within the union, she has previously served as a class rep, physics convenor and undergraduate studies committee (USC) rep.
As a candidate in one of three uncontested races in this year’s elections, Cummins believes diversity in experience within the field has been hurt by the pandemic.
“Usually we have people who come out of other avenues [than within the union],” she notes.
Cummins attributes the low participation to the lack of face-to-face College that first, second and third-year students have had.
“It can come across as intimidating, because they haven’t had as much experience in-person.”
“Let’s face it”, she adds candidly, “everyone running this year is part of a ‘star attack’, they’ve been around for a few years, half of them are on UF [Union Forum].”
The role has a history of attracting science students: In last year’s education race then-deputy STEM convenor Bev Genockey beat out STEM convenor Daniel O’Reilly in a closely contested race. Indeed, Cummins argues that STEM convenor is “the closest role you can get to being the education officer”. She believes the position requires “an attention to detail” that other roles within the union do not.
As a science student, she adds, she has “three times the contact hours of arts students”.
“That is a credit to STEM students who do get involved”, Cummins says. “The fact that they have limited time, I think, shows the passion they have [for the union].”
Cummins believes Genockey “would say herself that she wasn’t the most experienced going into the role”. But nevertheless she said this year’s education officer “has done a very good job”, in the candidate’s view.
Suggesting the union could have been “more proactive” in its fight for exam mitigation last semester measures, Cummins believes hindsight might show that “more co-operation” with groups like Students4Change was required.
Ultimately, in spite of union lobbying, the mitigation measures available to students earlier in the pandemic were not approved.
The question of exam mitigation, and Trinity’s sluggishness at returning to face-to-face teaching in September, threw up a fundamental question about TCDSU which those at the top tend to skirt around while in the thick of it: is it more productive to play nice with College power brokers and do deals at the committee table, or take more aggressive action in public?
“There is beauty in both”, Cummins says. “There’s beauty in going to meetings and talking to people about what needs to be done, but also in having students out protesting and having a student voice.”
She adds that “people in the union almost demonised” the “guns-blazing” approach of Students4Change.
On the Higher Education Authority Bill, Cummins says her priority would be to maintain student representation on College Board. Current plans for College governance would see the education officer lose their spot on Board.
“I just want to make sure students are in the room”, she says, adding that she’s less certain whether a move to make third-level funding conditional on performance is a bad idea.
While she wants to avoid a situation where the state holds a “chokehold” over College finances, she argues that Trinity has not earned the right to total independence. She suggested that there might be benefits to Trinity “actually having to prove” efforts to improve the university are working.
Returning to local bread-and-butter issues she would encounter if elected, Cummins recognised that the poor condition of many learning spaces in College is a major issue facing students.
As STEM Convenor, she says she already spends a significant portion of time “asking what’s broken and what needs to be fixed”. Reiterating to her pledge of avoiding “sexy campaign points”, she says that something as simple as making sure “students can sit comfortably in a lecture” is imperative.
Similarly, she believes that working to improve the oft-bemoaned Academic Registry (AR) would be a priority. Cummins promised to keep AR Director Jennifer Pepper “on her toes” and added that she would be “more than happy to be the thorn in her side”.
Pointing out that Trinity could take a leaf out of her own practical approach, Cummins notes: “When you have this lovely new business building being built, they’re building a new law school, Printing House Square, there’s no point having all these new students when they can’t function [due to poor administration].”
“It’s not sexy”, she says again. “No one wants to have to fight about this.”
“But if people had their results and their schedules on time, it would make life much easier.”
On the culture within council, Cummins admits that “saying it’s not an issue is not going to change anything.”
“We have to recognise that these are people,” she says, adding that policy disagreements within the union should not become personal, as they have at times this year.
Cummins also believes there is a divide between representatives who sit at the front and those who sit at the back at council meetings. “The front is very populated by people who are involved in the union,” she says, “and then at the back there are people who show up, they vote, they don’t speak.”
“Those are the people who I think we need to target the most.”
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .