This year, the race for Education Officer is a contested one, with Naomhán Mhaonaigh facing off against Tia Cullen.

Mhaonaigh is a final-year sociology and social justice student. Aged 22 and from Dublin, they say that they chose to study sociology and social justice as they “like knowing what is going on in the world and what can be done to change it”. Mhaonaigh says that while they have always had an interest in student politics, “I didn’t think I would ever run”. However, they cite their experience as a class rep, which allowed them to see student issues from both sides, as well as experience gained from their involvement in the Share Island Youth Forum and work as a policy intern in a charity, as making them qualified for the Education role.

Mhaonaigh’s manifesto stresses three closely related points: access, equity, and inclusion. It promises, amongst other things, to fight for an affordable canteen with wide-ranging nutritious meals, introduce anti-racism and inclusion training in person for all students twice a year, and add pronouns to class lists on Brightspace. The latter suggestion, Mhaonaigh explained, “is a small thing but it could make a difference for people”.

Under the terms of the UCDSU Constitution, the Education Officer is obliged to work, together with the Campaigns and Engagement Officer, on two education-related campaigns during the year. On this, Mhaonaigh says they aim to get more modules and educational events educating students on the Sustainable Development Goals, as well as events on careers relating to the Sustainable Development Goals.

When asked why they are running for education and not a different sabbatical position, Mhaonaigh states that they don’t think they could bring anything to the other sabbat roles. “With education, I kind of have a good feel for what is going on”, citing education-related modules they completed within their course as “eye-opening” showing them that “we know this is not the way we should be doing” education.

On this point, Mhaonaigh explained that their exchange in America exposed them to an educational model wherein more credit is given for attending, engaging in class, and doing readings than is the case here. This model “brought a better learning experience because people knew what they were talking about”. When asked how this model would work given the demands from students, particularly those with long commutes, for a hybrid approach to teaching, Mhaonaigh admitted that it would pose issues.

They added that “hybrid learning takes a lot of effort really from the professors and kind of takes away from the teaching”. Although, they acknowledged that “recorded lectures are great, because they do give access to people with lots of different needs for them”, they pointed out the need for greater uniformity when it comes to the policies in different schools.

Sticking with the topic of education and technology, I asked Mhaonaigh about their stance on ChatGPT and the move back to closed-book exams it has led to. Mhaonaigh’s view is that most schools do not see why there was a return to closed-book exams. Non-closed book exams, they add, also had benefits from an access to education perspective.

Naomhán Mhaonaigh - UCDSU Education Officer Candidate, Photo by Hugh Dooley
Naomhán Mhaonaigh – UCDSU Education Officer Candidate, Photo by Hugh Dooley

When pressed on the need to return to closed book exams in order to protect the integrity of examinations, Mhaonaigh admitted that “it is a difficult one”, but it “needs to be monitored by the University as well as the SU”. They state that they would advocate for more student choice when it comes to examination and a move away from 100% assessments and would oppose a move back to closed-book exams as the default mode of examination.

Mhaonaigh’s manifesto contains multiple points on access barriers to education. When asked about this, Mhaonaigh tells of a sociology module which highlighted to home the much higher drop-out rates from underprivileged areas of Dublin. They cite the costs of staying on campus all day for such students as one such access to education, tying into his proposal for an affordable canteen for students.

“I think if we had good quality, like a broad selection and affordable food, that would make it slightly easier. It wouldn’t change everything, but it would be slightly better. Because I know, even though our shop is subsidised, people don’t really feel the benefit of it when they’re paying for stuff”. This, Mhaonaigh added, is not a criticism of the SU, “that’s a criticism of the university”, a claim sure to raise eyebrows given the fact that the SU shops on campus are hardly significantly better value than the commercially ran outlets.

On their canteen plan, Mhaonaigh explains that “if I could make the canteen happen the university would be paying for and subsidising it, not the union”. Mhaonaigh continued, “Other universities have affordable canteens. It’s not like it’s reinventing the wheel. It can be done”.

When asked about how they think they would cope with having to support and stand up for students in difficult situations, Mhaonaigh stated “I’m there for the student”. They cited their engagement with issues affecting students, their experience working with people from a variety of backgrounds through the Shared Island Youth Forum, and their experience studying social justice as characteristics that make them suited to the role of Education Officer.

On the topic of Israel and Palestine, Mhaonaigh is unequivocal. “I would continue calling on the University to cut ties with Israeli universities and to take a stand really, because the reaction has been disappointing from the university itself. But I think their student unions approach has been good”.

When asked about the academics who oppose the call to cut ties with Israeli universities on the basis of the need for dialogue, Mhaonaigh states “I think it’s gone beyond that at this point”. When asked whether they would support extending the call to cut ties with Israeli universities to the universities of other countries engaged in human rights abuses, Mhaonaigh stated that that’s not something they have given enough thought to.

Asked whether they believe the SU should be political, Mhaonaigh is, once again, unequivocal. “It is political, every union is political”. When asked whether the SU’s long-standing engagement issues undermine the Union’s mandate, Mhaonaigh is decidedly equivocal. “I don’t know if it undermines it, but it’s not a great figure”.

Given the impending departure of Simon Harris from the position of Minister for Further and Higher Education, I asked Mhaonaigh what would be their first change if they were to take up the position. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the response was “I would abolish the fees for undergrad and maybe have postgrad fees at what it is to do undergraduate now”. They also added that they think that universities should hire more students to do jobs around universities.

Mhaonaigh acknowledged that their rival had “more experience within the SU, but that they have experience, just not within the SU”. On their opponent’s manifesto, Mhaonaigh admitted: “that her four main points are very similar. I think she just has fees, whereas I couldn’t fit it in, but I do agree with fighting to lower fees”. Ultimately, I asked Mhaonaigh what would be his approach to the role of SU officer if elected. “I would hope, if elected, to go out to people during the week so that they don’t always feel like they have to come up to me with issues, because I think that becomes very impersonal”.

Mark O’Rourke – Features Editor