I interviewed SUSU’s Union President as part of Wessex Scene’s Sabbatical Interviews.
What will be the biggest priority for the remainder of your time?
I’m going to have to be horribly broad, which is the only way to talk about a priority. I want to enhance the sense of community that the Union brings to people and make people feel as though being a member of the union, which of course everyone is. Engaging with us, really adds value to their time at University – even if people don’t necessarily realise that we are adding value, I want to make sure that we’re doing it anyway. I want there to be things that people get from just engaging with us. I’ve worked really hard on an enterprise project that helps students who want to start up businesses. I’m also working really hard on getting the University to pass a policy that mean that roles that can be zero hours, such as the library help desk, cleaning, security and so on, that will be passed through to students first.
What do you consider your most important achievement so far?
Would it be cheating to say it’s three-fold?
One is the progress that we’ve made with the enterprise project. I believe that our students are naturally enterprising, which is evident from the fact that we have more societies than any other Students’ Union. These are run by committees of students, running a society, being an editor or committee member is enterprising, you’re doing new things and making sure things are viable and continue to run. Despite this, only 3% of our students go on to start their own companies.
Groups like Enactus are great. Southampton’s Enactus have won two of the last three Enactus world championships, and came second in the one they didn’t win. They’re inventing things like chemical toilets for Africa and mooncups, and other sanitary equipments in Sub-Saharan Africa. These are amazing ideas that have the potential to become proper businesses, but are only existing as social enterprises for a few years.
I want to help students turn these things into proper companies. We’ve just got approval to start an £100,000 student start up fund – think like Dragon’s Den. We’ll be providing loans and equities to help students. Of course the money is tremendously important, but students need experience as well as capital. So we’re going to help with the facilities too. We’re going to devote part of the shop on top will become a student enterprise place, we’re going to allow student enterprises that make things to sell things to the shop, and will turn some space into blue sky space to help them and to give them cheaper advertising as well as helping them with their online presence. We’re also going to use our contact in the University’s office of development and alumni relations to build a poole of mentors made up from alumni who are started their own business. By having these three things that people are able to apply for, I hope we can really enable people to change their ideas into sustainable companies in the real world.
Secondly, I’m really proud of the work we’ve done on site. Particularly Winchester and Malaysia. Anjit (VP Student Communities) is doing an incredible job with Winchester, which I can’t take credit for! One thing I did think was bad, if we haven’t had for years any management stuff present at Winchester. We’ve created a Winchester manager to help with SUSU at Winchester to help become included and they haven’t been invested in the past this is a specific group of people with different needs to Highfield.
As well as Winchester – the University has a campus in Malaysia, there aren’t many students out there, only about 80, and they all study engineering (Mechanical and Electrical), and it’s only in it’s third year of operation. Up until this year SUSU had done nothing to engage with the Malaysian campus. The argument has been there aren’t enough of them to engage, and I don’t think that’s true, we have members out there that have no experience with the Union, and that means they have no social, pastoral or representative support. So I went out there with our Chief Executive in December. I didn’t want to take a paternalistic approach and just create a mini Highfield, I spoke to the students – and we managed to meet pretty much every student out there.
Over the next few years is key that we build a number of things in Malaysia, not physically but structurally. We’re creating what we call the University of Southampton Student Association (USSA) mostly because SUSU means breast milk in Malaysian, but also because Unions aren’t legal in Malaysia. We’re using the same branding as SUSU. Students out there are on 2 plus 2 courses – this means they spend there first two years in Malaysia, and there second two years on Highfield – we want them to realise we’re the same organisation and we’re here for them for the whole 4 years.
There’s a few British Universities with campuses out in Malaysia. Nottingham have been there the longest (14 years), Newcastle are just next to us, and Reading are opening up next to us. Newcastle and Reading, alongside four other international Univeristies share our site, which is called Educity. Nottingham have there own 101 acre campus just outside Kuala Lumpa. Educity is in the region of Jahor, just across the boarder from Singapore. We are currently in the position of creating a non-council student leader for USSA who will feed up to me. I’ll also have two vice-presidents, VP Education and Welfare, and VP Activities VP Education and Welfare will have course reps reporting to them, and VP Activities will have social reps reporting to them. As the campus gets larger we’ll be able to flatten out and expand to more positions.
There’s an accommodation block called the student village in Educity, and this has a basketball court, and a small basketball. The Educity site has an incredible state of the arts sports complex which they charge for use of. If your staying in the student village, you can play on the outside court for free, but it’s not as nice. The students play at night because it’s so hot in Malaysia. If they lose a ball, one serious worry they have is that there are snakes in the grass. As soon as I got back to Southampton I sent over about £2200, (about 11,000-12000 Malyasian Riggit) which means for the rest of the year they have now booked out these state of the art courts, and swimming pools. As well as this we’ve bought them equipment to play with. It means they don’t have to pay in dangerous conditions, and these social actives means clubs and societies can start up, and play sports properly. Newcastle, who have been there longer than us, have some clubs and societies established and they want to compete against our students, so hopefully that will enable them to help.
Thirdly, A big thing the Union’s been working on in the last few years is improving our space. I’m a member of the Universities council, which is like the Universities version of the Trustee board – it’s their governing body. They are the people that approve the capital spend. This week, the University approved an £500,000 feasibility study into looking into what we can do with the Union space to enable us to make a multimillion pound investment to repurpose building 42 into our own. The SUSU building is pretty much the same as it was as when it was first build in 1962. We’ve done great things like build the Bridge Bar and repurpose the diner from a horrible little corridor – but with that sort of money we can repurpose it into a building to suit students.
Something you’ve touched on briefly was creating more jobs on campus, this was a big point on your manifesto – how many new jobs have been created since you took office?
I can’t give you exact number. We have an incredible support staff team. That includes about 100 members of core staff, whose full time job it is to work in SUSU. Then we have 200-300 members of support staff, 95% of which are students. In the past we’ve only has facilities staff, catering staff, tech cream and bar staff. This year we’ve created web designers, a marketing team, a comms crew. We could have got another full time person in, but instead we’ve tapped into our student base. This means students who are studying nothing to do with these areas, that can do what they love and have a passion for and be paid for it.
One of your main points was free language lessons, these haven’t been put into place yet – what are you plans with this?
At the beginning of this year free language lessons for first year students. They felt this was the best place to star. Build up to something for everyone and I’m still passionate about it. University is about so much more than just what you’re learning – it’s about so many more skills and having a great time – and free language lessons is a great start. It makes students more employable and allows them to study abroad and take internships aboard, but also has a social aspect.
Another one of your main points was an early finish on a Friday – which is also yet to be enforced, have you changed your mind about this?
I still believe that timetabling really needs looking into, and it’s a much bigger project than just nips and tucks here and there. I still think it would be ideal for an early finish on a Friday. Frankly, it’s not been a key priority because I think the benefit is marginal.
Another of your policies was one online portal – and at the moment, SUSSED, eAssignments, Blackboard are still all separate, have you changed your mind again?
The University has created a board called “Southampton learning environment” to look into creating that single learning portal, and I’m the chair of that board. It’s progress is going really well – feasibly we can’t stick it all in there at once and then we’ve got to figure out the really important things to go for and for the funding – which is what we’ll be doing this semester.
You’ve talked a lot about repurposing the Union building. A big concern amongst students, especially during exam time is the lack of space on campus to study, especially for those who aren’t neccesirily suited to working in the Library. Your manifesto also promised a new media hub for the journalistic outlets at the Universities and more storage space, and charging points around campus. What are your plans for these in the short-term?
All of these are in the plans for extending the Union building.
I believe all Students’ Union building should be able to be used for students for social learning. During exams period we block book all SUSU meeting rooms to be used by students but we haven’t had a tremendous take up on that.
On the media hub, we really need to repurpose these. It’s not just a lack of space for Wessex Scene and the Edge, but SUSUtv are in an old laundry room and Surge is just a couple of cupboards – and they all do really great stuff, and win awards. We can actually enhance them by getting a new media space, and improve the intramural feel of media – but this will be part of the repurposing of building 42, we’ll be able to say more once this has been investigated, but I want to include state of the art facilities for our student groups.
We definitely need to deal with the storage space situation, only by repurposing this building we’re going to be able to deal with this issue. We also need to look at new spaces to do these things – it’s going to be a big project. People shouldn’t be keeping thousands of pounds of equipment in their bedroom because there’s nowhere to leave it on campus – and we’re looking into short term wins on that.
The first charging points have arrived! There aren’t many, only 10 at the moment that are in the Cafe. In order to prove to the University that they are good, we bought the first round. They’ll be free for students to use, they can lock there things up and go to the gym or other activities on campus, and come and get them.
Your manifesto stated you wanted to lobby the University to adopt a US style system whereby some extracurricular activities are credit bearing. How are you going about this?
This is something that I passionately believe, but one of the reasons I haven’t pursed this as much much as I want to as it can be seen as in the remit of the Vice President Education, which is the position I was in when I was writing my manifesto. I was keen not to step on Sophia’s (VP Education) toes too much. It was important to me that Sophia felt in charge of this area, and she’s done an incredible job. We’ve got the higher Education review coming, the QAA, (which is like the University Ofsted) coming up which has taken up a huge amount of her time, but she’s still doing other projects. It has been important for me to let Sophia deal with the Education stuff, and she very much believes in student empowerment in the curriculum and is a strong advocate of curriculum innovation module, so no I haven’t pushed for it.
While we’re talking about lobbying the University – have you been successful in asking the University to increase bursaries to students?
Bursaries and general financial assistance are something we as SUSU have done a tremendous amount of work on. Beckie (VP Welfare) has been freeing up the hardship fund, so if a student is struggling it much easier for them to get help.
The Disabled Student Allowance has been cut hugely by the state, but Beckie’s done some great work here too. I’ve been working on post grad bursaries, and as of next year the University will be offering more to both PGT and PGR students, and I’m really proud the University will be offering more and larger sums to post grad students.
Last year, the the SUSU Block Grant was £2.5 million which is £109 per student. You wanted to raise it to £120, has it been increased this year?
I would love to get the grant increased, unfortunately the University is not doing as well financially as it potentially would like to be doing. Across the university there has been cuts, and one thing I am proud of if the University has understood that cutting the block grant would be a mistake. There’s not been an increase per student, but we’re currently looking into a booster sum, I would say is we’ve done well.
Any final thoughts?
The union is a tremendous body. We’re not just a company, we are here to enable our members and lobby the university and make the time students have at University better. Anyone that wants to be Union President must understand that SUSU isn’t always going to get credit it maybe deserves for doing some incredible things, frankly. Often people don’t realise what we’re doing, we stop things from being stopped, and stop cuts from being made, which is difficult for students to understand. Everyday, I am incredibly proud to say I am Union President of SUSU. In that student body we have 23,000 students, tens of thousands engaging in our clubs and societies and engaging in committees. I just hope by the time I’m finished we’re offering more, and I’m not fussed about getting credit for it, at the end of the day it’s the members matter.