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Surrey Decides: Question Time Night Three Roundup By Maisie Holcombe and Isobel Kavanagh

PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE PART ONE

The third and final night of Question Time brought together the candidates for the Union’s Presidential election. Called to the stage by chair Lester Buxton were Ajay Ajimobi, Akshant Nagar, Ana Catarina Marques Monteiro and Izzy Watkins, who joined virtually.

Akshant was first to introduce himself, telling of the international work experience that drove him to run for the role of president. Ajay believes she can offer a new perspective, hoping to become the first female person of colour to take on the role. Ana emphasised her manifesto’s points on inclusivity and wellbeing, and Izzy, the determination and enthusiasm that has seen her through previous union roles and challenges.

The candidates were asked about their manifestos in relation to the pandemic, and whether the impact of lockdown and restrictions had shaped their policies. All four candidates had at least one policy that linked to the impact of the pandemic, with Akshant’s hopes to increase employability, Ajay’s fight for students’ rights concerning hybrid learning, Ana’s hope for international students’ inclusion and Izzy’s promise to heighten the social experience.

Lester then asked the candidates to choose a standout policy from their manifesto. Izzy began by explaining her idea of a students’ union hub on Manor Park, followed by Ana, who summarised her idea for masterclasses across a breadth of courses. Ajay wants graduation ticket fees scrapped, and Akshant hopes for an alumni platform to help boost networking and job opportunities.

When Ajay was challenged on length and detail in her manifesto, she argued that being ‘brief, snappy and straight to the point’ helped set out her policies clearly for students to read and understand. She emphasised her determination and ability to resonate with the students, having been both a student and a sabbatical officer.

Akshant believes that his ideas are not just a reflection of his personal desires for change, but ‘what students, as a whole, want to achieve’. To build his manifesto, Akshant consulted multiple students in the Hive, in his classes, and in societies, seeking out which gaps needed to be filled.

Lester asked Ana about her past experience, to which she listed volunteer positions, previous employment and management roles. She believes her experience of coming from abroad has enabled her to see university life through a new perspective. When asked about what a leader looks like for her, she mentioned good listening and the ability to deal with different personalities.

Izzy’s manifesto covers multiple zones, although she ensured the audience that she would work closely with her colleagues on collaborative projects, and insists that the president ought to place equal efforts into each zone. On the subject of conflict, Izzy said she would ask for specific managerial training.

Ajay explained her policy on hybrid learning in more depth. She is hoping that discussion can be had surrounding students’ rights to equal consistent teaching and learning opportunities.

Akshant’s financial aid policy aims to unite alumni and current students on his proposed new platform. Ana’s different initiatives all point to her wish for more inclusivity and awareness, including ‘Tea Time Rooms’ where students can chat and study, but also discuss current affairs and world issues. Izzy agrees with the new structure for the liberation network, reasoning that having a sole representative of different communities (LGBTQ+, Asian community etc.) is not effective.

When Lester asked what makes each of the candidates unique, Akshant and Ana both mentioned their fresh perspectives of coming from abroad. Ajay referred to having the dual perspective of student and sabbatical officer, and Izzy believes her creativity would bring innovative ideas to the role.

The candidates were then asked to choose which VP they would give a hypothetical £1000. Izzy said each VP would have the chance to put forward a proposal for how they would use the money before she chose. Ana said Activity, for after COVID, the zone needs more funding. Ajay said Support for wellbeing should be the priority following the challenges of the pandemic. Akshant also chose Support.

The first part of the Presidential debate concluded with a surprise appearance from Alan Sutherland, Chief Executive of the Students’ Union.

PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE PART TWO

The second part of the presidential debate was chaired by Bethany Dawson, with guests Lucy Evans and Prof. Osama Khan available with questions for candidates Izzy Watkins, Ajay Ajimobi, Akshant Nagar and Ana Monteiro.

Candidates had two minutes to present their findings of an analysis of Surrey graduate data in terms of course and gender.

Ana noted how in economics and biosciences, male graduates earn more so there is an evident gender bias that can be tackled with employability skills. Lucy questioned what these employability skills could entail; Ana believes more research is needed into graduates but that each department knows the skills needed best.

Izzy reported how non-binary students are not included in the data and women are notably paid less in STEM subjects; she proposes to have focus groups with female students. Prof. Khan asked Izzy if this is a national problem in universities not just Surrey to which she responded that too many members of staff both at Surrey and nationally are uneducated on the subject of being non-binary.

Akshant said he would focus on courses where graduates earn less than £25,000 and work with alumnis to find the issues in these earnings. Lucy questioned why only courses below £25,000; Akshant said that starting with these courses better promotes the course to prospective students. Prof. Osama Khan noted how a platform for alumni students already exists, but it is ineffective at reaching everyone so Akshant explained how he would use Surrey Connects because Unitu is too formal.

Ajay aims to tackle the pay gap with university events to empower women and plans to work alongside the other zones to improve the gap. Prof. Osama Khan asked her whether she had investigated the gender pay gap among staff at Surrey; she responded that lecturers are an inspiration to students so improving that gap will inspire students to do the same. When questioned on whether this is a national issue, Ajay remarked how one university will create a knock-on effect on others.

The debate then moved to final manifesto questions. Izzy’s manifesto lacks mention of support and voice to which Izzy said she was a course rep and has been involved in many societies, so she has a keen interest in those areas. Akshant’s free COVID vaccination policy was questioned as it is not in his control, however, he stood firm to this goal. It was raised that Ajay’s unconscious bias training is the same as last year’s VP Voice; she said it differs from her old manifesto because she now has the ability to make it compulsory for all staff. Finally, Ana was asked what leadership skills she has to which she outlined her role in volunteering as course rep.

All candidates were then asked how they intend to improve the university’s ranking. Akshant wants to improve employability and make the fee structure consistent for international students. Ajay hopes to better the quality of education and create a structured plan in response to the NSS. Ana would compare with other higher-ranking years and Izzy intends to hold focus groups and values student Unitu feedback.

Overall, all candidates showed determination during the tough debate, which bodes well for their tough role as Union President.

UNION CHAIR DEBATE

The Union Chair debate was chaired by Solomon Melides, who introduced the three candidates: Adesuwa Obasohan, Tom Marsh and Renee Hizon.

All three candidates introduced themselves and spoke of their hopes to hold officers accountable and support the students.

Solomon then called for a timer to play while the candidates scribbled down which motions have been raised this year. Renee remembered a motion about society and sports standings, Tom remembered the introduction of reforming Exec as a body, which was declined. Adesuwa mentioned a motion about charity, from which it was decided that support be given to one local charity in Guildford every year.

The candidates were challenged on which motions were passed and failed and why. On the topic of reforming Exec, Adesuwa believes that the lack of participation comes down to a lack of visibility and accessibility. To make changes to Exec, she would set up a social media platform with up-to-date information about Exec.

Tom’s ideas to resolve issues with Exec is to improve outreach. He said that students are not aware of how to utilise it, or even what it is, so a monthly outreach email would help with accessibility.

Renee wants to launch a one-month campaign to help fix Exec’s visibility by speaking to students, however Solomon noted that these conversations would need to go to an AMM, which is coming up very soon. Renee, however, said that it is not a decision that should be rushed, so if it were a decision that was over into next year’s union conversations, it would be wiser to do so than hurry a reform now.

On the subject of Anonymous motions, Tom emphasised the idea in his manifesto of having the union chair take up the role of defending a motion coming through to the union from a student.

When challenged about ‘effortless access to the union’, Renee said that it was less about ease of access to the website and more about spreading awareness about what the union is and does. Social media would be a means of increasing this awareness, as well as a freshers’ union pack.

Adesuwa wants to ‘go on tour’. This she describes as an active approach to getting student feedback.

Solomon’s final challenge was on byelaws. The candidates explain their interpretation of the byelaw, all stating that they are a set of rules setting out what an officer can and cannot do.

One byelaw concerned the liberation reps changing to a liberation network, which Adesuwa believes was a positive interpretation. Renee and Tom were also in favour.

Renee defended the byelaws. She said that just because one was changed, it shouldn’t mean that the others are disregarded. However, times are changing, she said, and that might mean further tweaks and reinterpretations. Tom insists that students should have faith in the byelaws, in the ideas behind them, even if it means breaking the exact system that the byelaw proposes - in this case, that an election should have been held and was not. Adesuwa agrees that students should still respect the rules set out in the byelaws, even if a responsible union sees fit to reinterpret them or make valid changes.

Finally, the candidates were asked about notable skills in the presidential candidates. Tom noticed the importance of a commitment to the cause. Adesuwa thought that the being approachable was highly valuable, and Renee wants to see strong leadership and somebody who can bring all the zones together.

VP VOICE

The debate then moved to VP Voice, chaired by Sam James with candidates: Sophie Babeau, Megan Simmons and Chloe Thomas.

The candidates were first asked why they want to run for VP Voice. Chloe responded that she has transferable skills from many areas such as healthcare; Megan wants to represent students ignored by the Union. Sophie reflected on her enjoyment of being course rep and wants to implement changes in inclusivity.

When questioned on whether this year at university has been good value for money, the candidates unanimously said it was not. Megan believes hybrid learning is inconsistent to which Chloe agreed that more organisation is needed if we are to continue hybrid next Semester. Sophie thinks the lack of value for money is due to lecturers not taking students’ feedback seriously during online learning.

The debate then moved towards individual manifesto questions.

Sophie was pushed on the feasibility of academic staff having enough time for her proposed 1:1 sessions to which she argued there was time; staff already have consultation hours and she believes oral feedback in these sessions would be much more effective. When asked on how welfare and support comes into VP Voice, Chloe remarked how she hopes to implement collaboration workshops with the other zones at the start of the semester. Megan was asked to elaborate on her proposed review of hybrid learning and she feels that accredited courses do not want online exams.

All manifestos mention a desire to change academic feedback so each candidate was asked to expand on what they would change. Chloe wants the same feedback method for all courses because it has not changed the whole time she has been at university. Megan hopes to utilise the VP Voice Instagram to report back feedback to students and Sophie believes a standardised feedback sheet throughout university would be the best call.

Candidates were then asked whether SurreyFess is a legitimate feedback platform to which all candidates said it is not.

Moving back to individual manifesto questions, Sophie was asked how she would increase awareness of hidden disability; she would do so through campaigns and educational videos. Chloe wants to retain online exams from a sustainability POV and argued that there is always room for misconduct even during in-person exams. Megan highlighted how her ‘Empowered Surrey’ aims for more understanding and events for the liberation network.

All candidates were then asked on how they would involve students in decision-making in the Union. Chloe and Sophie both responded with better education on Unitu, however, Megan would prefer to have a better social media engagement.

Finally, candidates were asked who they were going to vote for as Union President; Megan said she would vote for Izzy, although Sophie was torn between Ajay and Izzy. Chloe wanted to watch the rest of the presidential debate before deciding.

Overall, all candidates showed a strong performance and argued their manifesto points well.

Voting is now open and will close on Saturday 15th May.

If you would like to read the candidates manifestos, you can find them on the Union website: ussu.co.uk

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