Tuesday night was the final instalment of the 2019 Surrey Decides Question Time. Five hours of quizzing the candidates hoping for a position within the Voice Zone, VP Voice, Union Chair and, of course, President.
The Voice Zone by Sophie Pike
Eleanor Chickens chaired this debate, and after the usual introductions, dived straight in with some manifesto questions.
Aya Asali stated that she wants to improve feedback, help improve employability skills and communication across different areas of the university. She described that systems, like the ones she was looking at for graduate jobs, are already in place and therefore she aims to increase the number of people who knew about them.
Joel Weller main focus is to increase inclusivity, and improve SurreyLearn features. Expanding on his points, he would improve the number of people who knew about services offered in the library (e.g. SPLASH) by increasing their visibility on services like SurreyLearn. He also talked about reducing the number of BAME students dropping out by increasing representation across Stag Media.
George Buskell is looking to increase the amount of campaigns and movements while increasing activist events at the SU. When asked why it was important to look beyond our university, Buskell answered that after leaving the NUS, we lost out on a lot of national campaigns. In light of that, he aims to bring some of these campaigns back to the university.
Charlotte Webb highlighted that a key part of her campaign is affordable living; specifically, food from Simply Fresh and Circuit laundry. She stated that there should be a transaction page on the Circuit app to prevent theft of money from their accounts. She also plans to organise alternatives to Simply Fresh or to petition them for lower prices due to the large amounts that they charge for food.
Russell Sherrard-Smith has targeted his campaign to the issues of international students, aiming to work with the university on improving the diversity of liberation reps. He wants to give more power to the liberation reps, and plans on increasing the inclusivity of reps by putting them in executive positions. This, he argued, will allow them to facilitate change rather than just act as a consultation body.
David Dobrotvorskij also focuses his manifesto on SurreyLearn, by suggesting the union should add a page for course reps to upload what they have achieved, and their overall feedback from them. A key part of David’s manifesto is transparency and to clarify his point, he stated that all MEQs should be shown in a page on SurreyLearn and ensured that all the data would remain anonymous to prevent any negative responses towards specific students. He also explained that this would help hold staff accountable for areas of improvement.
Diana Ogonyo wants to work on the overall experience of students at Surrey. This takes the form of improving the WiFi accessibility, accountability of the executive staff at the university and improving the bus service to Hazel Farm. In Ogonvo’s manifesto, she has a lot of similar points that have been raised by students before. When asked about what was new about her approach, she stated that she feels better quality work needs to be done to fix these issues and she will support that.
Ola Babayeju states that he wants to improve student imagination and creativity, moving us up the rankings and allocating more responsibility to course reps and department societies. As a voice committee candidate, Babayeju was asked if he would always support the student vote, even if it doesn’t have the best outcome for students. He said that it was the student’s will, and therefore he would stand behind it.
VP Voice by Sophie Pike
In the second stage of the final Question Time, the four candidates for VP Voice got to debate. They got to discuss points in their own manifestos as well as questions raised to the group as a whole. The debate was chaired by Anna Ouston and the candidates are: Ethan Smith, Ak Gurung, Ajay Ajimobi and Michael Slavin.
To start, Ak Gurung talked about how she wants to improve the percentage of students who feel they can affect decisions of the Union. She spoke about allocating a postgraduate officer to the executive board and when asked why this would be necessary, she explained that it would improve representation for postgraduates, as a research-focused university needs them; thus postgrads deserve representation within the SU too. To follow this up, she was questioned as to why postgraduate representation was more important than representation for other schools on campus, such as GSA. She agreed that all schools need representation, but wants to start with postgrads before moving across to GSA and helping turn their Student Union into an official Union, rather than the society that it currently is. Later on she was questioned as to why the Union should care about non-students - answering confidently, she stated that students don’t live in isolation, and it is important to look out for staff as well. This became a source of debate as Ajimobi asked whether taking that stance was valid for the Union as it could be seen as political. After a bit of back and forth with Slavin also jumping in to discuss what exactly constitutes political, Gurung responded by saying that the Union has a responsibility to worker’s rights, and that the workers in other areas of the university impact all of us.
Ajay Ajimobi focused her initial introduction on ensuring equal representation and enabling campaigns across campus. Already a member of the voice zone, many of her campaign points this year are the same ones she ran with for the committee role. She defended herself by stating that she was working on different points already within the SU, however the Surrey Decides campaign has taken precedence. She stated that she wants to increase the number of workshops for employability and the availability of these workshops, as previously there has not been a good turnout. Ajimobi was later asked how she plans to close the attainment gap, as she states that in her manifesto. She plans to work on this, and the quality of education, through improved feedback times. In order to reduce the attainment gap, she is planning on continuing the current president’s proposal to improve the grades of ethnic minorities, an issue she feels is very important both personally and in regards to the university.
Michael Slavin spoke about his manifesto point on moving the course rep elections, so they are run by the Union. This begged the question, what incentive will the university have to care about course reps when they don’t run them? Slavin responded by identifying that the current system isn’t standardised due to each school running their own election differently. He plans for the university to still chair the meetings and hopes that this will be enough of an incentive for the university to keep listening to the reps. Similarly, he also discussed the idea of moving liberation rep elections online and giving the executive positions a part in Surrey Decides. The chair questioned how Slavin intended on managing it so that only people within the specific groups can vote in the election - the solution Slavin provided being a pre-registration system, in which he would rely on the honesty of the students to complete. He clarifies that this will not be based on what students answered when they first applied to university, as that information may have changed while at Surrey.
Ethan Smith spoke about his personal journey getting to university in his introduction. He reflected on his struggle with autism and through a difficult childhood has inspired him to run the campaign in order to empower people from disadvantaged backgrounds and facilitate student protests. The chair asked him what made his campaign unique, as many of the points were vague and simply outlined the responsibilities of a VP. He responded that in order to ensure his views are heard, he wants to increase the number of meetings between the executives on the Union and the university. He will also email university staff and continually campaign until his points are heard. Later in the debate, he discussed course reps, despite them not being on his manifesto. He stated that 63% of students had not given feedback to their course reps and wants to increase the power and support available to reps.
Taking a question from the current VP Voice, Olly Shearman, the candidates were told that as VP they may have to support students whose views do not align with their own; in light of that, could they argue to increase the Vice Chancellor’s pay? Gurung immediately refused to answer the question by stating that the scenario was unrealistic as students would never support the Vice Chancellor receiving more money when satisfaction is so low. She was asked again by the chair if she would like to answer the question properly, to which she pushed that she had already done so. Slavin agreed that students would never back an increase in pay, but reluctantly answered that the only time he would support it as a way to incentivise someone new into the position. Ajimobi chose to directly answer the question by similarly suggesting that she would increase the pay in order for it to act as an incentive for the Vice Chancellor to work harder at improving the university. Smith said that he would look into tax cuts for increasing his pay and he could therefore donate more money into the university to improve current services.
Union Chair by Charlotte West
Michael Taricone chaired the debate for Union Chair where there are four candidates: Akshaya Mohan, Edeline D’Souza, James Steel and Theo Donnelly. As always, the candidates were asked to introduce themselves, Taricone opening with the joke: “As union chair what can you bring to the table?”
The debate consisted of two rounds of manifesto specific questions for each candidate, and questions from the floor.
Akshaya Mohan was questioned about Olivia Mitchell, the current Union Chair, not hesitating to compliment her work from this past year. In particular, she identified her confidence in going round the byelaws when necessary as an admirable quality. Although, as many of the candidates running this year have mentioned, Mohan highlighted the need to improve communication between the Union and the students, so there’s an awareness of what’s happening within the Union.
The chair then turned to Theo Donnelly questioning his desire to redesign the Union’s website. Donnelly argued that the 55% of students that were satisfied with the website, as outlined in the recent Pulse report, was still a low number, and if a complete transformation was financially unfeasible, then he has ideas for what alternations could be made to improve the current one.
Edeline D’Souza was asked about any original ideas she wants to bring to the role, to which she responded: progress tracking. The issue of communication between the Union and the student body was raised once again, but D’Souza gave a practical solution. She suggested there should be bullet-pointed list, potentially on the website, of how the FTOs and PTOs are making progress with their manifesto.
James Steel was asked whether his proposal to introduce standardised hand signals would make Exec less accessible for students. He clarified that the hand signals would be recapped at the start of Exec, with the intention of streamlining the meetings and increase the participation of those that may be shyer. Donnelly chipped in to ask what Steel’s solution was for those, such as himself, who would be unable to do those hand signals. Steel struggled to reach a solution in the moment, but remained enthusiastic about the idea and his determination to find one.
Later on in the debate Mitchell asked a question on accountability, and how the candidates would deal with an officer who wasn’t pulling their weight. All the candidates took an empathetic approach, stating that they would start with a conversation, before moving onto disciplinary action if required.
After the debate, in The Front Room’s pundit's corner, Mitchell commented on the candidates. She identified that while they were all strong, they have quite idealistic manifestos, and may be surprised at their inability to complete them all, as Union Chair is a part-time role.
President by Charlotte West
This was a presidential debate like no other: three strong candidates fighting it out for that top spot in the union. Njabby Mendlula, Gemma Paine and Nick Werren all challenging one another, as well as working together in the twist of the night: a negotiation with members of the council and university management.
The initial debate was chaired by Joel Russell, and after the usual introductions, he dived straight into direct manifesto questions.
Gemma Paine was first asked about holding senior leadership accountable in improving student satisfaction. She stated that from reading the remuneration for 2018, she wants to see the scoreboards that they keep referring to and wanting to understand how student satisfaction dropping is justification for receiving a 7% bonus. She wants to talk to the whole senior management, not just Max Lu, but Jane Powell and other staff too. When asked how she will influence this when she’s not on the remuneration board, Paine identified other boards that the president does sit upon and which she can have influence over, such as the Council.
Nick Werren was similarly asked about senior managements executive pay and was asked how he would tackle that. He spoke about going through the accounts of the university and conducting a social audit, something that is necessary especially considering the responsibility the university has over students who mostly consist of young people. Russell then asked how Werren would convince the Vice Chancellor to take a pay cut, to which Werren referenced the occupation of Senate House last year during the lecture strikes. To keep things lighthearted and accessible, he described them as sitting outside Lu's office while eating bourbons, but the outcome of that was the living wage being provided to 114 staff members. He used this anecdote to showcase how collective organisation is what the university is most afraid of. Paine debated Werren’s point on the occupation directly influencing the wage increase, referencing the Race Equality Charter, which happened at the same time as the occupation and also pushed for the implementation of the living wage. Werren responded by admitting that we do have to consider all the possible routes.
The chair then drew Njabby Mendlula into the discussion by stating that the university did not achieve the Race Equality Charter Mark, and thus what can the university do to promote racial equality. He suggested speaking directly to those communities about their opinion on the quality of integration, and doing more to create events directly for their culture to feel more at home. He raised the issue of not feeling welcome or like they actually belong and asking students who decided to leave the university why.
Each candidate was then questioned about the liberation committee. Werren questioned on his proposal of giving them executive power, he asserted that they are inevitably going to have less voters due to them being a minority group. He pushed that we need to treat them more like a political entity than someone to consult. Similarly, Mendlula wants to publicise the liberation committee elections more, as the lack of voters is often due to students’ lack of awareness. Paine was asked to comment, as she did not put the committee on her manifesto, however she identified that they do lack structure and aims – something that she would like to implement.
The chair took a floor question from the current SU president, Alex Harden, who asked what the Augar Review would mean for Surrey and how the SU will prepare for the outcomes. Werren clarified that Joseph Augar was asked by the government to complete a review of the structure of universities in the UK. Paine added that they are unsure what the outcome of the Review is going to be although she is interested in seeing what happens with maintenance, with a possibility for grants to return. She also considered how the university will cope if the decision is made for tuition fees to be lowered, but wants to ensure that they don’t start using international students as a top up for that. Similarly, Werren also hoped that there would be an increase in maintenance for students, as many are struggling.
As Mendlula was not aware of the review, Russell asked him another manifesto question focusing on his proposal to contact the Southern Unions Network to change the London weighting. Mendlula expanded upon his plans, explaining how he wants to reach out to the Southern Unions Network to see what’s in place and what he can build on from there.
After another round of manifesto specific questions, in which many Brexit-related jokes arose at Werren’s point on having a student referendum for Union facilities, Russell then took another question from the floor. A student asked the candidates how they would help trans and non-binary students in the university. Werren emphasised that the university should take a stand on these things; they should not just be ‘not racist’, but anti-racist and anti-transphobic. He wants the university to be proud of these communities. Paine went for the more practical approach, identifying current issues with IT so that if you change your name on one system, it is not carried across them all. She also argued for more compulsory training for front-facing staff on these specific issues. Mendlula took a discursive response, saying that he was willing to learn about theses issues, if people within those communities were willing to share.
The debate took a break and in pundit's corner Alan Sutherland (CEO of the Students’ Union), he defined each candidate as Mendlula being the enthusiast of the three, Paine as the pragmatist and Werren as the activist. These qualities especially came out during the twist of the night: a live negotiation with Paul Spooner, leader of Guildford Borough Council, James Newby, Director of Business Improvement at the university, and Lucy Evans, Director of Operation for the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. They discussed the issue of the Guildford Housing Crisis with the aim of the meeting to actually reach an agreement.
The discussion gradually built, getting more heated, with the candidates no longer seeming to compete against one another, but working together to push forward against Spooner, Newby and Evans. Although Mendlula was the quietest candidate of the three, he asked key questions, pushing forward the discussion. Paine went for a respectful-yet-pushy approach, taking on board what the management were saying, but trying to build upon it in order to persuade the three. Werren went for a more passionate approach, proposing his ideas with assertions that it would be ‘amazing’ to be able to do this.
The solutions after the negotiation proposed by each student were as follows. Mendlula stated that we need to clarify how many houses are needed for students and the expansion rate of the university. Werren mentioned the cooperative housing group, and hoped to look for alternative solutions. While Paine wanted to introduce students with children into the priority group.
They returned to the debate. Russell asserted that the candidates had been agreeing too much, and so got them to ask one another a manifesto question. To end, Russel asked them to list their dream sabbatical officers for each zone.