Anna Marshall, former Durham Students’ Union Opportunities Officer, reflects on her year as a sabbatical officer. Marshall’s manifesto focused on three main areas: reacting to the climate emergency, bolstering communities and reforming Durham SU’s democracy. In an interview with Palatinate, the former Opportunities Officer talks about her successes and regrets in her role. She discusses the future of sustainability at Durham University, Palatinate’s funding, the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, the Democracy Review and the RON campaign.
Marshall was elected to her position as Opportunities Officer during a tumultuous year for Durham University. In February 2020, during the annual Students’ Union sabbatical officer and trustee elections, a campaign to Re-Open Nominations (RON) for each position up for election was launched, citing problems with Durham SU’s internal democracy and financial transparency. A month later, a nation-wide lockdown was declared.
RON won 58% of first preference votes. The SU subsequently decided to disqualify RON for campaign rules violations, and all these votes were subsequently deleted, including second and third preferences.
Marshall, the sole candidate for Opportunities Officer after RON was disqualified, won 1709 votes. Marshall admitted she didn’t think she would last the year in the role. “It seemed quite an impossible task. For the first two months of this job. I wouldn’t have been able to stay in this role if the hostility continued.
“I just thought I had to get us through the summer and get us through the coronavirus pandemic. And then I thought I would resign.
“I did feel very uncomfortable with the way that I’d been elected”, Marshall admitted. However, she decided to stay in the role because “the virus didn’t end, things kept getting more and more intense, student groups kept getting more and more threatened. So the role felt more important than just the sort of silly campaign that I’d been elected upon.”
Reacting to the climate emergency
Getting the University to react to the climate emergency has been one of Marshall’s main successes as Opportunities Officer.
“The green agenda has entered the University landscape in a way this year that it’s never been before. I think my biggest achievement is bringing up the climate emergency with Stuart Corbridge every time every month, or every time I got to meet him. And ultimately, if everything goes to plan, and the current budgets stay as they are, will lead to a huge increase in the budgeting for the University towards sustainability, and sort of the green future, which is massive.”
“I’ve heard from the director of estates and management, I’ve heard from the outgoing Vice-Chancellor, and they’ve all said, basically, money doesn’t matter. We need to be prioritising the climate emergency.”
The University has not yet declared a ‘climate emergency’, but Marshall hopes one will be declared in the new academic year, and she is optimistic that Durham will “go far beyond what the bare minimum is”.
Talking about some of the work the University has done towards the green agenda, the Opportunities Officer explained that she has been “working to take away any plastic from college catering, working to look at the food miles of where we’re going, looking at the building plans of the actual buildings that are being put up and working to make sure that we’re meeting the quotas and we’re transitioning away from gas.”
Marshall has also pushed for there to be a compulsory open module for first years to take, which looks at being global citizens, encompassing decolonisation, sustainable development, and racial awareness. There are also plans for Durham to run its first climate change-focused Master’s degree.
However, the effects of this work won’t be felt for years to come, according to Marshall. “I think everything that I’ve done this year, because of COVID, it’s going to take a couple of years for the full effects to be realised, by which time I’ll be long gone.”
Establishing more effective communication with student group executive committees was a key campaign pledge of Marshall’s. She regrets that she hasn’t worked as closely with student groups this year as she would have liked. She has spent most of the year in emergency planning meetings or working on the Democracy Review.
Due to Covid-19, student groups haven’t been functioning in the same way as they would in normal years. So, Marshall explained, their functioning has been “the bottom of everyone’s priority.”
Durham Students’ Union lost a quarter of a million pounds this year. Marshall explained that this meant the SU “had redundancies that had to be made because of our reduced budget, that meant we had to cut some of our student grants.”
“So across the board, every society in one way or another, lost something. And luckily, most societies haven’t noticed that, or at least felt the impact of that, because we’ve been operating online. So there hasn’t been the same need for a lot of the funding that we previously would offer.”
However, Marshall still believes the SU’s relationship with student groups has improved this year. “There’s been an increased relationship purely because I fought quite hard to try and make sure that we still have resources and student groups can do as much as possible, whilst also sometimes making difficult decisions.”
However, some student groups have had their resources cut this year. In September 2020, Durham SU informed Palatinate that there is “no budget for a print edition” for Michaelmas term, and that Epiphany and Easter terms could not be confirmed.
An open letter was subsequently launched by Palatinate calling on Durham SU to restore funding for the print edition, which was signed by over 500 journalists and current and former Durham students.
Despite this, Marshall stands by the decision to cut Palatinate’s funding. “In terms of would I’ve made a different decision? I don’t think I would”.
“I regret not communicating clearly enough with my predecessor. I wish that I’d known that I was coming into that budget.” Marshall acknowledged that “there wasn’t clear enough communication with the editors of Palatinate”.
Nevertheless, she noted that she doesn’t think Palatinate’s Editors should get to decide whether its print edition is funded. “They should be consulted”, Marshall suggested.
“Students love referendums, it seems to me at the moment”. She thinks there could be a referendum held by Durham Students’ Union in future to decide on Palatinate’s print funding.
As a former Palatinate editor, Marshall remembers distributing copies of Palatinate around Durham, and posting copies back home to her parents. Marshall acknowledged that other students, particularly elder members of the Durham community, “really enjoy the free newspaper and reading it from front to back.”
But the former Opportunities Officer doesn’t see a place for printed material in the future. She explained that Durham SU is “talking about doing a paper-free Freshers’ Fair”.
“I’d like students to think more carefully about what they’re getting from the things that they print.”
Freedom of speech
Despite the controversy surrounding the SU’s free speech policy, which requires all student groups to confirm their “controversial or higher risk” external speakers with the SU prior to the event and gives Durham SU the right to cancel or postpone an event involving an external speaker if risks cannot be mitigated successfully, Marshall does not think Durham SU’s policy needs to be changed. “We’re acting legally”, she insisted. Universities Minister, Michelle Donelan, instructed the Office for Students (OfS) to contact Durham University, asking the watchdog to contact Vice-Chancellor Stuart Corbridge to express her concern about the policy.
Marshall is not a fan of the government’s new Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, which states that membership of students’ unions should not be denied to any student society on the basis of “its policy or objectives or the ideas, beliefs or views of any of its members”. It also allows staff, students and visiting speakers who have “suffered adverse consequences” to sue the university or the students’ union if either has failed to comply with its duties to defend free speech set out in the legislation.
The Bill would also give the Office for Students the power to fine students’ unions for failing to comply with its duties to safeguard free speech.
“The government is a shambles and has no idea what it’s doing when it comes to free speech. And […] it’s just scoring points in a culture war, which students don’t want”, Marshall said.
“The criticism that we’re having is completely unnecessary. But it makes old men happy, right? Old Tories love the idea of their rights being prohibited, especially in the light of Black Lives Matter. White people just love to find reasons why they’ve not got privilege.”
The Opportunities officer has spent much of her year as a sabbatical officer working on a £7,000 ‘Democracy Review’ with consultancy firm, MiraGold. The Review was commissioned following the issues raised by the RON campaign in order to “inform the co-creation by students and the Students’ Union of new democratic structures, and the removal of old ones that aren’t fit for purpose” and to rebuild “trust and partnership with the student body”.
The Review found that over 80% of respondents were more aligned with their college than the SU. Despite this, Assembly, the SU’s representative body for Durham students, will see the numbers of college representatives decrease from 35% to 22% of its total membership as a result of new changes put forward by Anna Marshall.
Each college will still send a representative to Assembly, but the body itself will be larger, with the introduction of 18 new academic representatives.
Marshall admitted that college representation on Assembly has decreased, “but only if you assume that faculty members of assembly and academic reps on assembly and actually everyone else at Assembly isn’t a member of a college.”
Marshall explained that Durham SU is looking into “setting up another chamber [..] which sits alongside assembly [..] and having that hotline to the colleges to actually deal with issues like college bar staff not being paid properly, accommodation fees being suddenly hiked”.
It was originally planned that the changes resulting from the Democracy Review, which recommended a “direct democracy model”, would be voted on in a campus-wide referendum in Easter term, where students would be asked to accept or reject a new model of democracy. However, these plans were scrapped by Durham SU.
When asked why this decision was made, Marshall said a referendum “wasn’t necessary”. The Democracy Review convinced her that there is simply no appetite for colossal change in the student body. “There was no clear huge change that was needed.”
Marshall said the Democracy Review showed her that students “still wanted a democratic chamber, they still wanted a Students’ Union as a broad, overarching body. They still wanted sabbatical officers, they still wanted wider student experience and academic representation”.
Asked whether the Democracy Review has helped to improve relations between colleges and the SU following the RON campaign, Marshall said there has been “a far greater level of communication and conversation between the SU and the colleges this year”, and that she has sought to form a ”healthy working relationship” with colleges. She thinks that this year, colleges have realised the importance of students’ unions.
Looking back, Marshall does not look positively upon the role that colleges played during the RON campaign. She said, “if we accept that colleges started RON, then what would have been really helpful from the offset is if colleges that actually said what they wanted, but instead, they just tried to destroy the Students’ Union, which is, I think, a really stupid move”.
Marshall explained that she doesn’t believe that colleges still have a right to be angry at Durham SU. She admitted that she doesn’t think there was a need for a RON campaign this year or last year, because, the Opportunities Officer explained, the RON campaign was a “bad campaign because it didn’t make its demands and aims clear enough”.
“There was some people that jumped on it and shared racially motivated content for which JCR Presidents have apologised for starting.”
Such racially motivated content delegitimised the RON campaign. But Marshall explained that the targeting of her predecessors rather than the people running for election also delegitimised the campaign in her eyes. “Basically, it was silly. And then the racism happened. And then it just became, like, evil, you know?”
Marshall said the racism that took place during the RON campaign made it clear how “problematic” the campaign was. “White people love feeling oppressed”, Marshall said, explaining that the campaign had a “very privileged” way of doing things.
“I think the RON campaign was very successful. Because when I went to that open assembly meeting about RON, it was filled with white middle class boys, who all were loving the idea of being oppressed. and especially when their vote was deleted.
“That was like, you know, the first ever call to activism, which I found a bit pathetic, because there are so many issues across the world, which you could engage with. And Durham Students’ Union having been a radical students’ union that has introduced so many policies, which have improved student lives and addressed inequalities to take issue with that, in the grand scheme of all things in the universe, I do find quite disgusting.”
Marshall had hoped to see an apology from both sides, neither of which ever came. She now thinks, “from a business perspective, to apologise would have been too much to ask for”.
Image: Anna Marshall