Durham Students’ Union Officer Interviews: Education Officer

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Palatinate recently had the opportunity to speak to Catherine Howells, and Theo Stubbs, this year’s candidates for the role of Education Officer at Durham Students’ Union.

Talking to Catherine Howells, Palatinate asked if she could reiterate why she applied for the role of Education Officer.

Ms Howells told Palatinate that, “I think especially after the restructure, this Education Officer role is a very important one as the main representation students will have within the academic experience in Durham.”

She continued, “I do believe that there are a lot of barriers to that experience [and] that the SU have the ability to help break down [these barriers] as long as there is someone in that role willing to fight for it.”

Basing the rest of the interview questions off of Ms Howells candidate profile, Palatinate asked what kind of collaboration she is hoping to achieve between JCR’s and departments: “It seems to me that JCR’s don’t really have much involvement with the academic experience at all, which I do see as a problem, given as JCR’s are such an important part of our university experience, so I definitely think that there should be some sort of formal collaboration there.”

Ms Howells believed that the collaboration should potentially aim to create specific roles that would be able to be the “middleman” between JCR’s and departments: “they are essentially interlinked as art of two major parts of our university experience, but there is nothing formal there to collaborate between them.”

Calling out to the university to make housing more affordable and have more college spaces available for returners is something that Ms Howells stressed when talking about mitigating the housing crisis

When asked what ideas Ms Howells has for approaching the housing crisis and mitigating this for students as mentioned in their profile, she told Palatinate of her significant involvement in the creation of the Housing Co-op, stating that “while that would be a small scale thing, it is largely, a proof of concept that if that sort of affordable housing can be done just by students themselves, then why can’t the university do it?”

She continued to say that the main problem at the moment for housing is the affordability and conditions of housing, further touching on the universities position in this: “The university does have the power as essentially the biggest landlord in Durham to set what rents are going to be. Last year they did raise their accommodation prices by 10.6% which, when maintenance loans were only increasing by something like 2.3%. It’s pretty outrageous.”

Calling out to the university to make housing more affordable and have more college spaces available for returners is something that Ms Howells stressed when talking about mitigating the housing crisis.

Palatinate then asked how Ms. Howells has previously helped students through her position as Secretary at the Durham Tenants’ Union, and how she would continue to help students if she were to become Education Officer.

Ms Howells told Palatinate that one of the main roles of the Tenants’ Union is to provide advice to students that are having problems with their housing. Touching on the role, she said that the Tenants’ Union often receive emails from students asking for advice about issues with landlords. Sometimes they also contact landlords and estate agents on behalf of students as it can be intimidating to do it themselves.

Ms Howells also told Palatinate that the Tenants’ Union give talks to students – this was especially prevalent last term when people were worried and anxious due to the process of finding a house.

She shared that ultimately, this is something that she wants to continue in the role of Education Officer, “especially because there is so much within the whole academic process to do with things like the extension form and student support and things like that that people ultimately don’t know about, especially because they are communicated so poorly by the university.

“I would like to continue to be a person that people can come to and ask what they can do about certain situations, who they can get help from, how everything works. Because ultimately, I just don’t think that people know what support there is that they can get.”

“I would like to continue to be a person that people can come to and ask what they can do about certain situations, who they can get help from […] because ultimately, I just don’t think that people know what support there is”

catherine howells

Palatinate then asked whether Ms Howells has any ideas of what she will be aiming to do to ensure education isn’t interrupted or interfered with: “One of the main things that I’m going to be talking about is the fact that there are so many barriers that are interfering with having a smooth quality of learning, especially to do with disability support.”

Ms Howells mentioned the changes to disability support being communicated poorly. Talking about the extension form and policy in particular, she said how people are “rightly, quite upset about [it].”

“I think it’s a good thing that there is a centralised system now because before there was a lot of inconsistencies between, it was the decision of your lecturer, whether you go the extension or not and it was quite unfair between departments who was granted one and who wasn’t. But now with the limit only being like three or five day extensions, you know, if you’ve got a flare up of a condition, that’s really just not enough.”

Ms Howells also spoke about the new student support officer system, saying how there “just aren’t enough of them.” She mentioned how people have been talking with SwDA (Students with Disabilities Association) and how they have been doing a consultation on people’s experiences with the new system.

She then mentioned how she tried to arrange a meeting with a student support officer, but they didn’t show up, she then said that she hasn’t heard from them since: “the fact that there’s one between something like two or three departments, you know, that’s thousands of students.”

Another aspect that Ms Howells wishes to change, associated with the learning process being interfered with, is the lack of available study spaces. She commented that the lack of spaces is a “significant interference into people’s academic experience and is something people I’ve spoken to have brought up a lot as a problem in Durham. There are a lot of empty buildings that the university own that could easily be converted into extra study spaces.”

“One of the main things that I’m going to be talking about is the fact that there are so many barriers that are interfering with having a smooth quality of learning, especially to do with disability support”

catherine howells

When asked why Ms Howells thinks that the Durham Students’ Union can be unapproachable sometimes (as mentioned again, in the candidate profile), and how she aims to improve this, she said: “I think a lot of people just don’t know what the Durham SU does and that is not those people’s fault.

“I think, especially, it’s tricky when you have a college system like Durham where obviously colleges are peoples main port of call and so, you know, the JCRs do, I guess a lot of what other universities would consider their SU to do.”

She continued, “But ultimately, Durham SU does do a lot, it’s just very behind the scenes most of the time. And especially because the Durham SU does have a bit of a reputation there; we are consistently ranked quite low in the rankings of Students’ Unions […] you can’t really blame people for that making them think that it’s not exactly an institution they’d like to be involved with.”

Touching on the solutions to this, Ms Howells said that officers should be a lot more transparent about what’s going on, what they’re doing and what students can do to be involved, because “there is a lot there, especially with the student voice within the SU.

“There is a lot that they do and that students can be involved in doing. Like right now we are working with the Student Voice team to try and get a free guarantor scheme at the university, and it’s something that very clearly the SU cares a lot about. But most people wouldn’t know that that’s something you could even do.”

Ms Howells said that Durham Students’ Union officers should be a lot more transparent about what’s going on, what they’re doing and what students can do to be involved

Palatinate also spoke to Theo Stubbs on his application for Education Officer.

Talking to Theo Stubbs, Palatinate asked if he could reiterate why he applied for the role: “I applied for it because it’s where I believe I can give the most back. I have quite a broad range of experience in Durham Students’ Union and in other societies too. Outside of that, I just think this is where the most pressing needs and issues are.”

He continued, “We are, well home students, pay[ing] around nine grand a year to come to this university and there may be issues on the aspects of university life, but I think the most pressing [and] what people will remember going into the future is the quality of the education they receive and the degree they got, the classification, and how their employers respect it. So, I believe it’s where I can give the most back and where there’s most need.”

Basing the following questions off Mr Stubbs candidate profile, when asked what his role as Academic Rep and then Chair on the SU Group committee entailed and how this could help toward the role of Education Officer, Mr Stubbs said: “For the academic rep, I got elected to that position about two months after arriving in Durham 2021.”

“And the SUC (Students’ Union Committee) more broadly deals with student groups and approving new ones, approving funding, and in some cases complaints with them and any issues they may have.”

He continued, “but on there, there’s reps for Culture and Faith, Academic, Sports societies and it goes on. So as academic, you’re responsible for liaising with all those student groups that fall under your category and basically being a point of contact if they have any issues, whether that just be something mundane behind the scenes to do with finance or treasurer training or if they want the SU to implement new initiatives or change the way they work so that their societies can run more smoothly.”

“I applied for it (Education Officer) because it’s where I believe I can give the most back. I have quite a broad range of experience in Durham Students’ Union and in other societies too. Outside of that, I just think this is where the most pressing needs and issues are.”

theo stubbs

Talking about how this role will prove helpful for the role of Education Officer, Mr Stubbs said that he feels all of his experience in the SU will be of help. Even though he was an Academic Representative for a short amount of time, he said that it “put me in good stead in sort of building a working relationship with societies.

“I’m not saying that those execs are still around and that you need to know each individual person and each individual group to be able to work with them, but I’ve seen the issues they’ve faced in the past, and to be honest, even more recently as Chair of the committee, I still see a lot of the work that our current academic directors [deal with].”

Providing example of this, Mr Stubbs spoke about a recent conference that Durham University Classics Society hosted with Christopher Eccleston. He said how “we helped with finance to make sure it ran smoothly.”

Palatinate then asked, still based on Mr. Stubbs candidate profile responses, whether the SU can be improved in any particular way: “One thing I’ve always been conscious of is [that I’m seen as having an inside perspective, which is good but also, I’ve spent an awful lot of time outside the SU too, for interests and time in the university. So, I don’t think I’m blind to failures and faults.

“I think the biggest issue for, I alluded to it earlier, for student societies is actually the financing with the SU; the way it’s very bureaucratic and it takes a while.” Touching on the SU finance system, he continued: “It can take many weeks from approving funds for a project to an event to the group actually receiving them.

“And when it comes to putting things down, like deposits and that sort of thing, if the SU creates a cashflow issue for a society or group, that’s really not going to encourage them to want to put more effort in and do more things in the future.”

He continued, “So I wouldn’t say I’m blind to the issues of the SU by any means, I just feel fortunate enough to have a bit of a niche understanding of how it works and how to get things done. And to be honest, [I] just want to give a bit back and use that to everyone else’s gain.”

“I just feel fortunate enough to have a bit of a niche understanding of how it works (Durham Students’ Union) and how to get things done”

theo stubbs

When asked about how Mr Stubbs is going to ensure that students get the educational experience they deserve and whether he has any goals or aims that he is thinking about implementing, he told Palatinate: “A big policy of mine is pertaining to the extensions policy.

“I couldn’t mention it as much as I wished to in my candidate profile but as you have seen from my manifesto points, [the] extensions policy has recently been changed and that’s been a detriment to quite a lot of students, partly because of how it’s sort of a failed one-size-fits-all approach. And I think that’s the single biggest issue […] so far.”

He continued to talk about how a lot of people aren’t aware of the new extensions policy yet as it has only been around for a couple of months but he has pledged, if elected, to conduct a student-wide review into it and use his position on the university assembly and other committees to “pressure the appropriate authorities and powers that be, to actually take action and in some cases reverse their recent changes.”

Talking about other goals that Mr Stubbs currently has for the role of Education Officer, he said: “Well beyond, there’s always the core policy pledges that relate to education and so on. However, more broadly with the SU, the officer team is a team for a reason because you’re not just limited at extensions or attendance or MEQs (Module Evaluation Questionnaires) or whatever it may be, the National Student Survey.

“So, I would definitely work with the rest of the SU officers to basically get people [to be] more engaged with student politics, whether that be JCR or SU, because ultimately, if I’m elected, I’ll be around for a year, [but] then there’ll be someone else.

“But in the meantime, we’re going to have to elect that somebody else and if people don’t really care that much or don’t have a reason to care, how can we be confident that the next person is going to carry on the good work?”

Talking about the extension policy, Mr Stubbs said he would use the position of Education Officer to “pressure the appropriate authoritiesand powers that be, to actually take action and in some cases reverse their recent changes”

theo stubbs

Palatinate then asked how Mr Stubbs will work with JCRs/colleges and departments and what he aims for this relationship to look like.

First talking about JCRs, Mr Stubbs spoke about what he feels is the main issue with JCRs: “this has been more of a long-term thing; when the SU did their Democracy Review, part of it was the way the representation of JCRs was changed.”

Mr Stubbs told Palatinate about this change: “So, instead of a JCR officer or a position being elected by the JCR and then also sitting on the SU assembly, the SU rep elects their reps via their systems and its done internally. Since then, some JCRs have opted to either send somebody else in their name anyway, or just to not engage with the process.”

Mr Stubbs spoke about how this was evident in the latest round of elections at Stephenson College (1,500 students) where only two students voted and there were two candidates, so they both voted for themselves.

He then told Palatinate: “I want to improve the relationships with the JCRs, and I think the best way to do that is to listen and to also not be afraid to give them some more autonomy when it comes to the input they have with us.”

Turning to talk about departments and working with them, Mr Stubbs said: “When it comes to departments, the new structure for the faculty reps and so on, I think that really need to be capitalised upon. I think in recent years it hasn’t been used the most effectively.

“There’s also going to be the new structure with the part-time sabbatical roles for the SU and hopefully when that’s finalised there will be some positions that will be directly responsible and helpful to liaising with the faculties and departments.”

Students can now vote for their future Durham SU Education Officer, President and Community Officer through this link. The voting period will be open until Monday 12th February.

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