By Luke Alsford
The Students’ Union’s presidential contest is being fought by Dan Lonsdale, the incumbent President, and Abdul Wahab Imran, a second year Accounting and Finance student and the President of Durham’s Pakistan Society. Palatinate has interviewed both candidates about their reasons for standing and their plans for their time in charge of the SU.
Dan Lonsdale is fighting his third SU presidential election, after placing third in 2022 and winning an uncontested election last year. Asked why he is running for re-election, he cited the benefits of a having a continuity candidate in the role.
Mr Lonsdale said he already had overseen “positive changes” as President that had “set ourselves up for success in second and third term.” He argued that it “made sense to do it again” for a second year. Despite these successes, he acknowledged that there is “a long list of things that need fixing…When things are in such a dire state for students, it does not make sense for me to walk away from that and let someone [take over] who might not be interested or as knowledgeable.” He said that securing Durham University’s £500,000 worth of additional investment in the Durham Grant was the “big achievement” of his tenure so far.
Addressing Durham’s housing crisis has been one of the biggest issues on Mr Lonsdale’s in-tray as SU President this year, and it remains one of the priorities in his re-election bid. One part of the progress he claims to have made is on his plan to establish co-operatives, which are democratic not-for-profit home ownerships that he believes “in time… will have a massive impact on [housing] prices.” Mr Lonsdale said the membership is “in the process of being legally verified” and they are searching for the first property to turn into a co-op.
He said that the most feasible way his plans to impact housing affordability in Durham is “challenging” the University to lower the prices of the accommodation that they own, as they account for 38% of the market in Durham and, he claims, are the root cause of Durham’s “affordability problem.”
When he ran for SU President last year, Mr Lonsdale promised to be “harsh but fair and proactive” in leading the SU’s relationship with Durham University. He pledged to continue that attitude if he were elected for a second year. He described their current working relationship as “healthy”, in which they “get stuff done for students” but “don’t let them roll over us.” Mr Lonsdale wants to hold the University accountable for their “regressive” decision making processes, which he claims meant they took three months to agree for an increase in the Durham Grant after the SU first suggested it, and stop them taking students “for a ride.”
Mr Lonsdale believes that his plan for housing co-operatives “in time… will have a massive impact on [housing] prices.”
The Students’ Union relationship with college JCRs is also a central plank of Mr Lonsdale’s re-election campaign, as he pledges to build “bridges between the SU and the student community.” As proof of his capability in this “important” area, Mr Lonsdale pointed to the work that the SU and college JCRs have done together this year on “housing and numerous other issues.” He claimed that this collaboration “rattled” and was “much to the anger of the University, who are constantly trying to put a wedge between us.”
Mr Lonsdale wants to overhaul of the University’s induction process and introduce a compulsory “social induction”, with the goal of creating a more “positive culture” in order to tackle issues with rape, sexual assault and discrimination. He said this was necessary to tackle what is still an “elitist culture” in Durham, which is not being addressed by the current “consent quiz” that the University asks students to take. In his interview with Palatinate, Mr Lonsdale suggested that this module could even be worth five or ten credits, and take place during Welcome Week, although he was keen to stress that this would not “override any other key part of the academic curriculum that people are paying for.”
The biggest challenge that Mr Lonsdale predicts he will encounter next year is the housing crisis, as the “most nationally related issue that students face.” He is confident that the issue “can be addressed locally” and is looking forward to working with the Mayor of the new North East Mayoral Combined Authority, after that post is first elected in May. He said that he has “proven” that he has a “vision” to address the housing crisis, whereas his opponent does not know “how he is going to resolve” the problem.
Abdul Wahab Imran
Palatinate also interviewed Mr Lonsdale’s opponent, Abdul Wahab Imran, who is running for the first time for the role as SU president. The “main reason” he is standing for the position is because it is “the biggest and largest position on the student body” and he wants to address issues that he has heard other students “complaining about.” Mr Wahab Imran believes he is in a position to “raise voice” and “represent” student problems.
Alongside his experience as President of Durham Pakistan Society, he said that his “interactive and friendly… and confident” traits, with an ability to “engage with different people and get to know their views,” makes him a qualified candidate for SU president.
Reflecting on how he assessed the Students’ Union under the current President, Mr Wahab Imran noted apathy among the student body for the SU and its actions. He commented that the roles of SU were “very unknown” to many students and that a large number were “not bothered” to participate in the SU. He, on the other hand, hopes to be a president that motivates student engagement, particularly from “students of different cultures who I want to bring together.” He said that he would introduce an “online portal” to allow students to submit their problems at the University with him “anonymously”.
Cherishing and promoting the international and cultural diversity within Durham is a central element of his campaign. Mr Wahab Imran, who is an international student himself, noted that many international students are “shy”. He has proposed “frequent cultural events” so that “people from different backgrounds” can come together and “get to know each other and their Students’ Union.”
Mr Wahab Imran has simply stated that he will “resolve the housing crisis”. He acknowledged that issues with housing were “much better” this academic year than in 2022 to 2023. He said that his “main aim” is to “raise voice” and “highlight” housing issues and “talk to Durham County Council” and the “local MP” to try solve problems with affordability. Mr Wahab Imran has prioritised tackling the housing crisis by increasing its national attention, claiming that he did not think “the University would be able to help a lot,” but pledged to “definitely discuss” the prices of University-owned accommodation with them. He added that he “would love to see the pricing of houses come down.”
Another manifesto commitment of his advocates “24/7” JCRs and MCRs for students. Mr Wahab Imran complained that although many JCRs and MCRs are open at all hours, “cafes aren’t usually open” and the “coffee machine doesn’t work.” He wants 24/7 JCRs to support students who are “studying late” and need “snacks” and coffee. In reality, Mr Wahab Imran said that his pledge means that café’s should be open until “at least 3am”, as many takeaway places in Durham are open until then. This proposal also includes the gym being open overnight, because “many students like doing things at night.”
An “important” part of Mr Wahab Imran’s campaign is his idea to introduce e-bikes throughout Durham and in colleges. His motivation for this is to help students who are “walking long distances in Durham” with what he believes will be a very affordable scheme for them. Mr Wahab Imran acknowledged that this is an ambitious plan, but he said that he would get in touch with e-bike companies and that “it would not take University investment” for this proposal to come into effect.
Nothing is impossible, in my opinion the word itself says ‘I’m possible’Abdul Wahab Imran
The most striking goal of Mr Wahab Imran’s manifesto is that he hopes to achieve a “reduction in tuition fees.” He said that tuition fees are “getting very expensive for a lot of people”, in particular international students, who are “not coming from rich or wealthy backgrounds.” He hopes to “do lobbying” of University “management” to achieve this aim, so that those in charge will “at least consider it” ands “look into this matter.” When asked whether he viewed this manifesto goal as realistic, he clarified that he is “not giving a guarantee” that this pledge “will be fulfilled.” He added, “nothing is impossible, in my opinion the word itself says ‘I’m possible’.”
Mr Wahab Imran agrees with his opponent that the biggest challenge of his year in charge of the SU will be the housing crisis, as well as “tuition fees and accommodation fees.” To tackle these issues, he said he “will go to the University” with his ideas and “take their suggestions.” He added that he will “talk to different estate agents” to change issues with housing affordability.
Voting in the Students’ Union’s elections closes on Monday 12th February.
Image: Dan Hodgson