Ewan Swift, outgoing Welfare and Liberation Officer at Durham Students’ Union, reflects on his work within the SU and Durham more widely. In an exclusive interview, Swift speaks to Palatinate about University drug policy, men’s mental health, and trust in the SU.
A challenging year
“I feel I’ve spent most of the firefighting when it comes to Covid”, Swift admits. In a year of the A-levels fiasco, lockdowns, a global anti-racism movement, declining student mental health, discussions around women’s safety, and controversy about freedom of speech, it has been a particularly challenging year to hold his role. His biggest regret was that he “didn’t say no enough”, which prevented him from focusing on some of the things he was most passionate about.
Nevertheless, he remains upbeat and proud of what he’s achieved. Swift worked to build strong relationships with the University: “it kind of got to the point where I’ll say something, and they’ll really just take it on board, they want to have a conversation about it”. This allowed him to bring about his proudest achievement, changing the University’s zero-tolerance drug policy. “The group Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) have been fighting for a long time to get a change in the policy. And I know a lot of officers have struggled with experiences they’ve had of people overdosing in freshers’ week”.
After a review of the University’s health and well-being strategy, he presented on the issue to the University: “Everybody agreed; I think everybody realised how dangerous the zero-tolerance policy was.” As a result, the University will move towards “drug harm reduction” next year.
In terms of his legacy, he thinks he will be remembered most of all for being vocal about issues relating to housing and Covid-19. He is particularly proud of the letter sent to Universities Minister, Michelle Donelan, asking her to take action to support student renters, including by offering rebates or greater support to UK landlords and accommodation providers to allow them to support students financially. For this, he contacted landlords to get their support and received the backing of the parish council and Durham MP Mary Foy, though she did not sign it. He admits though, with parish council elections and Covid-19 delays, “it’s been really, really slow”.
Men’s mental health
Almost two thirds of students who sought counselling at Durham over the last five years were women; the number of male students accessing counselling decreased in 2019/20, the year before Swift took up his current role. For him, when it comes to men’s mental health, “it’s an ongoing conversation, and it’s not necessarily just around mental health; it’s in the University, obviously, around respect and how we behave. It’s about having conversations with male members of staff about how we can approach this going forward, how we interact as men with each other with other people and not just what that means in terms of behaviours and keeping people safe and being respectful but also in terms of like understanding your own wellbeing.
He admitted he had not “explicitly paid attention to” men’s mental health. “Running quite centralised campaigns can be difficult […] I ran ‘take time to sign’, but it kind of meant that we didn’t have space to do a specific men’s mental health campaign in November”. He highlighted a number of important points, though, arguing: “we haven’t thought about understanding why people aren’t reaching out, maybe as much as we know they should be. I think it’s about looking at the different entry points to support and bringing into play things like Team Durham, and making sure that we have really productive wellbeing stuff within Team Durham, because we know a lot of people get involved in sport who will be quite close to the coaches. In men’s mental health campaigns, let’s work more with sports teams in teams, let’s work with the welfare officers “.
On the theme of mental health, he added: “the counselling service needs to be transparent and it needs to work for everybody in the University. I know it’s not specifically to do with gender here, but [we need to be] talking about having a culturally competent counselling service, making sure that we have counsellors of colour. There’s a lot of work there.”
Trust in the SU
Despite controversy about the SU’s new free speech policy, which means that all external speakers have to be vetted in advance, Swift remains supportive of the policy. “Getting external speakers to be vetted, I think makes a lot of sense, because we’ve got to be ensuring that we protect students against potentially harmful speech. And it doesn’t mean that we just automatically say, ‘you cannot come’, it just means that we can put the precautions in place so that our spaces are safe.
“When it comes to freedom of speech, it’s freedom of speech, not freedom from consequences. We want to be able to put on an event where anybody can attend, and certain groups of students are not going to be able to attend if it’s about a certain topic and a certain speaker saying certain things which are going to make them uncomfortable”.
Swift took up the role after an extremely heated election period in which Re-open Nominations (RON) won 58% of the vote, only to be disqualified because the campaign broke SU elections rules. Swift disclosed: “After the RON campaign, my mental health was probably at rock bottom and I was trying to do my Masters. I knew [if I took up the position] I would put the energy in and wanted to a good job. It gave me a sense I wanted to prove people wrong.”
He argued that there was no need for a RON campaign in the first place and that an actual candidate would have been more effective at bringing about change. “I think someone should have run, that should have been the manifesto.”
The effects of the contested election on Swift’s work as Welfare and Liberation Officer were twofold. Firstly, Swift explained, “I think it psychologically held us back. I think, a lot of the time, we just didn’t believe in ourselves because it felt like nobody believed in us.” Secondly, Swift admits, it undermined trust in the SU. When asked if he felt he had managed to restore that trust, he said “I feel like maybe it’s optimistic, if I say I have; I definitely haven’t singlehandedly done that. I think we’ve just been a very strong team, like I’m very, very proud of what the other officers have done.”
Another source of distrust is about value for money. The Welfare and Liberation Officer pointed out: “the SU does get a lot of money from University. But in the grand scheme of things, it’s not like, tonnes: the university is £370m a year and we get just short of a million. I don’t think it’s completely obscene; we have to pay people.” He continued that he’d tried to show people the value for money they do get with the SU: “I’ve tried to be as transparent as possible, trying to do fortnightly updates to make sure people know what I’m doing. And I hope that’s restored trust, you know, at least in me, in my role.”
“As an SU, though, I think we’ve got a long way to go.”
Despite this, Swift remains optimistic that students’ unions can bring about genuine change in students’ lives. “I think this year’s shown me the power in students’ unions. But I think it’s also shown me like, some of the flaws in like the student body and the idea of like collective action and trying to make change within the university.”
“I’ve been in spaces where what I say is the student representative’s voice. So, you know, staff will ask, oh, what do you think? And I’ll say what I think, and that’s often taken as where the conversation should go. Obviously, I’m always in contact with the welfare officers to see what issues are there on the ground; there’s that power to make sure the universities are aware of it, because especially in Durham I think there’s quite a disconnect between members of staff and students other than in colleges obviously”.
Swift was very positive about Jonah Graham, his successor as Welfare and Liberation Officer. “He’s really fantastic at being a good spokesperson for his community. And I think taking a very intersectional lens. So you know, look at the LGBT+ Association, the intersectionality campaign this year I think, is really, really fantastic.”
He added that: “I think it’s going to be easier for Jonah, because Jonah comes from the associations, and can work with them really closely. They are kind of the linchpin of the work that we need to be doing.”
His advice was: “Right at the start of the year, there’s so much more that I could really push for. And so I’d say to Jonah, push hard when you get here, like, hit the ground running.”
Image: Ewan Swift