By Isabelle Ardron
Megan Croll is perhaps not the typical Students’ Union President. Admitting “I wasn’t really involved with the Students’ Union when I was an undergrad”, it was her term as JCR President for St. Cuthbert’s that exposed her to student issues.
Despite her late initiation into the world of student politics, Croll’s passion for Durham and genuine desire to see change is striking throughout our conversation.
The University’s ten-year masterplan was a crucial motivating factor in Croll’s decision to run for President. She realised that the proposed developments meant that this year’s President would have the “potential to have a huge impact on students”, and wanted to be the leader to ensure a positive outcome for students.
Croll also cites the importance of her experiences as a JCR President in inspiring her to become DSU President. She became frustrated with the lack of progress the JCR Presidents could make on student issues, and even suggests that they sometimes failed to make the necessary effort to bring about change.
However, Croll suggests that “a lot of that [lack of momentum] was because they knew they couldn’t make the last step”. When trying to make big changes, according to Croll, the JCR Presidents could “get to here, and then you need the Students’ Union” to go further. Realising the importance of the SU in making progress on key student issues inspired Croll into thinking “I’ll just do it myself” and run to be President.
Croll is committed to her central concern: the cost of the overall Durham experience. Croll shares the anger of many Durham students towards the annual increases in accommodation fees, but cautiously welcomes the progress made particularly with regard to differential pricing, proposed for the 2019/2020 cohort.
Croll also praises the impact of the SU on the recently released fees for the coming academic year, warning that “it could have been a lot worse”. She emphatically declares her commitment to changing the Durham grant, which supports students from lower income backgrounds, criticising its current “all or nothing threshold” for eligibility.
To improve the grant, Croll proposes a tiered system to help “more people in a more appropriate way”. She is also critical of the current 10% discount off the total cost of accommodation for students who fall just over the £25,000 threshold, condemning it as “a bit of a half-arsed effort”.
The Common Rooms also have plenty of room for improvement, according to Croll. Diplomatically stating her desire to “work with them rather than imposing stuff”, she wants to improve the “terrible” training for common room executives on issues such as governance and consent.
If we don’t grow, certain departments are not going to be able to keep up in the global rankings
The “bizarre” costs pertaining to membership of individual JCRs are of further concern to Croll. Among the stranger expenses which Croll takes issue with are the “hidden” charge for membership of alumni communities added to accommodation bills at certain colleges, and fees to cover library membership at others.
The initial phase of the development of the Mount Oswald colleges, the major change facing Durham over the next decade, is another obvious priority for Croll, and one she approaches with cautious enthusiasm.
The increase in student numbers is “something that we’re majorly aware of”, but is “necessary, because, if we don’t grow, certain departments are not going to be able to keep up in the global rankings”. Falling down the league tables would not only derail the university’s strategy but, according to Croll, also devalue our degrees.
Croll is aware of the pressure that a growing student population will place on housing, teaching, and library space, but believes steps are being taken to mitigate these issues.
She points to the new teaching development planned for St. Mary’s Fields, and the extra seats added to the library in preparation for the arrival this year of the Queen’s Campus students. She suggests that city centre housing is not “that much of an issue because we’ve got more beds than students”, but believes this is something to watch out for in the future.
Croll wholeheartedly endorses the work being carried out by the Students’ Union, Durham societies, and the University, on the issues of consent and sexual violence. She is supportive of the recent development of a new online reporting tool for incidents of sexual violence and misconduct, and also praises the new ‘Respect Means’ campaign and introduction of compulsory active bystander training for Freps.
Despite the undoubted progress made by the work of the SU on issues from accommodation to consent, Croll is aware of the apathetic attitude with which many Durham students regard their union.
Whilst acknowledging that the common rooms are there for many of the day-to-day student needs, she suggests the SU’s role is to help resolve wider issues, such as fees. Croll indicates that the attitude of many Durham students towards university-wide issues is to think “that’s not good, but I don’t really know what to do about it”, and suggests that it is here that the SU should step in.
She concedes that “we can definitely communicate better” to enhance the Union’s visibility and awareness of its role in Durham, but emphasises that its reputation has significantly improved from its nadir during her first years in Durham.
From reflecting on the status of the SU in Durham, Croll turns her attention to the NUS. She believes “the NUS […] doesn’t work as well as it should do, and I think everybody knows that but doesn’t know how to fix it”.
Despite her awareness of its problems, Croll voted to remain affiliated to the NUS in last year’s referendum, stating that she “didn’t want to do a Brexit and jump ship rather than fix it from the inside”.
the NUS doesn’t work as well as it should do, and I think everybody knows that but doesn’t know how to fix it
Croll is optimistic about the future of the NUS under the leadership of its new President Shakira Martin, believing that they can make real, positive change to government policy. She emphasises the need for the NUS to be a “national united voice for students”, but admits that her priority will be to ‘focus on Durham’s issues.’
Returning to Durham, Croll could not be more enthusiastic about the opportunities open to new Freshers. She outlines the opportunities for students to get involved with SU politics, presenting her plans for ‘town-hall style’ student consultations on upcoming policies, and encouraging people to engage with the Assembly. She also encourages new and returning students to “just get involved as much as you can”, warning that “you’re going to regret not getting stuck into stuff”.
Croll’s evident passion for her role, and desire to have a positive impact on the lives of students in Durham, defines our interview. She believes it is crucial that every year, students must be able to identify “that’s what the Student’s Union did for me that year”.
Durham may be in for a year of “unprecedented” development, but Croll is clearly a determined leader, ready to take Durham through the changes and challenges that lie ahead.
Photograph: Megan Croll