Joe McGarry: “There is an elephant in the room: the SU’s popularity.”

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Joe McGarry, Aidans JCR President and two-time Senior Frep, is running for SU president after 5 years of observing its influence, or lack thereof, as a student and then student representative. With no previous official roles within the SU, but a history of heavy involvement with his common room, McGarry advocates for collaboration between these two representative bodies, despite their current estrangement.

On his motivation to become SU president, McGarry told Palatinate, “When I came to Durham I really wanted to love the SU, but I was unsure about the specifics of how it worked and what it did.” Instead, McGarry began working within his JCR: “I loved that and really wanted to represent students.”

“There’s a lot that the SU do which is good, but you wouldn’t know about them.”

Joe McGarry

The problem, McGarry explained, was that “common room presidents don’t have the resources to provide change,” and that meanwhile, “There’s a lot that the SU do which is good, but you wouldn’t know about them.” He expressed that his best-of-both-worlds approach, combining the resources of the SU and the outreach of JCRs, would make the SU more “relevant” and make it easier to make impactful change for Durham students.

One issue featuring heavily in McGarry’s manifesto, which he hopes will benefit from his collaborative approach, is college accommodation and living costs for students. McGarry told Palatinate “There was a really good piece of research done about the price of being a Durham student, taking into account things like rent and other things that cost money, like labcoats or books. The SU did this really good piece of research which showed that it’s really expensive to be a student in Durham compared to other universities. But not that many people actually heard about that.”

“The SU is a place where you can make more change,” he continued, “If they communicate that more with other student groups it will help more people get behind their campaigns.” As President, he promised to come to PresComm more often, to ensure two-way communication between the SU and JCRs. He added that the JCR student union rep should also have a double-function, both in bringing JCR concerns to the SU and in informing colleges of what the SU is doing on a weekly basis.

“If there’s an issue that disproportionately affects a certain group, they need to be represented.”

Joe McGarry

McGarry saw representation as his biggest policy. He described his disappointment that a representative for WSCA wasn’t invited wasn’t invited to a Accommodation Fee Review Group that he attended last year, despite working-class students being the most affected by rent prices: “If there’s an issue that disproportionately affects a certain group, they need to be represented.”

McGarry has his own plans for decreasing college rent prices: by allowing students to opt-out of paying for catered meals that they are not planning to eat. “Students in catered colleges don’t eat every meal, they don’t eat 21 hot meals a week.” He said “It is a luxury to pay someone else to cook you 21 hot meals a week. A lot of students don’t eat breakfast that often.”

When asked about whether the policy might be seen as normalising students skipping breakfast or lunch, McGarry responded “I considered that.  But I do believe this will be a good thing so I said it. I think the University treats [students] like they’re children. Saying, you know, that we want them to be well-fed.” He stated firmly that if students wanted to skip catered meals for cereal or a sandwich “It should be up to them.”

McGarry’s most controversial proposal, an end to Durham’s no-tolerance drugs policy, is well-intentioned, but ambitious. When asked who would have to greenlight the policy, McGarry responded vaguely with “higher student bodies”, but said that if the university did approve of the policy, it would allow students to have access to drug-testing kits in college, which are already advertised for free in the SU.

“Regardless of whatever we, the uni or students leaders are saying, there will be a number of students that will choose to take illegal recreational drugs.’ He said. ‘What I did as a Senior Frep last year, was that we got resources on the signs of spiking. Every JCR should do this, because its their Freps that are interacting with their students in clubs. Training for Freps is something that the SU can organise really well.” He highlighted that whilst Freps were just volunteers, the SU’s funds could afford professionals and proper resources. “They could’ve done so much of a better job than me or any head Frep or any President.”

McGarry continued “There was some money given by the pro-vice chancellor’s office for us to spend on anti-spiking devices, but they got delivered in one of the last weeks of October, the university was being quite slow.” As President, McGarry wanted to ensure that the SU used their funding and resources to make protecting students from spiking a priority.

“Regardless, there will be a number of students that will choose to take illegal recreational drugs.”

Joe McGarry

When asked what he would want his legacy to be as a President, McGarry was hesitant. “I’m not too concerned about what people would remember me for to be honest […] I would just hope that more people would be involved in SU and know what the SU does.”

Describing the SU’s lack of popularity as “the elephant in the room”, he said his main aim would be to increase student awareness: ‘”One of the ways to judge it is less people thinking the SU is crap.”

Image: Joe McGarry via Facebook

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