Palatinate speaks to the DSU sabbatical candidates

By Waseem Mohamed, Sarah Matthews, Tiffany Chan, Louisa Barlow, Laetitia Eichinger and Emily Doughty

The Durham Student Union elections got underway on Wednesday 23rd February and Palatinate have spoken to the candidates running for sabbatical roles. Two candidates are running for Opportunities Officer this year (Jack Ballingham and Blake Liu), while the three other positions (Undergraduate, Postgraduate and Welfare/Liberation Officers) are only being contested by one candidate (Joshua Freestone, Cynthia Lawson and Laura Curran respectively).

Jack Ballingham

During his time as opportunities officer this year, Jack Ballingham has striven to stick up for students and wants to be remembered for his campaigning skills. He hopes to continue in his role for a second year running, focusing on fairer student housing, making societies easier to run, and getting more students involved with the SU.

Ballingham told Palatinate that he thinks Durham SU is “one of the most radical and outspoken student unions in the country.” He claims, “we’ve been taking, you know, people like national newspapers and politicians and pulling them up on the lies that they make up about students because newspaper editors and politicians don’t care about students.”

The main priority in his second year as opportunities officer, though he struggled to pick just one, is student housing. Although this issue usually sits within the remit of the welfare and liberation officer, Ballingham is determined to start “laying the groundwork” for the SU to start challenging the power of landlords in Durham, as well as helping students who live in college hold rent strikes due to rising accommodation costs. 

“Something that we’ve been discussing recently is whether or not the SU could intervene directly in the housing market by, sort of acting as an agent or, you know, providing its own accommodation or something like that because that’s something other unis do like Lancaster.”

“There are so many issues like housing, workers’ rights and the higher education bill where we need the SU to stick up for students”

Jack Ballingham

He continues: “It’s a massive problem and I think it would be a really great way for the SU to sort of break the housing market. It’s all good lobbying from outside trying to improve standards but I think intervening directly would really sort things out a bit.” These changes, he stressed, will not happen in a year and work has not yet begun on this idea, but he plans to set up a committee and complete thorough research next year. 

In terms of supporting rent strikes, Ballingham said: “Every year that I’ve been here people talk about whether or not there should be a rent strike and I think the main barrier to that is the fact that there’s no central support for it and it kind of fizzled out so that’s something I think is quite important.”

When asked why housing has not been a priority this year, he replied: “After one year of the role, the idea that you have of the job is kind of different when you get to the middle of it.” 

That’s why Ballingham thinks his skills in campaigning will be invaluable for the role, insisting that “all the sabbatical roles really are kind of political.” During his degree, he had taken part in student campaign groups and was co-chair of the Labour club, and had complained of the limitations imposed on societies by the student group agreement (SGA). 

The SGA is a document that governs student society relations with the SU; Ballingham claims that this document needs changing to allow societies more freedom and more opportunities to push back against certain rules. He says, “it’s a really good skill to have to be able to talk to student campaign groups and talk to them and empower them, rather than telling them what to do.” 

“I think society leaders often think there’s kind of, like a lot of bureaucracy to get through and that the SU can be a barrier sometimes and it’s something that we’re starting to look at now with the student group agreement reform process that I’ve kicked off just this month.” Ballingham said that this reform process will “help engage students and make their lives easier.”

When asked about how this reform will benefit the wider student population, he said: “The people that run societies do it for members and for students and making it easier for them to put on events and do the things that they do will, in turn, benefit students”. 

At the end of his two years, Ballingham said that he wanted to be remembered as a great campaigner: “There are so many issues like housing, workers rights and the higher education bill where we need the students union to stick up for students and I think what I’d like to be remembered for is being a loud voice and getting things changed for students.” 

Blake Liu

Running for Opportunities Officer alongside the current officer Jack Ballingham, first-year student Blake Liu delved deeper into his policies regarding employment opportunities, and introduced some new ideas concerning equal representation of class, gender and race.

Liu told Palatinate that he wants to increase representation in Durham as Opportunities Officer. “Durham is not traditionally seen as the most inclusive university so I want to use this opportunity to support students who may suffer in these circumstances.” He showed his ability to empathise with the underrepresented: “I’m a representative of the 93% Club so I’m representing people from state schools, and I’m part of the LGBTQ community; I also want to support feminism as well.”

When asked what qualities he has that would make him a good Opportunities Officer, Liu emphasised that he is an open-minded person: “I like the idea of providing everyone with equal opportunities and allowing them to have a better experience at Durham.” He also said that he has experience “with supporting and giving help to people that need it.”

Liu’s drive towards equal representation gives him much to target in his policies; his main policies include supporting the further implementation of “feminism, LGBTQ community, the 93% club, and the International Students’ Association”; providing sexual health facilities such as sexual disease testing and free condoms; supporting strikes arranged by students to promote their rights; and creating more working opportunities especially for the disadvantaged.

In his manifesto, Liu states that “I wish to provide students with more opportunities for students who are keen to work in their own industries.” He explained to Palatinate that this would entail sending emails to students from different departments about work opportunities that he would scout for. He would be working alongside the subscription service provided by Durham Career Services by reforming opportunity-related emails to make them more accessible: “I also think that emails of working opportunities are not usually the most popular, but I will encourage accessibility by making lists of the opportunities and volunteering to be sent out to provide more chances for their future careers.”

“Durham is not traditionally seen as the most inclusive university”

blake liu

Liu stated that his work opportunity emails will be different from those already being sent out by the university, in that they will be more specific to year level, especially to first years. “Sometimes the university emails are quite complicated and don’t state clearly what year the opportunity is for. I want to arrange, particularly for first year students, volunteering or placements.”

Liu asked for students’ willingness to participate in a reformed system of careers advice that will benefit them from an early stage in their university life. “I believe if people are keen and willing to take the working opportunities provided to them on the platform I will reform to give more chances to first years, then there will be a greater chance of people ending up in the companies or universities they want to work for.”

With regards to the SU’s performance this year, Liu felt that while “The SU has done an excellent job in providing students democracy and showing students voices, especially international students and those from different backgrounds”, they should work on increasing accessibility to voting systems by improving their “technological platform”. He pointed out that the voting system is “quite complicated” in that voting links are not easily accessible on social media, and sign-in via Microsoft Authenticator is required. “There are lots of stages to go through which is not the best design.”

Ultimately, Liu wants to be remembered as “an image that students can feel relatable to”, reminding readers of his identity as “a state school student, part of the LGBTQ community, male feminist and international student.” By utilising personal experience in his role, “I want to help students become more comfortable in countering racism, homophobia, and sexism.”

Joshua Freestone

Although Joshua Freestone is unusually running for Undergraduate Academic Officer before he graduates, he argues this is because he “really cares” for the student body and has “experienced those hardships” unique to students.

Freestone is not unaccustomed to leadership, he is the Cheshire representative for North-West Young Labour and has been involved in causes at Durham including climate action, the UCU strikes, and the South College protests. He is also currently standing for North East Representative on the Labour Students committee.

When speaking to Palatinate, Freestone emphasised student empowerment and liberation as his main priority. He said of this that he would aim to remove the barriers that “stop students from being able to achieve their full potential. Academia doesn’t exist in a vacuum; our academic experience is intrinsically linked to the social issues that surround it,” such as racism, sexism, and classism.

Freestone’s intention to remove these barriers is evident in various of his policies. He supports the Durham Once a Month campaign, and has pledged to ensure free sanitary products are accessible in all SU buildings and JCRs. He will also campaign to implement a Guarantor Scheme because the current Durham system “disadvantages the already vulnerable.”

Freestone will pursue policies that represent students’ academic interests such as a hybrid style of learning as well as increased accessibility to audiobooks. He said this will allow for variety and versatility in learning and is necessary because Durham should be celebrating that “students learn in all sorts of ways.”

One main aspect of Freestone’s campaign is the introduction of an open-door policy that will allow students to talk to the SU directly about any issues they have. Freestone said of this: “I want to hear exactly what students feel needs changing.”

When asked about improvements that could be made in the Durham SU, Freestone spoke to Palatinate about SU visibility. He noted that the SU needed to become more “savvy” on social media, something the current SU is lacking. He commented that due to a lack of visibility, students do not currently feel they have a stake in the SU and this needs to change.

“Academia doesn’t exist in a vacuum; our academic experience is intrinsically linked to the social issues that surround it”

joshua freestone

Freestone was quick to praise the SU for their resilience in fighting for issues important to Durham students despite the criticism they received. He commented that the SU have “put their neck on the line” when they fought for the sex-worker training and did not back down when they were subsequently slandered in the press.

Freestone is currently Secretary of Durham University Club and is undecided whether he will remain in this role when becoming Undergraduate Academic Officer. Palatinate asked Freestone if balancing these roles could leave conservative students feeling they lack representation in the SU. He responded to this by saying he absolutely supports “debate and discussion around campus” but that he is “immensely proud” of being a socialist and trade unionist and “will never apologise” for this.

As such, Freestone intends to give a certain percentage of his salary to the UCU to help in the ongoing USS pensions and ‘Four Fights’ disputes. He argued that showing solidarity with the UCU is in the students’ interest because “staff working conditions are student learning conditions.”

Cynthia Lawson

Cynthia Lawson, an MA student in Social Research Methods, is running for Postgraduate Academic Officer. Her campaign is centred around her desire to make Durham a more inclusive and welcoming place for postgraduate students.

Having already done a BA in Criminology at Durham, Lawson describes how she quickly noticed that the Durham postgraduate experience is very different from the undergraduate experience: “It feels like postgrads keep far more to themselves than undergrads.”

To enable postgraduates to better integrate with their peers, Lawson wants to help create more social events targeted at postgraduates, and more opportunities for college involvement: “I want to liaise with JCRs and encourage them to run more events targeted at postgraduates.”

When asked how she would go about doing this, Lawson emphasises that her priority is to listen to what her peers want. She suggests that she would run a survey to see what kind of events, both formal and informal, postgraduates may want.

“Being a student, you’re still living your young days, even if you’ve come back to studying after months or years. I think it should still be a fun experience, and just because you’re not between 18 and 21 years old, doesn’t mean you can’t experience the same things.”

Lawson also talks about wanting to create more study spaces for postgraduate students, stating that she was disappointed when she compared the specifically postgraduate study space offering at Durham to that at other universities.

“I can’t speak for every ethnic minority, but I know amongst black students there’s definitely a feeling that there’s some type of culture that they don’t necessarily fit into”

cynthia lawson

“We have a space, but it’s quite small and depressing.” Though Lawson said she is not yet sure who she would talk to in order to set this idea into motion, she is determined to provide her peers with a more attractive study space offering.

Currently, a student representative for her course, Lawson describes herself as someone who is good at listening to people’s concerns, communicating these to relevant people, and trying to find a solution.

She also talks about her work with programmes such as the Laidlaw Scholarship, Sutton Trust and Insight2Uni: “I’ve just always had an interest in helping people to better their education.” She adds that her involvement with such programmes has given her experience in mentoring people, which she believes will be invaluable in the role.

When asked about her opinions on the SU’s work last year, Lawson praises Seun Twins’ Culture Commission: “I can’t speak for every ethnic minority, but I know amongst black students there’s definitely a feeling that there’s some type of culture that they don’t necessarily fit into.”

“I think the Culture Commission was definitely a good idea in order to make Durham actually inclusive, rather than just bringing in numbers.” In her manifesto, Lawson says that, as someone from an underrepresented group herself, she understands what it feels like to be ‘othered’. She emphasises that she will be “a friendly face who you can talk to about any of your concerns”.

Lawson concludes that she wants to be remembered as the officer who “wanted the best for postgraduates and wanted postgraduates to enjoy their overall experience at Durham as much as possible”.

Laura Curran

Although she is running unopposed, Laura Curran has not takena relaxed approach to her campaign for Welfare and Liberations officer.

While having never run for a position in the SU, Curran hopes to draw on her experience throughout her time at Durham calling it a “natural progression” from her previous work at the University. “In my second term in first year I became the SU rep for Collingwood, in my second year I joined Collingwood’s welfare committee and I carried on through this throughout my undergrad”. 

 When talking to Palatinate, the masters student was keen to lay out her proposals, especially her key campaign promise of bringing in consent workshops for students. Curran hopes to make consent workshops mandatory for all freshers as “it’s important that people are aware what the law is; how to protect themselves” and that “everyone feels as safe and included and that continues throughout the year”. 

However Curran understands that consent workshops would have to be run in college and hopes to “support colleges on how to do that as certain things work well in different settings”. 

Though Curran’s main policy is consent workshops she also discussed her other manifesto promises in the interview. Curran has 5 other main campaign areas: Student housing, imposter syndrome, nights out, EDI training and how the university should operate Beyond Covid. 

Most of Curran’s practical policy comes with her nights out manifesto policy. She wants to put policies in place to stop a repeat of first term as “so many people felt unsafe, scared and lost with what was happening” 

One of her policies is to create an app for students. “The idea I have the app is that if someone has been on a night out or it is late during the day or evening, and for whatever reason they do not feel safe getting home, the idea I have for the app, it gives different ways for them to get home”

“This includes Taxis, night bus or volunteers who can get them home safe – one centralised space where people can quickly get in touch with someone or a company to get transport to get home safely”

“It’s important that people are aware what the law is; how to protect themselves”

laura curran

Another main issue is student housing, something that is seen throughout all SU officers campaigns. Curran believes “it should be the University’s concern around private housing” as people are “living in damp, cold and mould. People in Durham are paying far too much for housing and not in proportion for what is being offered…it needs to be affordable and worth value for money”

One main point however stood out throughout her interview – Curran wants to use communication if she gains the role, both by using it to help communicate with students and also by using student voices to pressure organisations into helping her. When talking about trying to bring more lighting to Riverwalk paths in Durham, Curran highlighted the need to have “a unified voice on the issue”, something that she wants to mark her entire role. 

Concluding the interview Curran talked about her feelings about running unopposed. “I was surprised…as far as I am aware this is the first time this has been unopposed”. She partially believed it was “seeing the treatment of offices this year I can see why that might put people off” though she admitted she “really couldn’t gauge why”. 

However Curran finished the interview echoing a sentiment that went through her entire interview, the importance of welfare and liberation officers in the SU, “I would want to see more people run as this is an important role and covers a lot and the issues which it covers affect a whole lot of students.”

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