By Patrick Stephens, Martha Mchardy, Theo Burman and Kiara Davies
In the lead up to what will be the most contested SU presidency for four years, we sat down with all the presidential candidates, as well as students running for the officer roles that will also be elected next week. To watch the full interviews, visit Palatinate’s Youtube channel:
Voting opens on 22nd February, and closes on the 25th. All elections will be held via the SU site, accessible via DUO under the “student elections” tab.
A few candidates declined the chance for an interview. Additionally, there are 11 candidates running for the four SU trustee positions, whose interviews will be posted online.
RON will be an option in every election, with the oppourtunity for students to apply to lead an offical RON campaign specific to each race. Even if a student does not run the RON campaign, the option will remain on the ballot.
The last time four candidates ran for President was in 2017. If a RON campaign were to emerge, it would be the most contested presidential election on record.
Current President of Indian Society, Lathar emphasised his motivation for running. “The SU President should work for the welfare of students: they have a duty to secure the social welfare of all the students. It should not be about getting a paid job or the free accommodation, but working for and serving the students, making their voices heard. Normally, SU and elected students just do their job for the paid salary. Most people running are running for a paid job or to boost their CV.”
Lathar was especially critical of the way the Culture Commission has been conducted. “It is a great initiative, and I appreciate the work that has gone into it. However, I might be wrong, but it seems to me the people in this Culture Commission were in the current SU president’s campaign team last year. I want people apart from my team to be part of that initiative, because there should be diversity within it, so that people might have different views.”
He similarly criticised SU democracy. “I think the SU should work in a more transparent and democratic manner.”
Lathar promised to be available at his office biweekly for students to discuss any issues. “If anyone has any doubts those can be cleared up by myself or I can raise that in front of the SU team or the Vice Chancellor”.
He highlighted some of his key policies. “I want to fight against the rise of fees for international students, and against higher accommodation fees. I would work with DPOCA to combat racism and discrimination. Also, I would also like to create a cultural festival for people to enjoy.”
He ended the interview saying: “I promise to do my best and never take a rest”.
You can watch the full interview with Aditya here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S556alSyb1c
Reflecting on his role at St Chad’s JCR President, Burton described it as a “really enjoyable and rewarding opportunity to help students, to represent students and fight for their interests”. He outlined his motivation for running for SU President: “I’m passionate about making the SU more financially accountable to its students. My experience working in the common room is that I’ve met so many people who have so little interest in the SU or feel so detached from it.If it didn’t exist at all and the money from the SU was repatriated elsewhere, they would not mind a jiffy. Serious change needs to occur.”
Burton also spoke about the conversations he’s had with students about the DSU, saying: “They don’t know what the SU does or how their money is being spent; they know the SU has a lot of money and staff, and they don’t know where it’s going and whether it’s used effectively and that brings a lot of apathy and distaste towards the SU. I want to start a frank debate about the SU, the SU’s finances, some of those parts of the SU not discussed well.” Going forward, he said, “the SU strategy is coming up for renewal this year, and with most students saying they feel more at home in their common rooms, it’s time the SU really listens to that.”
When it came to the Democracy Review, Burton was very clear: “certain students are always involved in those debates and a lot of students do not feel part of that discussion. I would want to bring in these voices and make them feel like there’s a freedom to debate, a freedom to criticise the SU. It is a union, it should not be like a firm or come with its own institutional interests.”
He also talked about how to increase awareness of how the SU works and start a debate around it. “Go to the science site, set up stalls outside the SU. Go to people and tell them what the SU does, what their 27 staff members do. We can go from there and see what changes need to be made.”
You can watch the full interview with James here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IZPcJlLQcSY
When asked why he decided to run for the role, Joe Simmons, who is a third year Economics student at Josephine Butler made it very clear: “Durham’s in crisis, there’s no doubt about that.”
“The pandemic has devastated the student experience, the DSU is perceived as undemocratic, unrepresentative and poor value for money, and Durham isn’t really working in the interests of students.”
Simmons noted that he hasn’t had much involvement in the DSU. He said: “I’m an outsider candidate, and I believe only an outsider can solve the problems facing the DSU.”
He also talked about his book publishing business, saying: “the key skills you learn from there are that you need to communicate with your customers, and that’s something the DSU really needs to get right is knowing how to communicate with its students.”
Talking about the Democracy Review, Simmons commented that the Review “tells the DSU what everyone has been saying for the past couple of years: that it is undemocratic, unrepresentative, and the DSU is also poor value for money.” Simmons also commented that the DSU “needs to cut down on bureaucracy facing student societies who face significant obstacles in getting started and also in running.”
His manifesto focuses on three areas: Tackling Covid-19, providing academic reform, and building a better Durham.
Simmons was proud of the way he is running his campaign. “I think we should be reaching out to everyone and thats exactly how I’ve run my campaign: I’ve gotten in touch with sports teams, welfare teams ,international students, leading members of minority groups, and this is only going to increase and I’ll get in touch with more students in the future. The response has been phenomenal and they’re very keen to get involved within the DSU, but it’s about having someone with the vision and the know-how to include these groups and include everyone in the DSU.”
He ended the interview stressing the importance of seeking out mental health support for anyone struggling. “I’ve spoken to a lot of welfare teams, they’re very keen to get in touch with you if you’re struggling”.
You can watch the full interview with Joe here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zxo5uZOQbkg
Explaining her decision to rerun, current SU President Seun said: “Arguably this year we have been somewhat formidable and we’ve survived in a global pandemic which should not be understated at all. We’ve done so much in the face of the worst times, so I felt like to lose that momentum would be a waste.”
Twins was proud of what she has achieved so far. “It’s two thirds that I’ve already achieved from my manifesto last year, despite Covid-19. I’ve been that unapologetic voice for students and now it’s about what I can be creative and innovative about. My 14 point plan manifesto is split into 4 categories: experienced leadership, cultural change, empowering student voices and student leaders, and a transparent and effective SU.”
With regards to the Culture Commission: “I have a very clear plan. My plan is to set up a working group to oversee the implementation of recommendations that’s chaired and led by students. I want the implementation of the commission to be accountable to students, but financed by the University. They should be responsible for making Durham more inclusive and more compassionate.” She strongly emphasised the importance of her experience. “Ultimately, I have knowledge of this role. I would not be dazzled by a new Vice-Chancellor, I would set the agenda in the name of students.”
Twins finished by stressing that Durham still needs to change. “It wasn’t an easy decision to rerun this year. I’ve literally given my heart and soul to Durham. All this momentum… all of that cannot be lost, because then we’ll be in a cyclical rhythm of “Durham needs to be better, this is what we need to do to be better, Durham needs to be better etc”. The issues are the same. We should have solved the old problems. That takes time, that’s basically what I’m asking for: more time.”
You can watch the full interview with Seun here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qDPkMxyq3e8
Jack Ballingham is a third-year International Relations student at Aiden’s. Running on a platform of making the SU more democratic, more transparent and more efficient, he hopes to bring the perspective of a student group leader to the sabbatical role. “I’m the Co-Chair of the Labour Club and have been on the exec for a few years now,” he said. “Being involved with student group execs has given me insight into the way the SU deals with societies.”
On the topic of the democracy review, Ballingham was encouraged by the initiative but highlighted the lack of engagement with the SU as a sign that further reform was needed. “Student groups have to deal with a lot of vague bureaucracy.”
“I’ve noticed that the way that societies are handled can feel arbitrary. There’s not a lot of clarity on what student groups are supposed to do.”
The SU Assembly, which received particular focus from the Democracy Review, is the subject of one of Ballingham’s main policies. “Something I want to work on is reforming the Assembly, because it’s meant to be our main way of influencing decision-making in the SU.”
“Over a quarter of the positions on Assembly aren’t directly elected by the student body, and there’s no public record of who’s on it, so I think some reform is needed there.”
Ballingham also felt that the Student Group Agreement, which outlines the relationship between the SU and societies, was too “arbitrary”. Drawing on his experience as DULC Co-Chair and long-term exec member, he wants to replace it with a new document created through student group consultation, to give clearer guidance to groups in the future.
“There’s got to be as little bureaucracy involved as possible. We need a clear, easy to use process.”
Ballingham’s other priority, transparency, includes more accountability for the Governance and Grants committee, more openness about financial decisions, and a full publication of minutes from all the meetings he would attend.
You can watch the full interview with Jack here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WCpnlqwhc2c
Welfare and Liberation
Graham, who is President of the Durham LGBT Association, said he is running for the role of Welfare and Liberation Officer because “2021 is a call to action”.
He praised the work of current Welfare and Liberation Officer, Ewan Swift, particularly his focus on housing matters. Although, he admitted that he wants to have a different focus to Swift, making mental health a “priority”.
However, he explained that he would like to continue Swift’s work in making private landlords give references to students who are signing houses, to make sure they’re not going to be “ripped off”.
Graham outlined the steps he would take to support student mental health. These included expanding Nightline training, monthly check-ins with college welfare teams, and implementing a system where every student does active bystander training. Graham admitted that he cannot make all these changes in one year, and that he would be “laying the foundations” for such change.
Graham argued that the University and colleges have done enough this year to support student mental health. However, he pointed to areas of the University counselling service that could be improved. He spoke about the need for the service to hire “minority specialists”, and students’ dissatisfaction with only six counselling sessions being available to them per year.
In addition, Graham spoke about his plans to raise minority voices at Durham, including monthly meetings with SU Association Presidents and weekly social media takeovers where different groups can share their campaigns and events. Graham also expressed his excitement for the Culture Commission, commenting: “I really want minorities to be heard in Durham. It’s their space too”.
When asked to reflect on the controversies that the SU has faced and the role that he sees the SU playing going into next year, Graham talked about a “disconnect” between students and the SU. He described the Democracy Review as a “good step” but explained that “we need to look at why there’s a disconnect”.
He argued the SU “is a platform for every student to see the change that they want in Durham”, but that “the role of the SU will change depending on who the officers are”.
Graham said it was “premature” to comment on whether the SU has done enough to inspire trust in students this year.
You can watch the full interview with Jonah here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6_fNTswJeiE
When asked why she decided to run for the role, Conmy, who is a first year Criminology student at Van Mildert College, explained: “I can see some quite blatant issues that I really want to address within the SU and within the University as a whole”. Conmy expanded on these “blatant issues”, describing a “toxic culture” at Durham University where students experience “racism” and “misogyny”. Conmy said she had not seen many resources or anywhere she would go to talk about these issues.
Conmy also talked about her experience which would prepare her for the role as a both a department and household representative as well as her experience as part of the Talk and Support team at Van Mildert College.
When asked what she would do differently to current Welfare and Liberation Officer, Ewan Swift, Conmy said she would “make communication between the SU and students more clear” and that she would make the SU “more approachable”. She commented that “at the moment it feels very much like the SU is detached from the student body”.
Conmy proposed forming “discussion groups” to “bring everybody together across the Uni” and holding meetings between different college welfare teams twice a term. She also said she wants to make resources “more accessible” to students.
Conmy spoke about her desire for a change to “what is acceptable” within the University. She said “its not clear that jokes that make people uncomfortable” or that “victim blaming” are unacceptable. She said she would work on “implementing courses” to teach people about why certain behaviours are unacceptable in order to “denormalise being toxic”.
Reflecting on the controversies that Durham SU has experienced in the past year, Conmy said “I want to work on having more feedback from students and having students say what they actually want to the SU”. She added that she wants to make it clear that “the SU are there to help the students rather than to help themselves”.
You can watch the full interview with Caitlin here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iZtJCkFUHb0
Merrington is an Education Studies postgraduate at Hild Bede, having done his undergraduate degree at Hatfield. He hopes to bring his student experience to the role, focusing on what he calls “The Pandemic University”.
Merrington cited his time at Durham as his most significant qualification for this position. “Since doing my undergraduate here I’ve developed such a strong personal relationship with the student body. I have what it takes to really look out for the postgraduate community, being a member myself.”
Merrington was very complimentary of Sarah McAllister’s record this year, noting her ability to maintain networking opportunities during the pandemic. He suggested building on her work of including postgraduates in the Durham community through co-curriculars.
On the funded extensions for PhD students, Merrington supported the idea but didn’t think it went far enough. “We need to learn a lot more from the pandemic university.” “PhD students are seen as too studenty to be staff and too staff to be studenty. We need to listen to what they demand and what they need.”
“Postgraduates are often seen by the University as a reserve army of academic labour.”
When asked why students should vote for him, Merrington highlighted his local credentials and commitment to the community. “I’m from Durham so I’ve always had a relationship with the university. Ultimately I want to improve the situation for all students but especially the postgrads who are overlooked.”
You can watch the full interview with Declan here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mBD03MUDKRk
A third-year History student at Trevelyan College, Procter reflected on how being Head Frep this year gave him the necessary people-skills needed for the role. His Internship in the College within the enrichment and welfare programme meant he had previous experience improving the academic lives of the students at a college-level.
When asked why he decided to run, Procter believed his “frank” nature could be used to improve the “negative image” that the SU currently has and help to make it “more relevant to us as a student body”.
Procter’s main polices focus on ensuring lecture capture is used across the university with “lecturers actually trained to use technology” as well as opening up a conversation about removing group summative work. He is enthusiastic about creating a “general culture of networking between students and lecturers” by creating events for them to socialise.
Procter praised the current incumbent, Nailah Haque, for her work alongside Sarah McAllister in ensuring the academic policies relating to Covid-19 and its impact were successful. From this, he is keen to continue the no-evidence extension policy.
You can watch the full interview with Charlie here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PUFcIwx9P_g
Image: Amana Moore