SU elections: meet the candidates

By Toby Donegan-Cross, and

Voting for the Students’ Union elections opens on 23rd February. In anticipation of the elections, Palatinate has interviewed all eleven candidates. All interviewees were asked the same three questions: Why are you running? What are your policies? and What would you do differently or the same to the current incumbent?

Turnout for last year’s elections was just 16.6%, only a slight increase on the previous year, where it was 15.2%. The five positions being elected are President, Opportunities, Welfare and Liberation, Postgraduate Academic and Undergraduate Academic.

The current officers are as follows:

  • President:
  • Opportunties: Jess Dunning
  • Welfare and Liberation: Amelia McLoughlan
  • Undergraduate Academic: -Audini
  • Postgraduate Academic: David Evans

President

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When asked why she had decided to run, Ovenden said that we are now in a “make or break moment” for the University, citing issues of staff cuts, environmental complacency, and rent hikes.

Her experience as President of the Working-Class Students’ Association and as an environmental campaigner would mean that she could mobilise students to affect change. Ovenden’s programme was based on increasing representation for students, challenging house and college prices (including the regeneration of #Rippedoff), reinstating the Durham Grant, and involving working class students in the University’s decision-making processes.

“The role of a student oficer is to empower.”

Ovenden praised current president, Kate McIntosh, for her work on strikes. She summarised by saying that “The University, and its leadership in particular, have these incredibly toxic goals of growth and expansion, with a human cost for all their ambition. The role of a student officer is to empower students to recognise that our struggle is one also of workers and local residents.

Seun Twins

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Twins reflected on how, when she arrived at Durham, it was a “massive culture shock, and I felt that there weren’t enough spaces here that were reserved for me and my identity.” Having had a long-standing interest in minority voices and gender, and a “cohesive track record of student leadership”, Twins felt that, in 2020, the SU should have a student leader of colour.

“It’s really hard to negotiate the idea that your mental health might be depreciating but you also have to get your degree.”

Her platform is based on four main ideas, including accessibility, student well-being, violence on campus, and decolonization. Twins talked openly about her own experiences of mental health, and said that a key problem for students was knowing where to go. “It’s really hard to negotiate the idea that your mental health might be depreciating but you also have to get your degree.”

When asked about the current President, Kate McIntosh, Twins stated that she had done “an exceptional job. I think she’s honestly awesome, especially in view of the recent things that have gone on.”

Pranjul Khatri

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When asked about why he had decided to run, Khatri reflected on his leadership experience before Durham at the University of Delhi. He viewed the SU presidency as a way to serve, saying “If you work for students, students pay you so much back”

The programme Khatri is running on includes suggestions of an annual cultural festival to alleviate stress, giving students a chance to relax in a way that would make them “cheery and happy.” The festival, he suggested, would be a “once in a lifetime experience.”

“If you work for students, students pay you so much back”

Khatri also argued that the SU should launch a University Press, funded by students, where “publications would matter and we will have a voice.” In addition, Khatri argued the SU should do more to fight against high accom- modation fees.

When asked to reflect on the current incumbent, Kate McIntosh, Khatri argued that the SU should be more accessible to students. In order to achieve this, he suggested weekly meetings with college representatives.

Opportunities

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Marshall, who is a History finalist at Grey College, reflected on how much she had benefitted from what the Students’ Union offered her, but also on how she didn’t have the time as an undergraduate student to affect change in the way she would like. “I realised this is the purpose of sabbatical roles. You can dedicate time after your degree to trying to change your university.”

“Personal change is point- less if institutions aren’t will- ing to facilitate this change”.

When asked about what needed to change, Marshall highlighted two issues. The first was the climate emergency, arguing that “If we going to call ourselves one of the top universities internationally, we have to act like the climate emergency is a real thing and not just a case of ticking boxes.”

In order to make progress, institutional rather than personal change was emphasised. “Ultimately,” she suggested, “I believe that personal change is pointless if institutions aren’t willing to facilitate this change.”

Beyond the climate emergency, a key priority was to change perceptions about the work of the SU: “the way in which the Students’ Union has appeared to students needs to change.”

Welfare and Liberation

Ewan Swift

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When asked why he was running, Swift reflected on his four years in St Cuthbert’s Society welfare, and as Senior Welfare Officer: “The thing that infuriates me the most is that my position in college is reactive… I’d have so many less people if the structural changes that I think need to happen were implemented.”

“Reform housing and accommodation, expand and standardise student support, and build a safer campus”

In this vein, his platform is based on three aims to “reform housing and accommodation, expand and standardise student support, and build a safer campus.”

When reflecting on the current incumbent, Amelia McLoughlan, Swift said “What I really like about what Amelia does is that she thinks about minorities and what she can do for them.” However, he suggested that the SU must be more proactive in informing students about what officers are doing. To rectify this issue, Swift argued that the SU should be more active on Instagram in order to achieve this.

Amelia McLoughlan

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McLoughlan, who is the current Welfare and Liberation Officer, said that she is running again because “there’s just so much more to do, and it was probably a slight naivety on my part to think that I could get so much done in my first year.” In addition, she said “it’s just a brilliant job, so why wouldn’t you want to run again?”

“Whoever you are, how- ever you identify, wherever you come from, there is a space to be yourself”

Her programme includes continuing the liberation strategy that she has been running this year, to embed a culture that means that “whoever you are, however you identify, wherever you come from, there is a space to be yourself.” She also aims to do a campaign on ‘de-pornification’.

Additionally, McLoughlan stated that two priorities would be a study on male mental health and constructing a more coherent housing reform programme. When asked about the advantages of being a second-term officer, she said that the last year has taught her about the structures of the SU, which would make it easier for her to affect change.

Undergraduate Academic

Declan Merrington

When asked why he wanted to run, Merrington said that “I do believe that when the SU works towards a common coherent goal, they can achieve quite a bit. I have been inspired in seeing what can be done.”

When asked what needed to change, Merrington highlighted three areas: the first was curriculum reform, stating that “We should give a platform to voices typically not seen on the curriculum: gender, sexuality, disability, age, marginalised communities.”

“I have been inspired in seeing what can be done”

The second was a “Mass I.T. overhaul.” Merrington pointed out that DUO and Millenium, Durham’s I.T. systems, have been down at least seven times since the beginning of term, and so replacements should be considered.

Finally, Merrington highlighted the “nightmare” of central timetabling, which no other Universities have.

When asked to reflect on the current incumbent, Merrington said that “Sam has worked really hard and I don’t want to undermine the work that they have done on this, but it needs to be pushed forward.”

Nailah Haque

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Haque, who is the current president of Durham People of Color Association (DPoCA), began by talking about her ambition to decolonise the curriculum, stating that over her time at Durham, she has felt that “this university isn’t made for people like me.”

Haque also stated that, so far, although the University has told departments that they need to decolonise, “they have not been given any resources or legitimate methods to use.”

“This university isn’t made for people like me”

Beyond this, Haque argued that the academic adviser role is not clearly defined and therefore ripe for reform. Since lecturers were already overworked, Haque suggested that departments should have an additional welfare team who would be properly equipped to help students and given training that academic staff did not have.

Reflecting on Audini, the current incumbent, Haque was full of praise, however, she stated that “Because there’s been such a focus on Decol, there are other things that need more attention.”

Bran Blackshaw

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When asked why they had decided to run, Blackshaw said “it hit me that I have a lot to offer and the role was something I was keen to pursue.”

The campaign they are running is based on four key areas: “Communication, Diversity, Value, and Advocacy.” In terms of communication, Blackshaw reflected on the perception that the SU doesn’t listen or represent students, saying “I want to change that. I want to be out there, meeting departments and meeting with academic societies, holding regular office hours.” The “Diversity” part of their programme was largely based on the programme of decolonising the curriculum, while “Value” refers to study space, college fees and university expansion. Finally, “Advocacy” referred to issues they would lobby for, including environmental sustainability, support for students on year abroads, and Lecture Capture technology.

“I have a lot to offer and the role was something I was keen to pursue”

Blackshaw was full of praise for the current incumbent, Audini, saying that they build on Audini’s success.

Postgraduate Academic

Ludovico Rella

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Rella said that, for him, the issue that needed most attention was the position of postgraduate teachers and teaching assistants. In particular, this involved making it more uniform across departments, and raising the hourly wage.

Rella also looked to the future, anticipating difficulties for postgraduates on tier four visas in light of Brexit.

A third aim focused on inclusivity, saying that “It’s not only a matter of departments fighting against discrimination but also creating a proactive inclusion model.”

A broader component of his programme was to bring the SU closer to departments.

This drew on his experience as a student rep for the Geography department, where he had run an extensive campaign to collect the views of students which would have otherwise not been heard.

Rella praised the work of current incumbent, David Evans, saying that there were more things to “follow up rather than change or do away with”.

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McAllister said that her interest in postgraduate issues had grown over the last year through her position as MCR Prescomm Chair, as well as through negative experiences for postgraduates surrounding fee hikes and a poorly organised freshers’ week.

When asked what needed to change, McAllister highlighted four areas. Firstly, she wants to “give all students a voice,” suggesting that, given the plurality of types of postgraduate courses, each option – be it PhD students, MAs, MSCs, or more – should have a working group to properly represent them. In line with this, McAllister’s second aim was to created an ‘Integrated postgrad community’, to help problems of mental health and isolation many experience. The third aim regarded accessibility, particularly postgraduate fees, bursaries, and PhD students’ pay.

“Give all students a voice”

Finally, McAllister suggested that Durham’s resources needed improving for postgraduates, highlighting that, in the plans for new colleges, there is little information about libraries. McAllister praised David Evans’ work on the hidden costs of postgraduate studies.

Images: via Wikimedia Commons and Durham Students’ Union

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