The four elected SU trustees sit on the Board, and help to make decisions about how the SU is governed. Palatinate invited all eight candidates for SU trustee to an interview, seven of whom took up the offer. Polls open at 8am on 22nd February
Sakunkan Neesung (Pat)
A Masters student in Management from Thailand, Pat was keen to stress the importance of trustees representing all students. “You have to really select a candidate that can represent you, so that all of us can really reflect on what you need and make decisions according to your interests.”
Pat told Palatinate: “I really want to represent a different group of students in the board of trustees. You need people who come from different cultural backgrounds, different ethnicities, religions, to cover Durham students, because we are pretty diverse and international.”
She emphasised her experience in student governance at her home university in Thailand. “I understand how student governance is run, I have experience in drafting policies. I interned in the Office of International affairs and Global Networks [at my home university], so I am familiar with working in an international atmosphere and communicating with everyone.”
She was also proud of her experience working with Access to Justice, a legal charity. “We simplify law for people to better understand and give them tools to get in touch with people who can help them with legal documents.”
Pat emphasised the need for transparency and visibility among SU trustees. “It is a problem of student government everywhere: students do not get to decide things that much, and everything gets decided behind a locked door and students have little visibility of what’s going on. That makes it difficult for us to reflect student needs when it comes to decision-making for the benefit of everyone. I would focus more on communication; you really need everyone’s input.”
She was critical about whether minority voices were heard. “I have concerns about whether we really do listen to that minority; do we just listen to them, or do we really do something about it to really represent everyone? What I’m trying to do is really listen, not just to people you could easily reach but to establish a new channel to reach more of them”.
When asked why people should vote for her, Pat said: “You should vote for me because I care the most for cultural diversity, you should vote for me for Durham University to be able to embrace diversity more in this campus. I would do everything I can do to allow us to respect each other’s cultures and create understanding. Diversity from my point of view is not just cultural background, it includes everything. I would make sure I work for that.”
First-year, and first-generation Law Student Oliver from Castle decided to run for the Trustee role because he “found that there are certain things missing in Durham”. Oliver said in particular he wants to represent “first-year students and first-generation students, because it’s a daunting experience coming to a University like this…and people need to be heard”.
Oliver went on to talk about his past relevant experience: “I’ve got all the basic experience like school councillor, where we’ve had to be on board meetings…I also worked on the redevelopment of my secondary school”. Oliver has also been an ambassador for the Holocaust Educational Trust. Now at University, he “wants to take it further at this level”.
In order to increase the visibility of the role if elected, Oliver said he would want to publicise reports, and in doing so “getting people to engage with the SU at that level”
When asked about how he would deal with a discarded RON majority, as happened last year’s group resigned, Oliver said “I would probably do the same, because democracy is the most important thing in a role like this”.
Oliver stressed that he could look at the SU with “fresh eyes” and concluded with “I want to give people that helping hand”.
Rob, a geography student at Aidan’s, emphasised his work as a trustee for his college JCR. He stressed the importance of improving the role’s publicity while noting how successful other roles have been in their use of social media.
“Social media and infographics are an amazing tool, they’re a really good way of getting information across that trustees haven’t tapped into yet.”
When asked about his thoughts on the Democracy Review, Smith opted to remain neutral. “It wouldn’t be massively appropriate for someone in a trustee position to talk about that.”
“As a trustee you don’t have any kind of agenda, you’re there to steer the ship in terms of responsibility, so I wouldn’t want to talk about that in the capacity of a trustee.”
Smith ultimately said that his main selling point was experience, having already been elected as a trustee for a student body. “I know how an organisation for Durham students should be governed,” he said. “I’m very familiar with governing documents like the Education Act because we have to engage with it every day.”
Meg Wishart, a first-year History and English student at John Snow College, stressed that the role of a trustee is “not to push your own agenda”. She explained SU Trustees speak on behalf of “all students”, not just ones that are “like you”.
Wishart talked about her experience as a board member for a local children’s charity, and drew parallels with the role of an SU Trustee, explaining that in both roles “being able to learn from others” is important. She also expressed the importance of being someone students can trust.
When asked what she would do to make the role more visible, Wishart said she would set up a new page for people to ask questions about the role in order to provide “clarity and accountability around what the job actually entails”. Wishart also hopes to make the minutes from meetings public.
Wishart commented that “the purpose of the Students’ Union is to advocate and push for the changes that students need to ensure they can have the best experience possible”, as well as “making sure a diverse range of perspectives and opinions are … properly heard and listened to”, and not dismissing voices that could be labelled as “too radical”. However, she stressed that “the purpose of the Students’ Union probably changes for every single person”.
Reflecting on whether Durham SU has fulfilled its purpose this year, Wishart argued that the SU is “getting closer” to fulfilling its purpose of representing the interests of students: “they’re starting to listen to students more”. However, Wishart believes that currently, students are being heard, but not necessarily listened to.
Wishart described the recent Democracy Review as a “promising sign” that the SU are being more “transparent” and “accountable”, but stressed that it needs to be followed by “action”. Asked why people should vote for her, Wishart said “I don’t impose my own views and political agendas on things”, and that she listens to “what the community needs”.
“I am always willing to listen to different perspectives … I have a track record of being able to serve other people”.
Second-year Grey College Theologian Kathryn continuously reiterated that she would be “pushing for more transparency” in the Trustees’ role if elected. Regarding the implementation of increased transparency, Kathryn said, “One of the big things that I want to do is to make as many meetings as public as possible, whether that’s through publishing minutes or whether that’s through allowing student observers to come to meetings”, adding “I really think that would help demystify some of what the Trustees do”.
Kathryn’s extensive SU involvement was apparent as she drew on her experience from being Grey College’s SU Officer, Chairing the SU Officer’s Committee, frequently putting motions forward in Assembly that focused on accessibility and transparency, being involved in the Democracy Review, helping the SU to lobby the University (notably regarding the recent 7-day summative extension), and through her experience co-founding ‘De-commercialise Durham’.
When asked about what she would do with a potential RON majority that was then discarded, Kathryn immediately said “I would resign”. As a RON voter herself last year she continued to say, “If I was “elected” to a role where the majority of students didn’t vote for me, I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing that role with no mandate”.
“I think people should vote for me because I have the most SU experience….If people want an expert in Durham SU, who knows a lot about how Durham’s SU structures work, and who has put a lot time and energy into making the SU more accessible and more transparent…then you should definitely vote for me”
Visibility and transparency are the watchwords for trustee candidate and PhD student Michael Preistley, who specialises in student well-being and mental health. He sees the role of the trustee as acting as a “critical friend” for the SU, working to ensure the organisation’s decisions are understood by the student body and adequately serving their needs.
“To be honest with you until quite recently I hadn’t actually heard of the role of trustee”, Michael revealed, going on to admit “I’ve never really had much involvement with the Student Union”.
“I guess that’s indicative of something”, he reflected. “The Student Union could be a bit demystified and some of their processes, practices and procedures could be more transparent and accessible for the general student to understand what the SU does…and how it can benefit every student at Durham.”
His principle focus to tackle this “feedback loop” would be “to increase the accessibility and clarity of the Student Union’s role and one of the key mechanisms to do that would be establishing much stronger and clearer connections with the college system”.
Despite admitting to not having read the recent democracy review, Michael recognises the problems that have arisen in recent years, in fact they were a contributing factor in his decision to run. “There’s quite clearly a split between some of the work that student union is doing and the purpose and the people that its doing it for”, he commented.
Although he would have to put a lot of thought into the decision, Michael indicated that he would likely resign from the role if RON won a majority this year: “I would feel disingenuine in the role”. Acting without a role would contradict the position’s key responsibility to ensure the Union maintains transparency and trustworthiness he explained.
He also highlighted the skills and experience he has gained from several advisory positions on student mental health charity boards including the Charlie Waller Memorial Trust. “I think there’s similar expectations and roles and responsibilities in terms of just being there to ensure that the decisions they’re making and the work they do is aligned to the interests and needs of the people they’re doing it for”, he explained.
With eight years of study at Durham University under his belt, Michael believes he has gained a nuanced “understanding of the needs of students” and is committed to improving relations between the Union and the people it is meant to serve.
Behavioural Sciences Masters student Ola Wojciechowska believes the solution to the issues and complaints that have plagued the Durham SU in recent years is representation. “I want to make sure that everybody feels they have someone on the board that they relate to”, she explained.
“I care a lot about equality and diversity and as an EU student myself I would like to make sure that every student is represented whatever their background is,” Ola stated. Having come from Poland to the UK to study some three and a half years ago, Ola believes she could offer fresh insight into the struggles experienced by Durham’s international student body and provide the Union with a valuable connection to the community.
Ola also highlighted the skills she has gained through her multiple years of experience as a support worker for social care provider Key Fort. “I’ve really enjoyed this position—you really have to know a lot about confidentiality, being diplomatic, making sure that you’re communicating ideas in a very clear, respectful and responsible way”, qualities she argued that would be directly transferrable to the role of trustee.
When asked about the recently published democracy review, Ola was cautiously optimistic. “I’m proud that something is being done about it, [but] definitely there is a lot that needs to be done,” she reflected.
She takes the recent criticism of the SU seriously and sees her role in the reconciliation process as ensuring that “the SU’s decisions are accounted for” but would be reluctant to resign in the eventuality that RON won the majority of votes. She insisted she would “try to speak with the board to really consider every single voice and really think about what the complaints are.”
Ola concluded: “during these really difficult times, we just really need to make sure that student’s well-being is a priority and that every voice is represented”, two goals she highlights as the central tenets of her personal platform as a trustee candidate.
Ola’s trustee candidate page can be found here: https://www.durhamsu.com/elections/candidate-hub/trustee
Image: Amana Moore