UG Academic Officer candidate interviews: William Brown and Jack Theaker

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As the Durham Students’ Union elections get underway, Palatinate met the two candidates running for the role of Undergraduate Academic Officer, William Brown and Jack Theaker.

William Brown

William Brown is a third year History and Politics student, the Durham Student Union rep for Trevelyan College, and one of two candidates for the role of Undergraduate Academic Officer in Durham Students’ Union next year.

In his interview with Palatinate, Mr Brown said that he sees a number of issues with Durham SU, “I’m currently Trevs JCR SU rep and in this role, I have quite a lot of exposure to Durham SU so I see what’s going wrong with it. I’m talking to people in Trevs all the time and I’ve found that every single person says “Oh they’re rubbish”. I want to change that.” 

He goes on to say that “It’s ridiculous that we have a uni of 20,000 people and only maybe 5% of them know what the SU does, and even fewer care what the SU does”, and that he’s “trying to restore that relationship between the student body and the SU”. Palatinate were unable to find the source of the statistics that Mr Brown used.

When asked why Durham SU has such an image problem among students, he said that it is “not focusing on the issues that matter”. He criticised the priorities of the current officers, saying that “how can you expect people to care about what the SU does when, in the popular mindset, they only talk about national politics and go on petty rants about it?”

As UG Academic Officer, Mr Brown said he’d focus his efforts on the housing crisis and industrial action if elected. Regarding the cost-of-living crisis and housing crisis, Mr Brown said that “Pretty much the only good thing the SU has done this year is the food bank. That needs to be expanded and made as permanent as time demands”, and that Durham SU should be “calling for greater university assistance with student bills”.

Mr Brown aims to “restore that relationship between the student body and the SU”

Mr Brown also stated that he supports UCU strike action to an extent: “I do support the strike action and lecturers, in their pursuit of job security and higher pay. I’m not – in the sense that my opponent is – dedicated to strike action. I think it’s a regrettable means to an end and it shouldn’t have got here. The sooner that is solved, and the larger role people see the SU in solving that, the greater the satisfaction and trust is going to be” 

He also criticised his opponent, Jack Theaker, and the incumbent UG Academic Officer Joshua Freestone, “You’ve got two options: You can sit on a picket line and rant about the woes of the world – and this is what Joshua Freestone and Jack Theaker are very good at – or you can be in the negotiation room. I will always pick the latter.”

When asked about the power of Durham SU, Mr Brown said that “The truth is we are very limited, so it’s about doing what you can” and that “My problem with the SU isn’t that it’s not solved the cost-of-living crisis, it’s that it’s not doing everything it should be”. 

Although he acknowledged that Durham SU was relatively weak, he said that he aims to pass smaller, short-term reforms, and criticised Durham SU’s recent long-term projects: “The long-term project we had was the democracy review, and that was a complete car crash, it was a shambles. It took three attempts to get through the Assembly, and I still voted against it. You can do a long-term project and it can still end up naff.”

He also criticised the manifesto of his opponent: “I don’t mean to go on the defensive, but I read Jack Theaker’s manifesto and he’s talking about ‘decommodification’. Yeah, that’s great, let’s have that conversation, but we are not going to be able to decommodify the whole British university system. I think it is dishonest to go to voters and say “If you vote for me, I’m going to decommodify the university system”. You’re not, you don’t have that power.”

“You can sit on a picket line and rant about the woes of the world – and this is what Joshua Freestone and Jack Theaker are very good at – or you can be in the negotiation room. I will always pick the latter.”

William brown

However, he praised current Durham SU President Joe McGarry: “I think Joe McGarry has been a really good president for stabilising the ship. We had a tumultuous couple of years; whether you love or hate her, Seun Twins was a divisive figure, and Joe has done a good job of stabilising things.”

Mr Brown added that Durham SU has tended to “get things wrong when they’re getting it right”, using the food bank ASMR video controversy from earlier this year as an example. He said that “when they should be bathing in the good headlines, they get smashed from behind because they did something silly”, and that Durham SU should focus on “not just doing things, but making sure people know you’re doing those things; that restores trust.”

When asked why people should vote for him over his opponent Jack Theaker, he said that Mr Theaker is “part of an establishment mindset at the SU that hasn’t served students well” and that he is “something different, not part of that status quo, and has always been an opposition figure in Assembly.”

He went on to say that “Jack’s been endorsed by Joshua Freestone. I know and have worked with Joshua and I think he’s done some good things, but he’s also got a hammer and sickle in his bio. You know, that’s a hate symbol in Latvia, that’s illegal there.”

He also criticised Mr Theaker’s decolonisation proposals: “One of Jack’s major policies is to launch a review into decolonisation. That is fundamentally a decent enough idea considering we live in the shadow of decolonisation, but we had one two years ago, and like the current UK government, they’re running out of ideas”.

When asked to give one sentence to summarise his campaign, Mr Brown said: “I bring something new to the role, and I’m willing to work with anybody and everybody to restore that trust between the students and the SU.”

“He’s (Joshua Freestone) also got a hammer and sickle in his bio. You know that’s a hate symbol in Estonia, that’s illegal there”

William brown

Jack Theaker

Jack Theaker, a third year Music and Politics student and ex secretary of the Labour Club, is the second candidate running for the role of Undergraduate Academic Officer. Mr Theaker, who is running on a platform of “Decommodify, Decolonise, Democratise!”, has been endorsed by both the 93% club and the Labour Club. 

When asked what the most important element of his manifesto was in his interview with Palatinate, Mr Theaker said that his priority would be his work on decommodifying Durham University. He said the problems that this leads to for both students and staff are “symbiotic” with the state of education at the moment allowing the University to “exploit” both students and staff by “exploiting” the staff and treating the students like “cash cows”. 

When asked on how he hoped to achieve this, Mr Theaker spoke about his proposal to work with other Students Unions to boycott the national student survey. Inspired by the work done by Cambridge Student Union, he saw how they used the boycott to “give them leverage” and “put their demands on the table”, which he hopes to use to demand the University to move away from marketisation. 

When asked what he would do if he was unable to get the support of other Student Unions, Mr Theaker said he would continue the boycott in Durham, believing that there would be “widespread support for it”. He also said that Durham SU “needs to be more outward looking” and produce more material practice, something he believes that this boycott would do. 

Mr Theaker also spoke about his goal of “decolonising” the University. While he praised the work done by decolonisation interns he said that “the uni is built on colonial identity, and there is a hangover from this today” that still impacts the University through “admissions which are skewed towards privileged white people”.

“The uni is built on colonial identity, and there is a hangover from this today”

jack theaker

Because of this legacy, he would like to see more being done by the University to solve this issue. In the interview he said this could be achieved through giving “people the living wage” to work on how to decolonise the University, along with working “with the uni about outreach” programmes, which Mr Theaker hopes to increase if he were elected. 

While in his manifesto Mr Theaker said he hoped to be an “oppositional force” to the University, he also said that he hoped to have a working relationship with the University saying he would “work as close as possible within the uni(versity)”. However he went on to say that he “won’t sacrifice (his) principles for anyone” and would “be confrontational” with the University. 

Inspired by his year abroad in Norway, he said he saw how students could have a place of power within the University, something he said would “democratise the University” if the “SU (were given) a more powerful role to play”. Mr Theaker went on to say that by playing an oppositional force, even when he had no formal power, he hopes that this force will allow for “better, more refined policy”. 

Unlike William Brown, Mr Theaker was a lot more complimentary of the work of the current Durham SU student officers, especially Joshua Freestone and Jack Ballingham. He praised both for their work in “organising protests and being oppositional” to the University and further praised Mr Ballingham for his work campaigning against the free speech bill which Mr Theaker said could bankrupt the University. 

He did also criticise the current officers for their role in the preferendum which while he conceded had “good intentions” in his mind “divided students” and was “disrespectful” towards students who are currently both staff and students. When asked if he would support a preferendum next year, Mr Theaker said he would not as he said “having a unified voice with the SU and UCU…create a longer picket” allowing for a “quicker resolution” to be reached”. 

He also criticised the problem of “bureaucracy” within Durham SU which he said led to issues with “transparency”. When asked about how he believes this can be solved he went back to his ideas of giving SU officers more power, which he believes will break through this barrier. 

Mr Theaker hopes to be an “oppositional force” to the University

Mr Theaker also admitted that Durham SU does have an issue due to the image it has with current students. When asked what he would do to fix it he said he would want the SU officers to have a “physical presence” within the University to “show people that the SU is there for them”. 

When questioned on how he would want to achieve it, he said that he hoped to implement more physical support, like that which inspired him to run in the first place. Inspired by the breakfasts that Durham SU have run this year to combat the cost of living, he said being able to see how the SU makes “material difference to people’s lives” was a way of improving the image. 

Mr Theaker also said he would aim to get more “marginalised people involved” with formulating policy so they stay involved within Durham SU. 

When questioned on the reality of his manifesto in one year, Mr Theaker conceded he might not be able to achieve all he set out to do in one year. Instead the music student said that he “did not see (himself) in isolation” and instead “feeling that the “platform I am running on is building on the staff  from my first year”. 

Ultimately  Mr Theaker said that he hoped to be the “first among people”, being a “grassroots representative who would want to be there for the people he represented. When asked if he had any closing remarks for Palatinate’s readers, he simply said “vote for me, basically”.

A link to vote in this election can be found here. Voting closes at 17:00 next Wednesday (the 22nd of February).

Image: Daniel Hodgson

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