Captain defends ‘cuddly’ relationship with Vice-Chancellor

Editor Kylie Noble questions SU President Ciarán Gallagher on the year gone by. A shortened version appears in the paper.

Photo courtesy of QUBSU

Photo courtesy of QUBSU

KN: When you were last speaking to me in September, you recognised that within the staff and students of the SU, there was feelings that the Union should have more political bite. Do you feel that you brought this, more political awareness? 

CG: I’d say certainly so. Not to the extent I want to, there’s still a gap to be filled. It could have more political bite yet I think we’ve increased in that respect since we last chatted. We’ve certainly been up and down to the DEL office more often than previous years. We’ve met with the First Minister’s Special Advisors. We had a rally that made the news…
KN: Were you disappointed in the numbers for that rally? It was very small in numbers.
CG: I was a bit but it was meaningful nonetheless. It did strike a message and it was a good thing that we represented at March 13th against Stormont House cuts. Before Rebecca Hall (NUS-USI President) was asked to speak at that event, Queen’s was asked to speak but we passed it on as she can represent further education as well.
KN: Obviously you’ve engaged more with Stormont, in lobbying but how do you feel you’ve engaged students in the processes of the Union?
CG:I think great work has been done in reinvigorating the course rep system, especially as we no longer have a coordinator in the staff though we intend to invest in another.
KN: Which is not likely? 
CG: Well, it could happen as along with the strategic plan we’re sending to the University, we’ve sent a list of financial requirements to officially make it a reality which we hope they will realise and implement, which includes new posts for the democratic side of things and clubs and societies which is pretty vulnerable at the moment.
KN: Will a lot of things have to be cut for these to be brought in?
CG: No. Well that’s the idea, that despite cuts we, based on the research of the strategic plan, we’re able to go to the University and say this is what we think will benefit our members most, based on research. For example, when I was talking to the Vice-Chancellor and the Registrar around Christmas time, I was saying we can’t absorb these cuts, we need to some kind of financial agreement and they said, that’s all very well and good but you need to demonstrate to us, what it is you need…otherwise don’t come to us without saying why you need it, and what you’re going to do with it.
Student engagement for the DEL cuts have been quite a difficult one as opposed to say the fees march (in 2010)…
KN: Do you not feel if you had of been clearer in the message, if you had of said your fees could increase, if you don’t oppose these cuts, that would have had more impact than the vague message which was used?
CG: Well we did use that message. I’m trying to think how we portrayed it exactly, but we did say that for example, that one thing was used for a day, to get a quick idea on the ground, what students knew about the situation, a little survey was used for no more than a day to ask are you aware of the cuts, do you know it could mean this? One of the questions was, did you know it could affect fees…
KN: Surely over a day that’s not very effective.
CG: No but it was used in one of the pop-up desks campaigns whilst we were waiting for…I’m trying to remember now, we were waiting to launch the petition I think. I guess one of the failures of the DEL cuts, well…one of the ways in which the DEL cuts campaign may have been better would be for a start, not using the word cut. The term cut has been used so often that it’s become almost white noise to the average person.
KN: Did you only realise this after the campaign?
CG: Unless you’re politically engaged, people have seen the word cuts on street placards for years now…
KN: What would you use instead?
CG: I did have an idea of what I would of used but I can’t remember it now…I haven’t given this much thought in a while. One of the issues I get, the danger at the moment of cuts to higher education at the moment is that the quality of education will start to sink slower and slower and particularly support for students. For example we’re seeing symptoms of it now where the bursaries are being cut as is funding for PHD places and who knows what is next down the line. Fees is a potential threat down the line. Politicians say they can’t maintain funding and it will have to be via private investment.
KN: Have you got that sense from Northern Irish politicians, is there that political will?
CG: I think there’s certainly no political appetite for it right now. At least not from most of the parties but that said some politicians are giving it thought.
KN: You said last year in interview, that you wished to consult Council more for a stronger sense of representation and a more transparent SU. Yet The Gown leaked the intentions of the SU leadership, which includes you and your team, to it appeared to try and boycott Council and decide what officer positions to cut. How do you feel about that and how do you defend that?
CG: Oh, we were never going to boycott Council. That was a decision by Officer Review Group. The problem there was that details about the cuts were coming so quickly. We knew by the November council that there was a possibility that cuts would need to be made and one of the things that might go to save more important services in the Union, would be one of two sabbatical posts. It actually was said in the Officer Review Group report in November. Though a lot of people seemed to miss it. We had inklings of this coming along but by the time it did we thought how are we going to deal with this. The first port of call of course was Officer Review Group because they can be convened much more quickly than a Student Council meeting. We called a meeting but it didn’t meet quorum. It was the last day of term.
KN: So are you saying that when you found out about these possible cuts, that fell after the Council meeting or was this before?
CG: We thought that it was a possibility but we didn’t want to state anything that wasn’t yet true.
KN: Well you said that cuts could be rather massive and the impact could be very large. It’s very vague. 
CG: Yes it was very vague, just at the time it hadn’t been confirmed how large of a cut we were getting. The news of the cut came very shortly after the December meeting which is why it wasn’t brought up.
KN: Would it not have been an option at all to contact via email, Council on the matter?
CG: Council weren’t going to be kept in the dark about it. It was just a case of what can we do about it. There was an element of let’s not alarm people just yet. That might not have been the best thing to do. In the end we did call an emergency Council meeting at the first day back at term. It was never the intention to keep Council out of the picture at all. Timing was just not on our side.
KN: Among the SU circles, I have sensed disappointment in that you ran in a very ‘fight the system’, a very bold campaign as a Pirate yet seemed to quickly become very friendly with the University. In a status on Facebook before second semester you asked students what they wanted to see you carry out and one student commented “stop giving teddy bears to the Vice Chancellor and stand up to the University.” Do you accept that you became somewhat institutionalised for a period?
CG: No I don’t. I think the reality of the discussions and the negotiations…in my opinion it’s not about shouting for the sake of it. It’s not about soap boxing or polishing halos. It’s about doing what you can in a realistic fashion to get the best deal for those you represent. My reputation is not my primary concern. My primary concern is doing whatever possible, as effectively possible to achieve what we can for students. As for the teddy bear remark; yes, I gave the Vice Chancellor a teddy bear with a SU branded t-shirt on it which cost £5. Just I guess to remind him of the SU at all times but in response to that particular remark; if all we needed to do, to get a good deal out of the Vice Chancellor was to give him a teddy bear, surely the logical thing to do would be to send him crates of the things. It’s not about making enemies and appearing   it’s about getting shit done.
KN: Do you feel perhaps, a bit like Gordon Brown?  
CG: As in coming in at a bad time? Yes, I have had moments when I’ve felt like that…you don’t get to choose this stuff. On the other hand it’s sort of a privilege to do the best I can to avoid some of the worst elements of the cuts and to try and do the best I can. The persona on what I ran compared to the reality of what I was in office…yes I probably would say there’s a bit of a wide berth there. In not expecting to win, I was very eager to not do things by the book but simply do things to be effective.
KN: Can you name to me three improvements for students that have occurred under your leadership of the SU? 
CG: I do think the accountability within Schools and teaching is better. That’s very much thanks to the team’s engagement particularly with school and course reps.
KN: Would you say that’s a lot to do with Hannah’s (VP Education’s) work? 
CG: Yes. And one thing that won’t happen in my time but we’ve made every opportunity to contact DEL and Farry, to bring monthly student payments in.
KN: Have DEL not been engaged in previous years?
CG: From what he tells me not really. One of the annoying realities I think of a Students Union is some fights take more than a year to win. The way in which students are engaging with academic board is a big plus. Council was well represented on it this year. Better than last year, having sat on it on Council’s behalf. Issues have been brought up, big and small. Everything from student welfare to library services. There’s the street reps initiative that Chloe brought up to improve relationships between students and residents. Apart from that, some things I would have liked to have done were made lot less possible because of the cuts.
KN: Two pound pints?
CG: I am genuinely sorry I couldn’t do that but it would have been really irresponsible to do it in a year like this when the Union is obviously already facing cuts that are very visible.
KN: With the part time officers being brought in, obviously that’s a positive in that there’s more representation, more democracy on Council, more issues being tackled. However, these are students working for free in the Union essentially and with the motion passed about the living wage which if implemented, would seem to jar with unpaid officers. 
CG: The part time officers won’t be suspected to do anymore work than someone not getting a wage; you could say someone not getting a wage shouldn’t be expected to do anymore work at all but it proves to function well in other Unions in the UK and Ireland, and we used to have them up until probably about ten or so years ago. There are definitely still groups of students on campus-student parents, student carers, international students-who are still difficult to engage and I have no doubt have things to say, just we aren’t hearing them. More our fault than theirs.
KN: They would seem to eat into VP Equality’s role?
CG: Not necessarily because it was realised that a full time VP Equality would be needed to tie the link there, to actually organise on a full time basis the campaigns that are required by various groups. It could turn out to be like the relationship between VP Education and school reps.
KN: Are you content with how your term has went and what do you hope your legacy will be? 
CG: Am I content? No. There is much more I would have wanted to do but at the same time I realised between a mixture of personal reasons in life and realising ambitions in life outside of the Union and also recognising some of the potential talent that could take my place, I thought it was best to not run. I think the Union is in good hands next year. I would like my legacy to be, the person who pushed for the reintroduction of part time officers and I suppose to have put up a suitably strong opposition to the cuts that are starting to devastate the University at this time.
KN: Do you think next year will be ten times as tough?
CG: It could well get tougher. That’s the thing students and the executive coming forward need to be very aware of which is why post election period we could be looking at fees again.
KN: As in the University will be looking at fees again or the sabbs? 
CG: Whenever the elections are over and done with and whoever’s sitting in Westminster and has a clear run for another half a decade, who knows what could happen there. I would like if at the very least…the very purpose of becoming President in the first place was to try and upset the system of big, strong tickets which were so daunting that they put off other people. This year you still had tickets, but they were much looser in nature. One ticket if you want to call it that, did win. I think the candidacy has changed considerably from what I remember. The sort of people going for these positions now are the sort of people who are very involved in the Union, not just from a society point of view but are involved in the governance somehow.
KN: When you came into the role, you were pretty disillusioned with the Union. Do you feel much more confident about its capabilities? 
CG: It’s got some leaps and bounds to make. That’s what the Strategic Plan has been about and some of the ideas in the diagnostic finding. We acknowledge our representation needs to be wider, democracy needs to be put back in the centre.
KN: Where do you feel it is at the moment?
CG: Moving back towards it. Very, very confidentially which of course means better engagement. They’re bedfellows, engagement and democracy. A lot of time across the road has been spent talking to management about what is a more fair financial arrangement with the University and there’s a number of ways in which that could be played out, there may be some settlement that could be formed in June senate but that’s not quite certain yet. It’s unfortunate that so much of what I’ve done this year has been not front and centre…but it will happen and it will improve. Whether or not if it improves as much as I like it to is another question.
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