1) Stephen, tell us why you think you are the strongest candidate to lead QUBSU as President next year?
I feel that I’m the strongest candidate to lead QUBSU as President as I have the necessary experience to lead our Union where it needs to go. I’ve stood on a manifesto to dramatically change the way our SU is governed, its relationship with the University in terms of autonomy and independence, and respecting the decision-making of students.
Being Vice-President for Equality and Diversity has been immensely rewarding. I’ve spent my time so far campaigning on the issues that are important to me, that were included in my manifesto, and familiarising myself with the various structures, directorates, and key contacts within the University to have those initial conversations in order to achieve my goals.
I absolutely love working in this Union, representing you, as students, to the University and wider society. But it is because of that love, that I want to see it grow even more – which is why I have set autonomy as my key priority. Currently, QUBSU is the only non-independent Union in the UK or Ireland, and this hinders the membership a student at Queen’s should avail of.
In achieving autonomy, there will be a great deal of policy work, which is my biggest strength. Along with campaigns, I enjoy creating, developing, and scrutinising policy. We will have to carefully analyse and elaborate on what an autonomous SU would look like. I am eager to take up that challenge, so I hope students will put their trust in me.
2) What experiences have you built at Queen’s University, in an outside of the Union, which you believe will help you in this role?
Throughout my time at Queen’s, I’ve been involved in a number of clubs & societies, including also creating my own. I actively participated in charity work and later became the Charity Officer of the QUB Law Society. Last year, I was the Part-Time Disabled Students’ Officer, which is the first time the role has existed for a number of years.
External to the Union, I am the current NUS-USI Disabled Students’ Officer, where I represent the voice of disabled students on a regional level. – I think it’s fair to say my life rarely consists of anything other than student politics! But I have also been involved in public speaking and drama. Funnily enough, I also have a keen interest in following local, national and international politics!
I believe these roles will help because I have the experience and knowledge required to lead the Union. I am willing to sit at the table, to discuss, to negotiate, and to argue in the best interests of students and the SU.
3) What key platforms do you stand on for your campaign for this role?
In addition to the goal of achieving autonomy and independence, I also want to have stronger governance within the Students’ Union, which may involve rewriting the Constitution in order to make it as effective and efficient as possible. Currently, it’s very long and onerous, so I want to revisit it and be more creative in our approach.
This year, Council gave the green light to support a rebuild of the Students’ Union, which will be of huge benefit to new groups of students. I want students to feed directly into what this will look like and what they want to see in it.
I also want to work towards reinstating 2 sabbatical officers: going from 7 to 5 has increased our workload dramatically, and reducing our ability to be out on the ground, engaging with students.
Finally, as current Equality & Diversity officer, I want to work towards embedding equality into everything we do and ensuring liberation efforts widens our access and widens the group of students with whom we engage with.
4) What do you pledge to do to ensure an ongoing movement against tuition fees, casualisation of staff contracts and course closures?
As a current officer, having been heavily involved with both the organisation and delivery of the Take Back Queen’s referendum, I believe the historic highest turnout, with a 94% ‘Yes’ vote provides an unshakeable mandate to support and work towards implementing the programme of reforms as agreed upon by staff and students.
I want to work towards a firm commitment form the University that they will not request a rise in tuition fees, or lobby for increased fees, as education should be a free and public good, accessible to everyone.
This year we have been involved with the All-Party Group for Students in the Stormont Assembly, and as a result, I will work to present the case for why lowering tuition fees, and eventually working towards free publicly funded education is the most beneficial to our students, to our educational system, to our economy, and to other areas such as tourism and tackling unemployment figures.
On a national level, QUBSU led a delegation to the Union of Students in Ireland (USI)’s national demo in Dublin. There we rallied and marched in solidarity outside Lecister House calling on TDs to oppose loan schemes for tuition fees. The campaign, #EducationIs, reinforced the message of accessible higher education. No fees are seen as unfeasible or not pragmatic, but I disagree. Our generations before us received free education, and such models exist very well in European countries. Rather, I would argue that we need to be more innovative, re-prioritise our agenda, and invest in our young people and their futures. There is a huge brain drain in our country whereby huge swathes of people are leaving this country to not return later. Therefore, politicians have a duty to invest in our future and invest inn a group of future leaders.
In terms of casualization of staff, following the UCU & SU report which looked at postgraduate working conditions, I am pleased to see the University responding and taking proactive measures to ensure that this practice comes to an end. Throughout this year, I am seeing the work that they are doing to try to end the gender pay gap that exists, primarily at the professoriate level. The report provided a huge number of concerns and questions, along with valuable qualitative and quantitative feedback which should provide a solid impetus and foundation to act upon.
With course closures, following the success of the Save our Schools campaign, I unfortunately do not think we are out of the woods entirely. I believe cuts to arts and humanities subjects are still under threat and therefore we need to keep a close eye on what the agenda looks like for its future. I think we need to have a discussion about what ideology we are approaching these course closures from, and how seriously we are going to take investing in the non-high-earning graduate job courses.
I do not think it is a coincidence that academics are leaving in their droves, as they are under immense pressure to secure unsustainable amounts of research income grants. Not only is it unsustainable, but it affects our students, the quality of teaching they receive, and the university as a result. Academic freedom must allow the ability to engage with students, prepare work, discuss feedback and conduct vital research without having to chase financial targets or deadlines. We are a University, not a business, and in the same vein, we are students, not customers.
It was interesting to hear politicians at recent hustings events discuss how we measure the ‘success’ of such courses which are under threat. If we confine ourselves to arbitrary figures like employability and graduate opportunity, then we risk underestimating the value and importance of certain subjects and disciplines. Modern languages are the perfect example; traditionally not seen as financially lucrative, but an area of study which can have huge benefits for our country as it leads to global interactions and networking, encouraging our people to be ambassadors for our country. Universities ought to play a vital role in achieving that aim.
5) Student apathy is as present as ever. What will you do to tackle it?
I wouldn’t necessarily say that student apathy is at an all-time low. We can certainly do better, but it is great to see how many students who would have traditionally been relatively uninvolved in the Union engage and take part in Save our Schools, and Take back Queen’s. However, what has been the case is that with the reduction from 7 to 5 officers, our ability to assess why student apathy may be low has been reduced.
This year, we dramatically changed how we deliver SU Induction talks. We make them more interactive because for students, during their welcome week, they will receive huge amounts of information which can be very overwhelming. A presentation which is different is far more likely to stick, and so we wanted to highlight the valuable benefits of SU membership.
In order to address student apathy, within my manifesto I have included a ‘Support your SU’ campaign. This would get students in through the door, find out what opportunities are there for them, and discovering how investing in the SU is an investment in their university experience, and their personal development.
6) What are the main challenges facing an officer in this position?
I think it’s pretty obvious that we are in an uncertain political climate, and this can be pretty challenging for student officers, as it can really put a stay in the ability to carry out our work. We have our own priorities, our own agendas, and our own manifestos that we want to achieve. Yet political developments can sometimes make that more difficult to achieve. It’s important to remember that despite political turmoil, student officers continue to do their work day in day out because we take our roles so seriously. It is a job that I am honoured to do, and genuinely every day is a blessing to take part in.
Closer to the home, there is some work to be done in the communications between key stakeholders and representatives, with a greater legitimacy given to the source of information. Student officers are elected to represent students and their views. Therefore, any evidence or feedback submitted should be given the weight that it deserves and have that factored robustly into the decision-making processes, particularly the decisions which are likely to face students.
In terms of the SU President’s role, I do think there is a lot to juggle. I always had great admiration for the Presidents I had the opportunity to watch when I was a student – the ability to run their own campaigns, whilst also supporting other full time officers, part time offers, and being a line manager for the team. This is also in addition to liaising with the SU Director, the Registrar, the Vice Chancellor, and effectively being the CEO of the Students’ Union. Being the public spokesperson and representative of the Students’ Union is not a task to be underestimated, but it is a role which I am ready to undertake, and that is why I am asking students to place their trust in me this week.
1) Stephen, tell us why you think you are the strongest candidate to lead QUBSU as President next year?