Sasha Watson: Ok today I’m with Rob Stanning, who was elected this year for the role of VP Academic Affairs. He did history, lived at Glen Eyre and was once a DJ on SURGE. How does it feel to be VP Academic?
Rob Stanning: It feels brilliant. Obviously having run for VP Academic first time, and then running again, there was quite a strange mix of emotions. It took me a while to get over not getting it the first time, but as soon as I found out it came up again, I was raring to go and as enthusiastic as ever. It’s great to be realising what I had always been wanting to do at University.
SW: Did you feel as prepared as you would have liked, being elected for your position just two weeks before the role started?
RS: I did have the two week induction, so I didn’t feel like I went into the role underequipped. I would have liked to have made a better connection with the associate deans and things like that, which I couldn’t do in advance, but it’s something I’ve had to work really hard at, and make up the time. I don’t feel now that I lost out on anything.
SW: Have you found it harder in your role, being someone who deals with the University at such a high level, whereas the other SABBS run their positions completely, as they are more Union based?
RS: I like to call my job as externally but internally facing, because we’re in the same place, aiming for the same goals, but we do stand for very different things on some issues. There have been some difficulties on some things with the University, but at the end of the day, what the University want to do is to provide the best student experience possible, and by keeping focussed on the aim, we can really push forward with changes. There will always be conflict though, because of the different ways both organisations run, but I am confident a lot of those problems can be resolved.
SW: So moving onto your manifesto, one of the big things each year is the Library, especially during exam time when it is full within 5 minutes of opening. What have you done to improve the experience of students throughout the year?
RS: I have been engaged with the library all summer, and one point I would like to highlight is that I never advocated 24-hour library in my manifesto. I am in favour of longer library hours, but responsible library hours. I don’t think we would be equipping our students properly if we gave students a 24-hour library where students could stay completely for the week. If students want 24-hour library, I am quite happy to look into that, but I was not elected on that premise.
I have, however, been working on extending the hours to opening at 7:30am to 2:00am during exam periods. They are making sure that every corner of space is used for a desk; ease of access is the priority really, and during the summer the library has been purchasing e-books and journals at a much higher rate than usual. This is actually going to reduce the strain of people who need to enter the library, so people who go into the library now may only need it for library space rather than for the resources. I believe that is the way forward – to make sure students have a quiet space to charge their laptop, and they are happy with the internet, so they can do their work without needing to be in the library.
SW: Part of the problem with library space and study space is the number of computers available, and the WIFI system around campus; have you looked into improving that at all?
RS: With the WIFI in the library, that has been upgraded this summer and I want to see how that performs for students before we start to see where we can put extra nodes elsewhere on campus. It terms of computers available, that will always be a sore point, and the library are really looking very closely at optimizing their resources and room layouts. One of those is making sure there are enough desks, as at the moment I can’t see a place to fit another computer cluster, but we need to make sure people in the library are using the library, and there are plenty more computer rooms around campus with printers that students can use.
If we are digitalising our resources at a proper rate, and students are able to get all the books they need on their laptops or University computers, then we can start thinking about utilising the capacity that we have around University. It is something I am very dedicated to increasing, but I don’t necessarily think that increasing the provision in the library is the answer.
SW: One thing that definitely did help was the 24-hour Murray Building. Are we going to see similar schemes in other buildings?
RS: With the 24-hour Murray building, part of the space is now being used in the “create-your-campus” space, so the usage of a room has slightly changed. The room in the Murray building is being opened soon by the Vice-Chancellor, and I am looking into how it’s being used in the first semester to see whether we need to supplement that, whether that’s ok, and to see when we do have students on campus 24-hours, that we have proper security provision and that they are well looked after – that is the key. I don’t think the university will have a problem with more 24-hour space, but they have a problem with resources, which I am very keen to sort out.
SW: A final thing on your manifesto was feedback; you wanted it to be standardised across the board. What have you found out about changing the way feedback is done?
RS: One thing that I wasn’t aware of when I ran was the curriculum innovation act, which is being promoted by Debra Humphris, the pro-Vice Chancellor. It is being used to look into assessment feedback, and has taken some minimum requirement for feedback to senate, and it is something that I will be closely engaged in, and will be across the year. I want to make sure that we are looking at the student focus in our feedback, to make sure we are assessing the right amount, and we are delivering the key feedback.
SW: The one main thing that most students will be worrying about, and assuming you will act on – is the Browne Report looking into Higher Education. First of all, what are you doing in anticipation of the report to prepare a response against an increase in tuition fees?
RS: That is the key issue! We’re looking at what our students actually think about tuition fees, which is the key point we need to establish. Joe Leigh, the once VP Education and Representation officer two years ago, surveyed student opinion on higher education funding methods, and as a result of their findings, the Union was mandated to campaign against a rise in tuition fees. I think two years later, we really need to assert that stance if we are going to go to our local MPs, to people in positions of influence. We need to take a fresh stance, and we need to start thinking about alternatives, so I will be running a surveying consultation exercise from the 11th of October. This will look at different kinds of higher education funding different opinions. I will report those findings back to Union Council, with the view to reassert our stance on tuition fees, so that when the Browne report is actually being debated in Parliament, we can start an active role, and we can take a fresh start to our MPs.
I have already been in dialogue with the MPs of Southampton students, including satellite campuses, detailing them the amount of students that they have in their constituency, and saying that “these are your students, you need to take up their opinion, I have been elected to represent them, and we are against a rise in tuition fees.” I think that’s the way to go forward, but the key step we really need to get in place, is make sure that students are engaging in this. All of this consultation exercise, and the Union stance, means nothing if our students aren’t taking an active part in this.
There is going to be an NUS demonstration on the 10th of November against cuts, and it would be great to see as many students from Southampton there as possible. The university will be running coaches up to London, which is the best way to raise the voices of Southampton students.
SW: The NUS has made a blueprint proposal already for a Graduate Tax reform, and the University of Southampton is part of the Aldwych group – are they doing something similar, or even looking to work with the NUS on this matter?
RS: Aldwych are engaging in all forms, as most students are at the moment, by looking at consultation, lobbying and mass action. There are many different collectives of groups in University education, and each one is going about it in its own way. I’m certainly very grateful of the Aldwych connection we do have with the other Russell Group Universities. In the tuition fees consultation exercise, we are looking very closely at collaborating with Imperial University to make sure we are as detailed as possible, and that we are asking the right questions.
SW: It sounds like you’ve been busy over the summer; what has been your proudest achievement?
RS: I would say one of the things I am most proud of is getting out to the MPs early, and making them sit up and take note of their student population. They may not be totally aware of the size of the student body in some constituencies, especially outside of Southampton Test, but there are at least 4500 students in Romsey/ Southampton North, which is a significant amount and carries a certain amount of clout. Doing that is important so that they are fully prepared for when we approach them, especially as a lot of changes are coming this year, in particular with Higher Education. I guess the proof will be in the pudding as to whether that has worked, and how it has affected any future outcomes later this year.
SW: You’ve now been in office for 100 days, what have you noticed that needs changing, that you didn’t recognise was necessary before?
RS: One thing I am really keen to bulk up for next year, is that this is the first time the Students Union has been electing Course Reps. Previously this has been done by the Schools, and they have given us lists, whereas now it is purely the Union. We are in the process of electing them, and there have been some hiccups, as there are some problems with electing people by calling them to the front of a lecture, and it has been harder than I imagined.With 20 schools to coordinate, and multiple programmes within that, we are looking at electing 100s of people this week, and 1000s in the next few weeks – which is a mammoth task. With the fact that the faculty system is changing from 3 to 8 next year, it should be easier next year, but I want to learn from the problems this year, as student representation is key to everything this University does, so we really need to get it right.
SW: You mentioned “proof in the pudding”, what is your favourite pudding?
RS: Ah see I’m a puddings man, so I like a lot, but you can’t beat a nice Apple crumble.
SW: Rob, thank you very much.