Sabbatical Interviews 2013: Oli Coles, VP Student Communities


Hi Oli! Let’s start.

There’s a wide range of places you said you were going to look after in your manifesto, for example postgraduates, Winchester School of Art (WSA) and the National Oceanography Centre (NOC). How are you managing all of those places?

It’s tough, I’ll say that. It’s really tough. When I get to the end of the year I think I’ll have done everything I intended to do, but I’m not the greatest multi-tasker!

As the VP Student Communities, you’ve probably got the most multi-tasking to be doing!

Haha, yeah exactly. So rather than doing five things an hour and doing a really piss-poor job, I’d prefer to do, say an hour properly on each one, so by the end of the year I’ll hopefully have done all of them, but it’s been tough with Beckie being off and me taking on a lot of her role.

Yes, that’s true actually. So which sites would you say you’ve been most focused on?

At the moment, I’ve done quite a lot on halls stuff anyway, but that’s because its generally my most comfortable area. I’m starting to look towards international stuff now. With my SGH and NOC site officers, we’ve been looking at ways to improve the experience down there for students. We’re looking at trying to use the NOC office a little bit more too, with NOCSOC, GeoSoc and academic presidents down there.

So, on the subject of  taking on Beckie’s role, how much have you been doing for that?

I’ve spent about a third of my time on Beckie’ role. Just because it’s at the stage now where we’re doing the BEES project (the nationally funded sustainability project, which you can find out more about here), and it’s come to quite a crucial stage at the project.  If I’d had to rank all the positions of sabbatical I would’ve gone for, Welfare would’ve been at the bottom of the list; only because it’s because there’s sustainability which I don’t know anything about!

Do you think your work’s suffered because of this?

No, I’ve just made sure I’ve done longer hours. I’ve still done 35 hours a week on my role; I’ve just done an extra 10 hours a week on Beckie’s, too.

What would you say the engagement at Winchester is like as a specific site?

Winchester is the furthest site away. We’ve been trying new things there with the site itself, it’s tough that the space isn’t quite what I pictured but then I didn’t know what I was picturing. It’s only just started to come round, we’ve had a few open days there and there have been lots of students coming right through. If you think about the fact that in the last two years we didn’t sell a single Winchester hoodie, and now we’ve sold like, ten in the past two days.  It could be because the heating’s broken and its freezing up there…or it could be because they’re actually starting to engage! The positives I see from it are the Erasmus Park JCR elections, we managed to get for the first time s full selection of JCR’s without any by-elections, and quite a few were contested positions. From chatting to them, they’re really on the ball with wanting to do stuff the whole year round, not just the first few weeks.  I haven’t been up there as much as I should have been.

In your manifesto, you talk about the ‘benefits and opportunities’ for those on Highfield Campus. What do you see as the main disadvantages of not being on Highfield?

I think most of the students group – societies, sports teams, RAG, PA – are all based here, because it’s where the space is to use. I think students find it harder to interact when they’re at different sites. Generally it’s a space issue, we don’t own any extra space at SGH or NOC so it’s hard for them to do stuff. Same at Winchester, we’re trying to get societies set up there but its hard…we have a pot of money if students WANT to set up Winchester-based societies for them to dip into, that’s going to be advertised more next year at a funding level. PA are trying to use rehearsal space, and RAG are defintiely getting involved up there too. It’s just a slow process.

Is there anything you can do to actively encourage them to get, for example, to the Bunfight? There was quite a lack of transport back in October for those who wanted to come down from Winchester.

We did put on transport this year, and we worked closely with the university to ensure lecturers didn’t put on lectures on the Wednesday of the bunfight and the Friday, which was Freshers’ Fayre.

I don’t think it was communicated effectively at all.

No. But that’s something we’ve learnt for next year.

So do you think these links with Winchester work more effectively when it’s through SUSU, rather than through the University?

Yeah I think it would definitely work better. We’ve got more of a connection there anyway. I know their management has changed recently and from speaking to them, it seems like they’ve got much closer links and see themselves as more a part of Highfield campus, rather than a separate WSA.

Do you not think it’s kind of inevitable though that, because they are at Winchester and it is the Winchester School of Art – they’re not even called ‘Southampton’ School of Art – there’s always going to be the feeling that, they’re still a 15-minute drive away from the main hub?

Certain people in the past haven’t handled it very well with the split, the year I joined in 2009 there were a few people based up there who didn’t like the fact they were part of Southampton. I think that message is reverberated through the years, but I think that’s started to die out in the last year especially. We’ve got requests now, asking why ‘University of Southampton’ isn’t on the hoodies which we’ve never had questioned before.  I don’t know if that’s because this year there is A LOT of extra students, so a lot of them live down here. It’s definitely getting better.

So you’ve mentioned links about SUSU Media and JCRs. How would you encourage and promote links with the other student groups?

With Surge, there was a breakdown in communication as to who was providing the technology aspect up at WSA, with music and stuff so we’ve just taken control. We just need to fix the tech issues up there, as it’s quite quiet up there, there’s no music playing out. Everything’s there, just there’s nothing there to play it. I really would like having the SoundWeb stuff like we have here, so we can have Surge playing out during the day, so everyone who comes up will hear about it. That’d be cool. I do want to have that aspect in the union space.

I would like to get SUSUtv up there, especially during the art show they have at the end of each year, it’s a chance for students to show case their world and it’d be great if SUSUtv could get up there to film it all. The Edge is a good one, when we’ve asked the WSA student about what they want on it’s always been live music. There are quite a lot of good live music places in Winchester so it’d be really nice to get the Edge down there to do some Winchester reviews and stuff.

So,you’ve got a bit in your manifesto about how ‘a hall isn’t just for first year, it’s for life’. I was reading how you want to make more of a community feel for halls when people leave halls, but as far as I can tell it’s not actually creating this.  

You’re right in that some things will only help those who still live there. Intramural is slightly different obviously. At the moment, some students are very much key to their halls – they see themselves as a ‘Monte person’ through and though anyway, and some people don’t as soon as they leave, they just see the halls as a place. It is hard for students who have left halls to remember what it was like. It’s not something that can be solved overnight, it’s something that if the halls experience is really good this year, will hopefully carry on.

Facebook pages are being used slightly more so we have two lots of social media for each hall. There’s a group just for the students living there, and a Facebook page which goes back to 2010, with all the students who’ve ever been part of that hall part of that page. Any student who has ever lived in those halls has hopefully liked that page, and if they haven’t un-liked it they’re still part of it and can still get information about what’s happening on that page.

As a third year now, I’ve moved on from that. Do you not think that’s a danger with people who are not Freshers any more, that they just don’t really care?

Well we’ve had a few instances – I think Monte, Glen and Chamberlain were the biggest ones – where students come back, so this year lots of students who were at Monte 10 or 15 years ago came back to Monte. I think that’s the sort of thing I’m looking at – a ‘student for life’ sort of thing, because when you’re a second- or third-year you tend to stick more with your course but as an alumni you keep up more with the halls you’ve lived in. I’ve been here for five years now, so when I go back to Monte I can’t help but notice what’s changed and feel more affinity towards than I do, to say, my course.

You’ve obviously been here quite a while, and you’ve always been quite engaged with the hall, so I think that is quite easy for you to say.

Well it’s going to be tough, it’s something that I’ll start and then will hopefully carry on. Obviously intra-mural is one of the easiest ways to do that but I’m hopeful there’ll no longer just be a ‘core group’, there’ll be more people and the halls rep system now in place from February time which will be that every significant area in each halls will have a rep for the students ad meet up with the secretary and feed everything back.

So it’s like a sub-group of a JCR in a way?

Yeah it’s a sub-group of a sub-group of a sub-group of a sub-group…

So, obviously there’s a lot of focus on JCRs in halls, that kind of thing. How do you ensure that Private Rented aren’t left out of the whole ‘halls for life’ thing?

This year’s been the best year for private rented I think, if you just look at engagement over the first 3 or 4 weeks. It naturally drops off anyway…

*Faffing as Oli draws me a ‘W’ curve*

So the idea is there are five stages, you start and you’re really excited throughout ‘the honeymoon’ phase, then you get a bit more busy and stressed, and you become a bit more miserable and want to go home…then you go back up to the beginning bit, and you get a second wind and you’re really enjoying it again. In Private rented, it’s a deeper curve than those living in halls as being thrown into a house completely on your own with students you might have just met in one day is really hard. This time we made more of an effort on Private Rented open days for people to choose who they wanted to live with, and we really encouraged students not to pick the students online who they wanted to meet and ensure they came to the open days to pick housemates there.

I’ve heard rumours that Refreshers Week is not happening this year. Is there any truth to that?

Refreshers is a complete union concept, it never has been just a JCR thing. The whole point is that it brings everything that’s happened in Freshers again, so there’s another bunfight, another Freshers Fayre, another week of events… more talks at the university and stuff like that. It hasn’t really worked for the last couple of years, all the events have had poor attendance, last year half of them got cancelled, and student groups don’t want to go to the Bunfight because it’s the middle of lectures. Erm, so yeah we’re not having a special week as such called Refreshers, because it isn’t a Refreshers, it’s the start of semester two so there’s a lot of Sabbaticals launching new projects that week.

So the JCRs won’t be marketing it as Refreshers again?

It’s not a Refreshers. I’m just very conscious of the fact that the reputation of the JCRs is that all they do is events, so rather than events being the first thing they ever do as a JCR, I’d rather they all did their individual positions.

JCRs have got a bit of a bad reputation. Why do you think that is?

I think the reputation stems from this ‘lad culture’ thing and the fact that people outside the ‘SUSU bubble’ or ‘JCR bubble’ see them as events and drinking and that’s about it. That’s why I really wanted to change the structure of the JCRs, to give each position autonomy of what they actually do. We’ve also advertised the JCR elections much better, as being able to improve the experience of your friends, your course mates, your flatmates in halls.

Moving onto RAG, you talked about doing an inter-JCR competition to raise money, but do you not think this will just promote more rivalry?

It will but it’s a different kind of rivalry. Certain halls have a bad rivalry, and that I want to get rid of, and if you’re trying to go against someone it beings you closer together. It’s just a fun one…but it won’t be a horrible rivalry, if that happens it’ll stop straight away. And if you’re raising money for charity, I hope the rivalry wouldn’t turn nasty!

RAG have said nothing has really been done to promote links between them and JCR, and that there was a distinct lack of RAG-related things in Freshers’.

Well, Freshers’ we left down to the JCRs themselves anyway…

But if you’re promoting links between RAG and JCR, surely you should have been  helping the RAG member with their role in Freshers Week?

My new role for the JCR is half implemented now, and half implemented for January. Obviously the old JCRs in place already and I don’t see the point of trying to mould someone else when they already know what their position is, so we made it very clear this year that they’ll report to the RAG officer themselves. Yeah there wasn’t much going on in Freshers this year, but it was just a different type of organisation. It was definitely an after-thought for Freshers.

RAG also said that they thought the JCR left this role to one person, and it was quite a lot of responsibility and was quite challenging for them.

Now with this structure, it’ll be less of a communication triangle and will go straight to the RAG officer to make sure that is happening. Like the Halls Rep system, there will be a RAG system, where they will be encouraged to go out and recruit their halls and create another sub-committee underneath them to work with them as well. I’ve chatted to Cora [SUSU RAG JCR officer] quite a lot, and said they’re yours to work with!

You’ve mentioned increasing links between SUSU Media and JCRs in halls and holding taster days for individual media departments. I’ve personally heard nothing about this…

It will happen! It’s one of my things I’m looking towards, I know PA are using the spaces more for rehearsals, but it’s something I haven’t got round to if I’m being completely honest. It’d be really nice…

Is it something you and David Martin (VP DCI) could work together on, potentially?

Yeah, I think it’d be good if it could happen. It’s generally just finding time though.

So you talked about improving transport links between Winchester and Highfield, but with the NOC, the U6C has been cut rather than any extra buses being put on.

Obviously Uni-Link is a completely different company, but they work as part of BlueStar now and they can’t just lose money all the time. They did their transport survey this year, and they changed their bus routes based on the responses from that. So, it might be that the odd person doesn’t like what they’ve done there, but the survey said that’s what student wanted – to have the U1C, not the U6C.

I find that hard to believe considering the U6C takes literally ten minutes to get there, whereas the U1C takes about 40 minutes.

It is a more roundabout way, but the reason they got rid of the U6C is because the U1C increased to every 7 minutes.  NOC wanted to be able to have more direct links and just because of the space they have at NOC, both buses would have had to use the same stretch of road at the same time. Also, lots of people complained that people were using the U6 to get from Wessex Lane to Highfield, which isn’t what it’s meant for, it’s meant for students to get to the SGH.

Do you not think something worth investigating would be running buses directly to the sites, for example Winchester and the NOC?

Uni-Link is technically still subsidised – £260 for a year is not bad.

But for a student, that’s a lot of money.

For Southampton, that’s good! We’re quite cheap with transport. Its different, we’ve done more to advertise now the links between Winchester and Southampton, and now the bus pass covers BlueStar buses too, and Eastleigh is like the cut-off point.

I don’t think people really know that, though.

All the Winchester students should, it was in their welcome packs. I think it’s been advertised as much as we can, and it’s all over their website, it’s on the bus passes themselves. We could blog about it, but people aren’t as likely to look at our blogs. The information is there, we just can’t spoon-feed it to everyone.

With SGH itself, I’m in the middle of trying to contact Uni-Link to do a trial of a direct bus because NOC are always the ones who complain, however they get seven buses an hour to NOC whereas Winchester gets none and SGH gets three. So as much as NOC might complain about it, they actually get a fantastic service, even if they have to walk up to campus.

So do you think a direct link would be more beneficial between Winchester and Southampton?

It’s whether its cost efficient. Whenever people have events down here, we run buses; the safety bus runs constantly up and down. If people want to pay for it, then they might have to pay over the odds as the majority of the time, it won’t be full and you’d have empty journeys going up and down.. The SGH one is more important to me, like those who need to be there at 7am.

So, you’ve mentioned organising international, post-grad and mature students activities to ensure they mix with each other and other student communities, but from what I can see your solutions might just reinforce segregation.

The tough thing with these groups is the hours they work, they can’t come here at 10am because they’re working. You might not even mix with people in your corridor, let alone inter-site or inter-campus. So yeah, getting coffee mornings haven’t started, but I’m planning it. I’m in the phases of developing things called Community Forums, starting off being an online thing. There’ll be a NOC one, a Winchester one, SGH, placement and post-grad, and just works as ways of getting into contact or letting us know any issues they have. Through that, we’ll have actual meet ups specific to them. Again, SGH students all work at different times so that’s why they’d prefer online forums, so they can mix that way.

The Post-Grad Welcome Week was very well attended; we had a cheese and wine night which was very busy. We’re in the process of planning the post-grad social calendar for next year, incorporating things which worked well last year like the games nights, and obviously the quiz is still going on.

The International Freshers’ week – we decided not to do that as we didn’t want to segregate international students. Obviously I wrote this in December last year, and since then the university changed the policy of when international students arrived and they now arrive 3 days before everyone else. So we extended the pre-sessional programme this year and did more social activities.

The working space is a project I’m going to work on in third term, so nothing’s happened with that yet. I’ll be developing it through Post-graduate coffee mornings and through the community forums. It’s just a case of asking them what they feel, but yeah it’s very much a research project and should hopefully kick off in term three.

That’s it for my questions, Oli. Thank you very much for your time!



Discussion7 Comments

  1. avatar

    in terms of post grad events I have actually been disappointed by the sincere lack of them. Apart from the quizzes, there is nothing specifically for us. The Thursday tea and cake doesn’t really work as a.) some of us including myself have lectures then, and b.) the few times I’ve been able to get cake (as normally there is never enough), I’ve seen whole families with children queuing up, freshers, the public: not just post grad students like it is supposed to be for. Additionally the cheese and wine night was not post grads only. It was supposed to be but then the uni changed it to being open to everyone, and decided to charge a fee, when it had been originally billed as free to post grads. I think more effort needs to be put into events for the post grad community.

  2. avatar

    Why is he against the rivalry between halls? How is this a negative thing in any way? If you were from Wessex Lane, the Connaught/Monte rivalry was always good fun, especially in sports. So what is the point of trying to get rid of it? And is it actually realistic to do so?


    • avatar

      Hi Anon,

      The rivalry I’m against was the negative kind that we had a few years back, which included incidents where students from one hall would throw shit through other people’s windows, vandalize other hall’s signs, heckle students from one hall when they were walking in the street.

      I’m all for a bit of rivalry, but it’s this nasty rivalry that I don’t want to come back, even if it was only a couple of students from each side, it’s a couple too many.


  3. avatar

    As a student at WSA i think the transport links are pretty much non existent, my house/course mates and I were certainly not aware of any buses or transport provided by the uni/
    Providing transport for freshers during freshers week was a nightmare, we’d be told we’d have coaches provided which then just didn’t turn up, leaving us with over 100 freshers to look after and get to Southampton for events such as Big Night Out. There were freshers paying for taxis and bunking the train after paying for a master pass because there was no other transport provided. We are a small campus and it’s really hard for us to get involved with things, so for many of us it’s just easier not to, which is a shame because I know so many people who would love to join societies etc.

  4. avatar

    The bus to Winchester situation at the moment is not very satisfactory. The Bluestar 1 goes there, but you have to walk out to the Avenue to catch it and although there’s a stop relatively near to WSA it’s never labelled as being that. Equally, to get back to Southampton, you have to go into central Winchester.

    Even if it pulled into Highfield and WSA once in a while that could help solve the problem, it’s just persuading Bluestar of the benefits of that.

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