Sabbatical Interviews 2013: Claire Gilbert, VP Engagement


 On the way over I found out the good news that the RAG Christmas Fair made over £750, so congratulations.

Yeah, really good news, really pleased.

What’s been your proudest achievement to date as a Sabbatical?

I think the RAG Totaliser is one of the things I can most safely say I’m proud that I’ve achieved. Otherwise, I think my proudest achievement is to still be going and to not have been recalled yet!

Did the idea for the RAG Totaliser come from you or was that from within RAG? 

It’s been bandied around for at least as long as I’ve been here, but having a physical presence – or at least a way of counting how much we’ve raised – came about just before elections when I was talking to last year’s RAG officer and other volunteers. It only really became a fully-fledged idea when I wrote my manifesto.

And where is the Totaliser, for anyone who doesn’t know?

It’s outside reception. It’s very Blue Peter style, very homemade – some of the wonderful Student Activities staff put it together. To represent money, there are different coloured balls for different areas of fundraising (committee, charity societies, etc.). Each ball is worth a certain amount but that changes depending on the current aspiration: for example, we’re currently aiming to raise £20,000 by Christmas, so each ball is worth £50. But during, say, the Big Give, the balls will mean something different as we’ll have a different target.

How did you cope with taking on Beckie Thomas’ responsibilities after she had to step down for a while, and which aspects of her role did you cover?

I covered the Student Life zone, which sits over the city living and Nightline areas as well as the Wellbeing officer, so I was supporting them as student leaders. I also did some of the ‘Improving Participation’ work that was decreed by Union Council last year, getting women to run in elections. I think the nature of a Sabbatical role is to be flexible. I like to think that neither of the two zones have suffered, and that both have continued to grow in a good way.

To what extent do you think you’ve made RAG a ‘constant presence’ at the University, as outlined in your manifesto?

David Martin did a disclaimer about manifestos – when you write them you don’t know anything. So, to an extent, I was probably talking rubbish a bit.

That’ll make the next 15 or so questions very interesting.

So far, University wide, it’s not been hugely improved, I’m not going to lie. There’s some scope for us to do more at sites, there’s scope to do more with the RAG challenge and empowering societies, but it’s coming up on our agenda.

In early February we’re going to have a really sexily titled Open Space Technology Conference. We’re going to get together everyone in RAG, everyone in fundraising societies and everyone interested in fundraising generally, whether they’ve run a marathon or done something else for charity. For a day we’ll just chat about how they want to be supported, what it means to have a RAG logo on something, why you would bother to involve RAG… All the questions which will help with the University-wide approach of RAG.

Also, excitingly, the University have agreed to completely and utterly support the Big Give, a week that runs from the 21st to the 28th of March this year. The University are giving staff support: I’m working with the Alumni Office on a donation scheme and we’ll hopefully be working with Payroll on donations and running their own fundraisers, so it will be on an even bigger scale.

Do you ever think that the Union puts outside groups ahead of its own, or that there is ever an emphasis on helping outside groups at the expense of Union groups?

I believe that Union groups are far more supported by the Union, sometimes more than they ever realise – you have a wealth of knowledge and experience, you have access to the ‘Your Skills’ training, you have Sabbatical attention at the drop of a hat if you need it, and there is a structure in place so that there should always be representation for you, which I don’t think the external groups get.

I think that our work with external groups actually improves our work with Union groups, as it means that we can take all of their knowledge and use it for our members. I don’t see the time we give to them as negative.

How much progress have you made on stocking student-made products in SUSU shop?

To be honest, enterprise has not been a priority this semester. We just don’t know what kinds of products our students sell, end of. I’ve worked with several student businesses on how they sell their products generally, and looked at the procedure the Shop uses in selling items, but we don’t want to push the different ways until we know that it is the right option to give our students. One of the ideas we’re now talking about involves making the Bubble Tea stall in Bar 2 a pop-up shop for student enterprises. We’ve also just given the Enterprise Society funding for a 3D printer, which other societies can use to make products.

I think I was naïve and a bit early in saying “let’s just put them in the SUSU shop”, as a lot of steps need to come before that. We need to work out how best to sell them, which is still very much in progress.

You mentioned some interesting ideas about the ‘Take Off’ fund, which personally I knew very little about. Has anything been done to make the wider campus area aware that it exists?

I had a meeting with the University yesterday. Fish on Toast, who are the more traditional enterprise society here and one of the groups I look after, ran SWARM this year for the first time, which is more valuable in my eyes to students. I think the Take Off fund, for people with enterprise and ideas, is very successful: they get quite a high take up and it’s fairly well established. SWARM is a real base level program where you submit an idea to Fish on Toast, usually a small and simplistic one that they will then assess the feasibility of and take further if necessary. The Take Off is at a much higher level, and actually isn’t appropriate for most student enterprises and where they’re at right now.

As a student leader, and someone frequently in contact with other student leaders, I don’t feel that enough has been done to let us know about how our societies can benefit from community action. Has anything been done to make that side of your role more readily available to student groups?

Community action currently stands as a pot of money for anyone who wants to create a new project that benefits the local community, and we count the local community as the one around our campuses and around our sites, so in Winchester, Southampton, and nearby. We did a large push during Freshers’, but I was in charge of the welcome talks, so I didn’t have a chance to talk to all the societies that I wanted to. Instead, we’re now pushing for Student Volunteering Week, which is the last week in February, and launching a whole load of community action projects then. Hopefully it’ll be at the forefront of everyone’s minds.

You mentioned in your manifesto about holding semi-regular meetings with external communities, but also that you ‘wouldn’t be apologising’ for any issues they had with the University and its students. Have there been any issues with the external community during your term?

No, this year we’ve had a very good working relationship with them so far. I’ve met with four residents’ associations, a Neighbourhood Watch, and gone to a police and community session, at which the only complaint is about bins. They’re very supportive of students, and sometimes I think residents’ associations get bad press about being grumpy old people that hate students, but actually, most of the time, they are campaigning on the same issues that we are. We’re actually doing quite a lot with residents’ associations: about people feeling welcome in the neighbourhood, landlords, housing provision and ‘To Let’ signs, and things like that.

What sort of work have you done on the SUSU website this year?

It’s much more mobile-friendly, and after feedback we received there’s a list of the top things that you can click through to. We have a new Communications Manager who is looking at scoping out the purpose and content of the website: what is used, what is necessary, and what sort of content we want to exist. To have sustainable change, instead of me saying “I want to redesign the front page”, we should be looking at what we want our students to receive, what we want to tell them and what they need to know.

That’s all happening now, and we take on board feedback. David Gilani is organising a hack day, to get some people to design new cool stuff for the website. We’re looking to employ a student web crew, similar to our marketing crew, where students will create apps, or tweak parts of the website and make cool new things, utilising our ECS department and people who generally love that sort of thing. Progress is being made, but it’s more behind the scenes.

There were a few students complaining about the snow on the website.

There is now a disable button for people who don’t want the snow.

You mentioned improving the transparency of Union Council alongside David Martin. It’s not really something that people attend voluntarily, so has something been to make students more aware of what Council does and how they can use it to put ideas forward?

I write a blog after every Union Council highlighting some of the key things that happened, and have provoked some responses on some of them, so there’s people engaging with them. We’re also continuing to encourage people to use the social media hashtag, which means a greater number of people on social media are aware of what’s happening. The system for submitting an idea has become a lot clearer, thanks to David Martin and our design team. Steps are being made, but I’d be very interested to know if anybody has any suggestions in the comments below this, or by emailing us.

Following the restructure of Sabbatical roles and the introduction of roles, how  has the Engagement role changed? Around elections there were some concerns that the role had been significantly reduced and had become the ‘soft’ Sabbatical role.

The role used to cover all societies, RAG, Performing Arts, Student Enterprise, Union Films and JCRs, whereas my role now covers external community relations, RAG, enterprise, communications and volunteering. I believe that if we’re to progress as a Union, if we’re to be as great as some of the other large Unions are, sometimes you do have to focus on areas you’ve never focused on before. Enterprise has never had this much time and effort devoted to it before, and it’s meant that we’ve built relationships with external partners that boost our profile as an organisation. It means that our students have won Southampton voluntary awards, which they never have before.

We’re starting to develop and to grow, rather than just reflect what already happens. I think the fact that so much has progressed in all the areas shows that zones work, and that all student groups should be treated differently by the nature of being a student group. They’re not one homogenous entity. They react very differently and have very different needs. The fact that we’ve allocated far more funding than we ever have before I think goes to show that we’re targeting the needs of societies more.

After all these restructures, where do you see the role going in the future? Is there anything put in place for after you leave? How do you see the role developing?

We’re hoping to pitch for RAG Conference 2015, and I think that’ll take up a lot of my successor’s time if it’s successful. I think with enterprise it’ll be a very exciting two years. Once we have the knowledge of what the university does, what’s happening in the city, we’ll be able to absolutely run with it. I’ve set a two year plan in place for community action of where I would like to see it go, and how I would like to see it develop and which projects should happen. At the end of the day, if someone comes in with tenfold ideas, I’d just say ‘go for it’.  I’d like to think that I’d leave some form of a legacy but that’s because I’m selfish and human.


Discussion2 Comments

  1. avatar

    I’m sure this person is very nice, and i don’t mean to be a misanthrope, but who honestly wants to read an interview this pain-stakingly long conducted with someone technically no more qualified than any given reader who is talking in vague terms about things that really don’t matter in the long run…

    on the balance of probabilities, i’m fairly sure that the “professional” verdict regarding the presence of virtual snow on a website will not go down as one of the defining political rulings.



    I wanted to read it.

Leave A Reply