Sabbatical Interviews 2013: David Gilani, Union President


You began your manifesto with 3 key aims: to create cultural change, maximise your role as chair of the trustee board and to inspire each area of SUSU to be the best. So firstly, what have you and the union done so far this year to create this cultural change?

Okay so firstly there’s something to bear in mind in terms of how the sabbatical officers go on from the time when they run as a candidate in the sabbatical elections to where they are now half way through their tem. So when sabbaticals come in we have a chance to take on board all the policies that have been passed though the AGM which is where students give a direction for the following year. And the fact that they will have some training and education about the way that they can achieve things in the year to see what’s financially viable allows them to recreate their goals which then get sent to the first union council of the year. So although I’ve got my 3 goals that I write in my manifesto, I then also have my 3 goals which I will be held accountable for as the year goes on which get spoken about at union council. These are around ending student poverty, bringing students to the heart of our commercial services and having a student centred university. So in terms of cultural change for SUSU itself, for me I guess it’s been about celebrating all the things that we do here, trying to be a president who shows that it’s a really fun place to be. I can’t say there been anything quite so tangible which could make this true but I like to think I have a really good time being president here. I enjoy myself when I do my work I make sure that I don’t ever make it seem like its a chore because that’s just not true. And hopefully that means that people realise that if you want to get involved in SUSU you should do it because you enjoy it. You should pick the activity or club or society because its fun and you should do it for that reason. And if it ever becomes less than that or becomes something that’s not fun you should challenge yourself on it. And think, ‘what can I do to bring it back to just being fun?’, otherwise it’s just not going to work here. I suppose I’ve been living it how I like other people to live it. I love this job and I try and make sure that I can try and help other people have as much fun as I do.



You focus on empowering student leaders as a way to begin changing the culture. Using your relationship with your media student leaders from last year as an example, you state in your manifesto that: ‘I have always tried to step back and support my student leaders to lead on their areas – I am incredibly proud of all they have done, and want to be able to leave SUSU next year seeing all of our student leaders like that.’ Yet recently you were in favour of the proposed media officer role, which would have stripped editors and station managers of their rights and responsibilities as student leaders. If you believe that media student leaders have set a great example for empowering fellow students – what made you choose to support the recent proposal at council?

Some of the reason that I supported the prop at council was because originally media heads were in support of it. So at the first creative industries zone committee, where we discuss this matter and I attend as president to make sure I can support matters going on, the media heads generally all voted or abstained in a case, for it; because they felt that the role of being a student leader meant that they couldn’t do what they originally signed up for. They got involved in media because they like creating content, they liked doing media and they didn’t enjoy so much the side of being a student leader where you perhaps have to go to union council and have meetings and raise the profile of their specific area within the union. I guess that’s kind of the mixture of being a content creator and a somewhat political figure, in the sense of trying to help your area grow. I think it’s hard to say its empowering one way or the other. I think if a person wants to just focus on their specific area and not lead their area in the broader sense of the union, then that means they shouldn’t be a student leader. And if that’s what they think is best, sometimes that’s what will allow them to have more fun here and get the most out of it. However in this case the media heads changed their mind and by staying as student leaders they have a lot more influence around the union and therefore eventually have more empowerment in all. So although they changed their minds I think in the end, they got to a place where they thought they were being most empowered in SUSU so that’s what will work for then.


So after the media heads had spoken out at council, did your outlook change towards the media officer proposal? Or would you still have said yes to begin with?

I suppose some of my justification (I’m quite happy to admit that I did vote for the office), is because the feeling of the whole creative industries zone was that by having that large amount of media representation on that committee, it took some of the voices away from other areas of the zone. So for example: union films, performing arts and other societies there. So it’s a tough one because I don’t want to necessarily say that media should have less of a voice because it’s my background and I love media. But at the same time, the other areas at the moment might feel like they don’t have enough of a voice. So I think it’s really important now that there isn’t going to be a media officer (and we still have 4 media student leaders), that we work out how for performing arts, for union films and for all those other soc that do visual arts and within other creative industries, how we can empower them as well. That’s something that David martin is going to be focusing on now, and we’re hoping to bring the creative industries zone back into a more harmonious mode.


Your second key aim was to maximise your role as chair of the trustee board. What do you feel you have to done to maximise this role so far and what do you have planned over the academic year?

So one of the main things I did from the very start of the year was to create another sub-committee of the trustee board to look over a specific area and this was for communication, marketing and technology. I think it’s fair to say that due to the way that SUSU has been growing and what its does, there’s been a lot more prominence for it to improve its communications standard over the last few years. Loads of people have said, ‘SUSU’s been bad at communicating sometimes’, and other times they don’t say it because its going fine, but its something to improve. So we’ve created this sub-committee, which is chaired by Claire Gilbert, VP engagement, as a way to bring some student voices and some trustee voice to this area of communication, so we can give it more of a focus in SUSU. This area has been growing loads and I think it’s really shown how much we’ve been engaging students this year. From freshers, from the JCR elections to everything else we’ve been doing in terms of how well the communications going. Not just because of that but from loads of other things behind the scenes as well but that’s one thing I thought, from a trustee board perspective, was really important. In terms of moving forward we’ve also got the January budget review, which is essentially what it says on the tin! A chance for us to look at all the budgets that we have and give myself, other sabbaticals, student leaders and loads of people from around the union a chance to say: ‘Here’s the project I have, I’d love to get some money for, to make this place even better’. So I’ve begun trying to get sabbatical officers talking with their student leaders and talking to people within those zones to find out, ‘If you had no barriers on budget, what would be the thing that you would do?’, to help them find out what their aspirations should be, so they can be better empowered to come back at the budget review and say: ‘We really want to do this. Can we have the money for it?’ And that should hopefully mean that at the end of January, we can all go out to students and say, ‘This year we are going to be doing the next big thing which is this.’, and feel confident in that because they’ve been supported by the trustee board and have the finances to do it.


One of the goals under this particular aim was to form a strategy for Friday nights at SUSU. You suggested, in your manifesto, shorter bigger events for long term success. However after Freshers, Pulse became another regular Friday nightclub (much like last years Cube Nights) and shut down in October. Do you think Pulse was constructed too similarly to the Cube nights last year?

In terms of whether it was constructed too similarly? Ultimately yes. I think what we realised is that the quality of the event itself wasn’t what was holding us back. We made some changes where we could from getting this committee around pulse together, which gave us some really good student feedback into what they would want from a night, to do some new things here and there but ultimately that’s not what held back the night. We had some really good feedback during freshers about the quality of the event and I’m pleased to say that the feedback from those events was really high from the surveys that we did. What held us back was a menagerie of other factors from our location to the reputation of the club beforehand; ultimately things that if we were going to try to overcome, we would have used up far too much energy that I was willing to do. So I am very happy to say that the decision to stop trying to overcome those other reasons and other problems that we were facing was the right one. We shouldn’t do a regular club night. Whatever position we are in now means that it would be too difficult. It drains time, it drains money away from much more important areas of SUSU- from all of the student groups and activities to the representation of the campaigning; things which are much more important for students who don’t deserve to have the energy drained away from them. And it’s also showing some really positive things in the sense that we are now doing less regular large events. So the fresher Christmas ball that we had last week sold out in just under a week, we increased the capacity…it sold out again! People came along to the night, they seemed to have a really good time and it’s shown that those kinds of things do work. It means all the people came and had a really good experience and students haven’t had to see SUSU fail every Friday night for the last term when we haven’t had people in. which means you can just focus on the things which are working really well.


At the Union Council meeting in October, when you announced the closure of Pulse, you stated that there will now be different events each week. Can students expect some new events in the future?

Yes so in terms of some big one off events, we’ve got some times planned in specifically around key themes of university life. So Christmas was obviously a big one just because everyone can come together to celebrate the end of the first term and you’ve survived! And we’re going to bring people together again to celebrate the end of exams.  Also we’re looking for the first time, since I’ve been here at uni, to do a summer ball at the end of the year, not just for graduating students but to bring together the whole university community, which could be really exciting as it could be a celebration not just for graduating students. So those are some of the big things. We can bring together a lot of different students and enjoy some of the different events that we can put on here because we can put on big events really well, as we’ve seen now. And the other side of it, is that we are now in a position where we can put more attention, effort and time into some of the other events that we do regularly, which don’t happen anywhere else. We’ve got a lot more attention going into making sure that our karaoke night, comedy nights, live music, gigs, jukebox night and all student group nights, can actually have some attention now. They’re seeing an increase in turn out, they’re seeing really high satisfaction rates in some of the surveys we’ve been doing with people who come along to our commercial venues. And that means that people can go out to the city and the town for their club nights, because there are loads of places that can do that. Whereas the events that nowhere else is doing, like the free karaoke night; we are now rightly putting our attention into making sure that that night, is as good as students deserve it.


The final key aim in your manifesto was to work with each area of SUSU, inspiring them to be the best. What’s been done so far this year to help motivate student groups? And are there plans to do so in the future?

One of the things that I’ve started doing, (which is going to continue through this year) is work around funding. One of the things I campaigned on during the election period is around the fact that we’ve got a pretty damn good university here that cares about the student experience. There are funding pots at the university that students, SUSU and groups can apply for to allow them to create new projects which can benefit the student experience here. What I’ve been trying to do this year is make sure that at the very least, all student leaders which represent all different kinds of areas around student life, are aware of these funds and are starting to think about what they could put bids in for. And to stop thinking about what they can afford with the budget they have but start thinking about what is the best thing they could do. So they can think about: ‘What would be the best thing I could do this year that could really make a difference? And we can work together and put some bids into the university to make sure we can do that.’ So far we’ve already had SUSUtv put in the bid for over £12,000 for some new cameras and equipment to develop their studio set up, we’ve had the Athletic Union put in a fantastic bid to get some funding for a kit sponsorship deal so we can get a united kit brand across our AU clubs. And we’ve got other groups like Nightline and Medsoc who are talking about other bids that they can put in as well. So this is something which is hopefully not just going to be one person, myself, putting in a  few bids through the year but loads of people across SUSU putting in the things that are going to matter for there areas. I’m not doing any work in this at all! Apart from just spreading the information and making sure they feel supported in the process. They’re putting in the effort to write it which means that ultimately we could see up to 30 (or 100 bids in the best case scenario) rather than just 3 from me. So that’s been the main way in which I’ve been trying to help people to aspire to do that. And hopefully we’ll get to a stage where at the end of the year, the way that student leaders and committee members hand over is by saying: ‘Don’t limit yourself. Think big. There are pots that can help you apply for that.’ If you think big you can maybe achieve it. The worst thing you can do is come down to where you were thinking originally anyway. That’s what I hope can happen and that the handover will become a part of the culture that happens here.


One group that you mention in your manifesto is international students and how you see a need for further guidance and integration. What have you done or will be doing this year, to help overcome such hurdles?

The main project that I’ve been doing with international students is a joint one with VP student communities Oli Coles and VP education David Mendoza-Wolfson. We’ve been doing this campaign with the university to stop them increasing international fees between each year of study. So currently for UK students they pay £9,000 and that’s their fee. It doesn’t increase during second year and they get a loan for it anyway so they’ve got a lot of advantages to begin with. International students: not only do they not have a loan system but when they come here, they’ll pay a certain amount (say £15,000 in their first year) and they won’t know how much their degree is going to cost in their second year. It will increase between years of study and they won’t know how much by. From the surveying we’ve done its roughly 50% of international students that will have an increase of at least £1,000, so that’s an extra thousand pounds that they didn’t necessarily know would be there when first signing up for their degree, which they have to find through finding a second part time job, getting an extra loan or through family selling their property or even their houses in some of the reports we’ve had. Ultimately it not only hurts them financially but it ends up having a community here at Southampton where they feel like they’re not a fair part of it and they’re treated worse than home students. It means you can’t get a community feel. So this project has been us lobbying various members of the university executive groups trying to convince them that they should change their funding model. And SUSU has put forward a proposal (which I’m lucky enough to go present at the university exec group on Tues 10th December), where we will hopefully get the system where the fees will be averaged so international students will know what their fee is going to be, meaning it will be the same for each year of study. In my manifesto originally I said it would be good to ask for a cap in increase, which comes at the bottom of the scale of what we could achieve. Because at least then they know if there fee is say £10,000 and there is a 10% cap, it’ll only be a maximum extra £1,000 in their second year, so they can plan for a £1,000 increase. Which is still not great but it means they know what it’s going to be like. There might also be potential in these discussions with the university that they will set a fee cap increase in absolute terms. So for example they won’t increase by £500 each year, or they might even say they will increase by £500 each year, in which case at least they know what the increase is going to be exactly. But the best case scenario which I’d love to see happen, is one where they have an averaged fixed fee cohort system, which essentially means it’s one fee. All the years they’re here, it doesn’t increase, it’s the same fee, they know what they’re getting. Their sponsors, their funders and/or their family pay an amount and they know that’s exactly what it is going to cost them in the next year as well.


And is there anything you or SUSU have done to aid social integration?

One of the things we did on this was work straight from freshers week to change the way in which we integrated international students. So the work which was mainly led by Claire Gilbert and Oli Coles, was that international students arrive a whole week earlier than UK students and move them closer so they arrive nearer the same point. Because what we were finding was international students came a week before, we did a week of social activity just for them, (which was really good for them)! but meant that they made all their friends and got into their groups and they did that before any UK students were even here. So what we’ve tried to do is have them come a few days before, just so we can give them the really essential info like checking in for their visas and setting up a bank account etc but wait and do other socials with UK students and not assume the international student won’t want to come out for things like karaoke or club nights because some of them will, some of them won’t. We have diverse activities for everyone. So that’s hopefully meant that international students, in the fresher activity, have been able to meet more UK students and therefore not have so much segregation between the different cohorts. They can meet more people in the UK and feel more part of the community.


Fee rises are a common concern for all, international students included. You aimed to produce a ‘percentage cap’, to notify students on fee rises even before choosing to study a course here. Can this or anything else be achieved to reduce the fee anxieties felt amongst international students?

I put that (fee cap) in my manifesto because that’s the smallest we could achieve in this area. So ultimately the hierarchy goes: a fee cap so for example you know your fee is only going to increase by 5% each year. The next step up would be a known fee increase so international students know they’re going to have to pay an extra grand in their second year and a further grand in their third year so they know how much their degree is going to cost them. But the best scenario would be that they know how much their fees cost. And they won’t change because that allows them to get known support from any sponsors or funders they have, or if they need to find extra money from their family. And we’ve had some real horror stories from students in the international student survey we carried out over the summer. We’ve had students consider dropping out, taking out extra loans, or whose family have had to sell possessions or property to find extra money which has come from nowhere! This extra cost that they didn’t know was going to be there. So the fee cap would be the lowest thing we could achieve, I hope that we will be able to get to the situation where international students know what their fees going to be this year, and that’s just because it’s the same fee.


Is this percentage cap likely to happen in the near future?

We’ve done a lot of work with different people in the university to try and get support on it. We’ve had a lot of good feedback from people because this is the main thing I’ve been working on so far this year. So it really depends on what the university decide to do. If this decision making body decide to not go with this new proposal, then we’re going to have to change our tactics. I’ll stop talking to people individually about how they can support it and I’ll start campaigning with students and petitions to show that this is a really important issue.


You also mentioned postgraduates in your manifesto and how they cannot necessarily be treated with the same general welcomes and treatments as undergraduates. Can or will anything be done this year to help integrate postgraduates into one community, despite them coming from all walks of life?

As I was VP communications last year, one of things I started working on was how we can better integrate postgraduate students. Something which Clair Gilbert has carried on this year with her work on freshers, is to have separate welcome talks for postgraduate students. We made a really good step forward last year so that every student has a welcome talk which included SUSU in it at the start. We got a chance to tell students that university is important… and here’s everything else you can do! Here’s the social side to make sure you’re enjoying yourself, the progression of joining a society and finding a passion. All that cool extra stuff we managed to tell every student about because they had it in the  welcome talk. The step this year which I wanted to make, which has luckily happened, is that postgraduate talks are separate from undergraduate talks. So you don’t have to say things like, ‘Since you’re moving away for the first time…’, because postgraduate students have already done that. You can change your conversation; we talk about things like postgraduate cake and coffee, postgraduate societies, the different places they have to work. All the different bits of support that we can give postgraduate; we’re able tell them about that now rather than trying to cover them in the talk, which was there for everybody. And that’s seen some really good improvements in feedback from the students that attended the talks. It seems like such a massive jump from last year where they felt like they were being spoken to as children because they’ve already gone through the undergraduate programme. Whereas now they feel respected as postgraduates and that they’ve got their student union here for them.


Finally, you mentioned other university sites (SGH, NOC and Winchester) and how their site officers should be given the allocated budgets to make their own changes. Has this been done, or will it be done? — What else can be done to further integrate students that study beyond the main campus?

One of the things I did last year in the budget process was to make sure that Winchester, National Oceanography Centre (NOC) and Southampton General Hospital (SGH) all had a separate pot of about £1,000 where they could produce programs of activity. So the site officers all have that money which they can spend to do the programmes. So last year we had ‘Give it a go’ at Winchester. So now there’s money not just at Winchester but at the NOC and SGH as well so that they can start doing those activities. And student leaders have access as part of the student communities Zone, which VP student communities, Oli Coles, leads to make the most of those funds.


Editor of Wessex Scene 2014-15 Features Editor 2013-14 Writer 2012-2013 I have been involved with the publication throughout my time at university. As editor, I have worked with my team to redesign the magazine, the website and even create special editions on top of our monthly issues. I primarily write news, features and lifestyle pieces.

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