Sabb Interviews: VP DCI Megan Downing

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As part of the mini-series of 2015 sabbatical interviews, the Wessex Scene team are interviewing all sabbatical officers this week to catch up on their progress, what’s gone well or badly so far and what plans they have for semester 2 and beyond. 

Hi Megan! How do you feel your time has been so far as VP DCI? 

Well, I’m six months in. It’s been stressful but so much fun! The best parts are when I’m working with student groups and student media.

Good to hear! What do you feel has been your most important achievement so far?

The Creative Industries Career Season, that’s the big one, that’s only just happened so that’s the one that’s in my mind. We achieved so much more than I ever expected. I wanted it to be better than last year but in fact it was amazing! We got all the speakers just for travel expenses and the budget was quite strict anyway. To get CEOs of big creative companies was amazing! So that’s the one I’d pick.

I definitely agree with the success of the event. On reflection, is there anything that you would have done differently?

We’ve got a debrief next week to pin down some stats about how it went. I was so overwhelmed by the positive reaction to it. There was a lot of work on my part, from Charlotte and from the Creative Industries Team we have here. Tahlie [Cooper, Editor of the Wessex Scene] worked incredibly hard and it’s outside of the remit for a student leader but she still invested a lot of time in it.

I was really pleased with how it went in general. Most of the sessions were fully booked, or we had extra people coming along when the sessions were on. Some sessions don’t get the reception you would like but that’s something we can take forward for next year. I think that we did the marketing for it a bit too late. We had planned to release all the marketing for it earlier but,obviously, the department is stretched at the moment anyway so it was difficult for us to balance workloads. But I was overwhelmed with how it went.

I personally thought the Careers Season was a lot more visible this year than last year.

I’m glad! That’s good to hear. We’ve just put out a survey to ask students who attended  for their feedback and how we can improve. One thing we’re looking into, which isn’t set in stone yet, is hiring a student as an intern to focus specifically on running the Careers Season. That’s something in the pipeline which is really exciting.

So, with regards to your manifesto, what action have you taken to raise awareness or change perceptions about Union Council?

The big thing that has influenced Union Council this year will be the Student Leader Review. We’ve completed it now, meaning that there are are less people on Union Council. There was a kind of apathy last year in that all Student Leaders were forced to go as part of their role. Depending year on year on the personalities of the student leaders, some people would love it but others feel like it was a waste of their time. To address that, we’ve got some roles that are compulsory (Student Leader Councillors) but a lot of the other roles are flexible. A student leader can choose to run for a Union Councillor position if they would like to.

In my Sabb plan, I’m going to implement a review system of Union Council in general to review how effective it is and how we can improve the way we publicise the decisions that are made. There’s 60 students in a room, making these decisions, the highest decision making body the Union has, but who knows about it?  Who out of the 23,000 students actually cares?

That’s something I’m going to come on to actually. So, as you said, there are 23,000 students at the University but only a small number go to Union Council. How do you plan to increase attendance?

We’d love for the everyday student to just come along and actually make change. One thing we’ve tried to do is up our presence on social media. We make an event for every Union Council and try and publicise that through SUSU social media outlets. We always try and put it in the SUSU calendar well in advance. It’s a case on my part, whether it’s writing blogs or pushing it on my own Facebook account. I’d like to get the likes of the Ideas and Discussion group involved. If I can get some of those really vocal students in the room and making decisions, that would be an achievement for me, definitely.

In your manifesto, you spoke of an effective feedback system with student leaders and sabbatical officers. How is this being implemented?

In my handover with my predecessor, there was an online platform being created.  We want it to be as open as possible and this is currently in the beta stages. I can’t tell you the name yet because we’re still working on a title! So it will be an online forum where a student can go online and ask a question, put forward a motion to Council or start a petition. There are lots of drop down menus where you can target your question to a student leader. It will be very visible as to whether these points are being dealt with. We’re maybe doing a traffic light system to cover how the questions are being dealt with: green if they’ve been dealt with, amber if they’re in the process. You’ll be finding out a lot more soon!

You say you’d like achievements in the student media to be recognised more widely but I personally haven’t seen that happening at the moment. There’s the Media Ball at the end of the year, but there doesn’t seem to be recognition throughout the year.

This is something that’s challenging to embed day to day. The media departments run so fluidly and usually only come to me when there’s problems. We flag up the bad times, but why don’t we celebrate the good times? I can do so much, but some of it comes down to the student leaders in taking pride in what they do. As Edge editor, I would post the Top 5 Articles of the month and Tahlie’s started to do that with the Wessex Scene and little incentives.  I completely agree that there needs to be something more solid in the VP DCI’s job to ensure that it’s embedded into their daily work load.

Another thing that is on my to-do list, as you know, there’s a lot of student media awards and SUSU have really dropped the ball on that in the past and haven’t submitted anything. The Guardian do student media awards, so do the Telegraph. One thing I’m looking to do is to create a calender saying when the award nominations open and close and push that to the writers to submit their work so that we can be recognised on a national level. It’s something that should be embedded into the day to day workload than just a celebration at the end of the year like you said.

You said in your manifesto that you’d like to see CI space being used more effectively. What changes have you made with regards to CI space?

The Media Resource room, when we got it after the summer holidays, was full of boxes and being used as storage space! I really cracked the whip to get people to take their stuff out of our room! We’ve fitted two new computers with stuff for Surge and SUSUTV to use. So that’s one movement we’ve made to enable it to be more efficient. Another thing we’ve also ensured that the ‘playroom’,used to be the student groups room, will be open after 5pm. It was initially locked at 5pm. If student groups are meeting, they’re not going to be meeting during lecture time! So now that room is available for meetings.
In terms of space more generally,everyone wants space! It’s even something that the University is talking about a lot at the moment, especially with regards to creative and performance spaces. Those discussions are going on at a higher level. Hopefully we can get our oar in and get some of the space that becomes available.

What’s the next project you’ll be working on?

The Spring Elections are a little thing I’ve got coming up! So I’ll be working on that. We’ve also got Student Publication Assocation National Conference coming up, so those are two things I will be working on. My colleague and I are trying to launch an awareness campaign about unpaid internships, especially within the creative sphere. A lot of people will have gone to do work experience for a magazine, for four or five weeks, without being paid and think that’s what they have to do to get their foot in the door. It’s a topic that is national at the moment, and we at SUSU are having preliminary meetings about that. But the Spring Elections will be taking up a lot of my time during February and March!

Are there any aims from your manifesto that you’ve had to rethink or cannot implement? If so, why?

Manifestos are the pipe dream, if you had an infinite amount of time! So maybe five years down the line I could have achieved everything that’s on there. Some of the things on my manifesto I’ve not had to rethink, but to ‘park’ for a future VP DCI to deal with. One of which, I’ve touched on previously, is about Union Council attendance and improving Union Council more generally. The way I’ve addressed that is, in my Sabbatical Plan, instead of me doing the work, I’ve put that a project initiation needs to happen at the end of my term in order for the next VP DCI to pick that up and actually work on that. Once I leave after a year, I want there to be a legacy of stuff that I’ve implemented, not for it to be dropped off the face of the earth.

Yes, if there are issues which need to be sorted then the work will need to carry on.

Yeah, absolutely. As another thing, I also feel that SUSU Media in itself hasn’t been reviewed  in an awful long time. The only really big change was The Edge becoming independent three or for years ago. So next year’s VP DCI will need to pick up on something that I will have left them, a big piece of work about reviewing the effectiveness of the Student Media and look at other student unions to see how their media works and and whether we can actually keep on developing and improving. So those are a couple of things that I won’t really have time to do but I will make sure will happen in the future.

So, related to that, what’s your biggest priority for the remainder of your term?

I’d like to achieve more votes in the elections and more candidates in the elections, so more of those things. In my plan, it was a bigger and better CI Induction, you can tick that one off, and the Careers Season bigger and better. I want everything to be sustainable so someone who follows me next year, the year after, can actually go ‘right, Meg’s put that in place, let’s address that and make sure we’re keeping on top of it’. With changes in the SU every year, things get dropped. It takes a few questions to be asked and a member of staff will say, ‘we did that in the past, it didn’t really work.’  I want to enable the next Sabb leader to have that context already. So, a legacy is the thing that I’m clutching on to at the moment!

Thank you Megan!

More articles in Sabb Interviews 2015
  1. Sabb Interviews: President, David Mendoza-Wolfson
  2. Sabb Interviews: VP DCI Megan Downing
  3. Sabb Interviews: VP Engagement, Ellie Cawthera
  4. Sabb Interviews: VP Communities, Anjit Aulakh
  5. Sabb Interviews: VP Welfare, Beckie Thomas
  6. Sabb Interviews: VP Sports Development, Katie Lightowler
  7. Sabb Interviews: VP Education, Sophia D’Angelico
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