Overview of SUSU’s Making Change Summit

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Today the student union hosted an all-day series of discussions on a number of topics, ranging from banning plastic straws, to what ways to improve the accountability of the Union. Here’s your handy Wessex Scene round-up of the key points from discussions and student feedback.

Topic 1: Holding the Student Union to Account; Contributing Sabbatical Officers: VP Democracy and Creative Industries, Evie Reilly, and President Flora Noble

Evie in opening proceedings, highlighted the importance of the Senate body being the main place that the union makes policy, its importance in holding sabbatical officers to account and having representatives for all zones. She then asked for feedback, particularly about its representation structure.

Points raised by audience members included:

  • A feeling that the Senate isn’t very transparent and that students don’t know enough about what goes on in Senate meetings
  • Concern about the frequency of Zone and Senate meetings limiting chances for student voices to be represented, especially considering the proposed University restructuring
  • Debate over when was best for Senate elections to be scheduled – currently, elections to the Senate take place in the Autumn, while the Chair is elected in the summer. An advantage of this approach is the greater opportunity for first years to participate, but a significant disadvantage is the lack of accountability of sabbatical officer from July until the first Senate meeting of the academic year
  • The topic of Dan Varley’s recent ban from Union bars due to inappropriate behaviour was raised. One audience member commented: ‘Campuses are known for being one of the hubs for sexual assault… I would not want to attend the university anymore knowing that a student representative had attacked students’. In response, Flora emphasized the reason little information had been forthcoming about how the Union was addressing the matter was due to HR confidentiality arrangements already in place. She also invited the audience member quoted above to talk to her after the discussion about her concerns
  • Some students said they’d like to see more engagement with societies relevant to certain topics raised by the Union, e.g. Marine Conservation Soc. and the banning of plastic straws
  • Evie said she was keen to remedy a sense of disconnect between students and the student union body, and encouraged people to chat face to face with sabbatical officers

Topic 2: How can the Union improve study spaces on campus? Contributing Sabbatical Officers: VP Education, Sam Dedman, VP Student Communities, Arun Aggarwal, and President Flora Noble

Sam introduced the topic, explaining that one of the primary aims of Education Zone this year was to improve study spaces for students and that as part of that process, they wanted feedback from students. Points raised in the discussion included:

  • Avenue Cafe will be bookable to students very soon
  • It was explained that a fourth building at Avenue to increase study space for post-graduates was in the university’s long-term pipeline. Arun added another possible way of expanding post-grad space was to share Masters space as well, but said they’d welcome feedback on this idea
  • Sam revealed that all the Common Learning spaces are on a 5 year cycle to be refreshed
  • Sam explained following a question on the matter, that the library had conducted studies to assess demand for 24/7 opening of Hartley Library early in semester 1 and found there wasn’t enough demand to merit it. However, Sam did add that at towards the end of normal academic year, the library will remain open 24/7 to accommodate medical students particularly, who traditionally have later exams
  • Expanding the number of spaces with power sockets in Hartley – Sam said that although the majority of spaces do now have power sockets, he was aware of the issue, particularly in relation to Level 2 of the library, adding that that would be the next step for refurbishment
  • Lack of available spaces in Assistive Technology brought up and concerns that students who require Assistive Technologies could be better represented in the Education Zone – Sam promised to look into the issue and welcomed the suggestion of representation for students who need assistive technologies as an excellent idea
  • Upon a point raised about certain e-books being only available one reader at a time, Sam acknowledged the problem, but emphasized that there’s not an awful lot the library services can do if the publishers aren’t accommodating
  • In relation to a question about what’s being done at other campuses to improve study space, Sam mentioned a concerted look at improving the MedSoc common room at Southampton General Hospital and that microwaves had been fitted to Winchester Cafe, helping improve a great informal study space
  • Audience members expressed frustration at scheduling of lectures and seminars alternating between Avenue and Highfield Campus, with one student asking if humanities seminars could be prioritised at Avenue. Flora responded by saying that work reducing the number of students having to travel between Avenue and Highfield was occurring and that they were looking at ways to improve the use of Avenue rooms
  • Concerns were raised about ongoing niggles with Delphis and the library self-scanning system, which Sam said he’d look into

Topic 3: How should the Union represent international students? Contributing Sabbatical Officer: VP Student Communities, Arun Aggarwal

Discussion points included:

  • Arun’s enthusiasm for the Culture Festival in March helping improve interaction between international and other students came across strongly during the discussion
  • One audience member suggested more thought should go into interactive projects on campus considering that a board in Hartley Library encouraging people to write what makes a good neighbour had seen potentially offensive remarks made, about ISIS and Turkey. Arun said that there’s no place for behaviour like that, although such interactive projects shouldn’t be necessarily sidelined
  • The Union will work with societies and international student communities to create packs outlining cultural differences to help them settle into British life, although Arun ackowledged that such initiatives must be done in the right way to avoid being perceived as patronising
  • The issue of BME and international student representation was raised in the discussion. Arun described as a ‘great shout’ when an audience member suggested more info about visa issues should be available for international students potentially interested in sabbatical roles
  • General consensus was reached in the room of the need for greater promotion of initiatives like language exchange, making more people aware of them
  • A number of students raised concerns about interaction between international and other students in halls and how international students could often be withdrawn, or only interact with other international students. Arun welcomed the feedback on this and the broad agreement in the room that formulating more social events was a way of perhaps addressing this
  • Arun asked for suggestions from the audience about making international students feel more welcome generally. Among the suggestions was for a zone specifically concerned with international students
  • One audience member who said he’d been a President of two societies last year expressed his concern that societies don’t really know how to engage international students. Arun sympathised with this point, although suggested one definite way of addressing this was contacting the likes of the Indian Society to see if they or their members were interested in events

Topic 4: Should the Union ban plastic straws? Contributing Sabbatical Officer: VP Welfare, Sam Higman 

Points raised in the discussion:

  • 100 million straws used across UK – approximately 30,000kg of plastic straw waste. Small changes in our daily lives can have a big impact.
  • Audience member raised concern over whether it was a blanket ban and if so how they would accommodate to disabled students who need straws? Sam suggested that a solution to this would be a stack of paper straws available behind the bar and metal straws also available to be purchased.
  • The concern of whether we should be using plastic cutlery was also raised and it was suggested that reusable cutlery should be pushed.
  • Environmental and Ethics officer asked what issue would be dealt with next after resolving the straw dilemma since the University of Southampton is voted as one of the worst universities for environmental impact. Sam responded that it would be too much to just ban everything all at once and  in the long run it is these small changes that will make a huge difference.
  • Placing the straws behind the bar instead of at the front hopes to remove the impulse of unnecessarily grabbing one.
  • Cost wise the paper straws would be free since they are disposable and metal straws would be similar in cost to other universities which have advertised them for £1.
  • An audience member raised a question as to whether the straws will be available at other retail outlets across campus and Sam responded that the union hope to set the example for these places.
  • Students still have concern over the presented options and alternatives to which the union stated they will look into the best options and it is not limited to metal, paper and plastic.
  • More clarification is needed on whether items can be recycled for example takeaway cups are usually not recyclable due to two materials being bound together.
  • Sam suggests that maybe our local MP should be contacted to improve our local recycling rules, since it is a huge issue in Southampton.

Topic 5: How should the Union represent and support students in halls? Contributing Sabbatical Officer: VP Communities, Arun Aggarwal 

Points raised in the discussion:

  • First point raised was how to stop Mayflower from feeling very cut off from the rest of halls to which Arun suggested the Hall committee structure should be utilised to improve the community aspect of halls.
  • There should be more clarity to societies that they get involved in hosting events in halls and promotion of this.
  • Addressing the issue for private rented in Winchester and whether they should go to EP committee or Private rented committee for advice or accommodation to which Arun suggests EP is the solution.
  • An audience member raises the question of how the union are trying to engage first year students who are not particularly interested in drinking based events. Arun suggested that the union have tried to have a 50/50 split for events so they could target different groups and different interests. However breaking out of the mentality that freshers week is alcohol-fuelled is a difficult stereotype which will take time to change.
  • How to include students in halls who are not first year came up as an important issue. Arun stated that the focus is on working with the halls committees to see what different students want and what kind of events suit them.
  • The cladding on halls have been checked recently and it is non-flammable and of the highest quality.

Topic 6: What is the future for sports within the Union? Contributing Sabbatical Officer: VP Sports, Steve Gore

Points raised in the discussion:

  • Clarification that the facilities are run by sports and wellbeing and not VP Sports himself although they do work together. The overall aim is to move towards a unified department which involves both the Union and Sports and Wellbeing.
  • Steve asked the audience how the union should be spending the sport budget to which an audience member questioned how does intramural fit into the proposed aims and strategies? Steve suggested that since intramural is more casual you are only really looking at funding equipment and therefore the current way that this is paid for is likely the best method.
  • The £110 sport pass is suggested to be lacking in value and it was raised as to how Steve would enhance this to make it worthwhile or potentially reduce the cost so it was more fitting? To provide more with the pass he suggested adding casual booking into the options or perhaps a super off-peak time with extra time restrictions that frequent fitness doesn’t have.
  • One of Steve’s key manifesto points was to bring about a semester pass to give students the chance to trial without a year long commitment. Although Steve currently cannot inform the students of any updates he does believe we will be seeing positive change very soon.
  • There are a fair amount of people who can’t afford the cost of playing sports at university, an audience member asks if this can subsidise or if there is any more funding/how can it be found? Steve recommends people who are struggling to go straight to the Union, there are bursaries for top-level athletes and there is also the hardship fund and also the enabling services and advice centre for students to talk to.
  • Steve is keen to look into free sports since the union don’t currently offer anything for free, for example there are no free courts or pitches. He believes this is a big issue and Sport and Wellbeing are also on board with resolving this which is why some funding has been put aside to perhaps provide free facilities.
  • The introduction of welfare officers inside clubs this year was a great idea but students have felt they have not heard enough about this or received the Union’s full support. Steve suggests that the officers are fulfilling their pledges and an increased push will be happening.
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International Editor 2017/18. Second year Modern History and Politics student from Bedford. Interested in British and International Politics, and Sport, particularly Rugby Union. Drinks far too much tea for his own good

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