Wessex Scene interview Emily Dawes, who is running for the role of Union President in the 2018 Union Spring Elections.
There’s been a lot of talk this year about the Union not being open and transparent about the way it communicates with students. What do you think the main issues are with the relationship between the Union and its members, and how can the situation be improved?
Transparency is one of my key points, and one of those buzzwords that a lot of people have been using. We just aren’t hearing enough from the Union week to week. They’re the body that represents us and makes decisions for us, but actually we only ever hear about them when big scandals emerge. Whether it’s a rebrand, or something with the sabbs, it takes a lot of people to ask what they are doing about a situation for them to turn around and answer.
I would like it if the Union and the sabbs were giving us weekly or fortnightly updates of what’s going on. I know they’ve sort of started that this year by putting what they have done each week on their Facebook page, but we have a blog that isn’t maintained as much as I think it should be. All of this comes under transparency. If we’re asked questions we should be able to answer them, and if we don’t have an answer we should be able to turn around and say ‘we don’t have an answer right now, we’ll get back to you’.
The other side is giving information out. I think we need more outreach, and to expand into social media that other countries, cultures and languages use.
Should the Union take a stance either for or against the proposed university restructuring from 8 faculties to 5? How will you communicate students feelings on this issue to the University and what further consultation with the student body needs to be held?
I wouldn’t want to put the Union or University in a position to say you should be making a choice for or against this, but I would like to see more information and opinions, especially from the Union. I would like to see more opinions and more articles both for and against, providing any information that they think would be helpful to us.
I do think they should at least be showing that they’re fighting for students. The restructure is going to affect a lot of people. Obviously it’s going to affect staff the most, but it is going to affect students in the fact that faculties are going to change, resources are going to change and we’ve been kept pretty much in the dark. We need to know what’s going on, we need to know how we’re going to be affected in detail, and if the Union thinks we’re not going to like something then they should tell us.
Should the Vice-Chancellor take a pay cut? Where else do you think savings can be made across the Union and University?
Yes! The Vice-Chancellor should take a pay cut. Obviously the All Student Vote happened and the petition went around, I signed it immediately. I think there has been a huge backlash with the pay figures coming out.
Yeah, even if you don’t know anything else about it.
Exactly. Take a look at FemSoc – we don’t get nearly as much funding as we would like. I’m sure other societies are feeling the same way. Then you hear the Vice Chancellor is getting paid that much. I do think he should take a cut, and that other parts of the uni should look into saving costs.
It’s difficult. I think we plug too much money into sports. When I say this, I don’t think we plug too much money into sports I just think it’s sort of blindly given to sports like ‘here do what you will with it, we won’t really like pay attention to how much’. Obviously sports are important to a university, but I know there’s a lot of talk on the campus as well that STEM subjects get so much, but what about humanities or the arts?
I think if we looked into the budget, we looked into the Union, we would notice that money is going just randomly where it shouldn’t be. I think at the moment I would find it difficult to pinpoint where the excess is going to but probably, like with any big organization it’s just sort of being ignored.
We need to know exactly where everything is going and prioritize what we need. Do we need more spaces in the library? Yeah. Does the price of the sports pass need to go up? No. I haven’t seen any new facilities in the gym, I haven’t seen any new sports teams opening up so where has our money gone? We’re just not seeing where it’s going. Sure, hike gym membership fees, but tell us why you’re doing that and where it’s going to because we have a right to know.
Should there be more clear and detailed procedures for holding elected Sabbatical Officers to account, and recalling them if they are deemed to have acted unprofessionally?
Yes. I think this was something that came up last semester with Dan Varley and obviously FemSoc had a big role in making sure that people were held accountable.
There needs to be a clear discipline, I know that they’re treated one way as employees and one way as students and sometimes it’s difficult when those two merge. I think there needs to be a clear outline for different situations, if a sabb has been accused of sexual assault or harassment, if a sabb does something illegal with money, you know what I mean? There’s so many different things that could be happening that might be addressed loosely under some policy in some rule book somewhere, but students don’t know.
We need to know if, for example with the Dan Varley case, there were a lot of things we weren’t allowed to know because he was being dealt with as an employee. I just think with the transparency and with being held accountable, we’re just being kept in the dark all the time. With Dan Varley there was this whole scandal about a sexual harassment thing and then he’s gone and there’s no more on the subject. Where is the Union’s statement that says whether or not this was harassment? I would like the Union to take more stances on things, enough of this sort of wishy washy like ‘well we’re a non-biased body’. You don’t have to be biased to say we fight against sexual assault or we think staff shouldn’t have pay cuts. I don’t see why the Union has to pretend that it can’t be opinionated.
In your view, is the Union becoming increasingly commercialized?
Definitely. I think if they want to sell T-Shirts, metal straws and branded water bottles, those things are totally fine but where is that profit going to? Let’s say we want to get rid of plastic water bottles so we start selling our own branded SUSU ones.
That’s a huge step for sustainability but that’s more expensive, where is that profit going to go? It should be going into sustainability or back into the campus, but it probably isn’t because the Union is trying to make money like anything else.
Obviously it’s profiting somewhere. So I think it has become more commercialized, in the sense that it’s become less and less about the students. That doesn’t make any sense when the Union is literally the students, so it shouldn’t be about what we’re selling if it’s not helping on the inside.
What have you witnessed as FemSoc president which makes you think that the sexual assault problem on campus is far worse than it first appears?
As FemSoc president it’s the sheer number of stories we hear at meetings. The number of stories of ‘oh, my friend went back with this guy, she regretted it in the morning’ or ‘my friend was sexually assaulted but they were both really really drunk so she can’t really go and tell anyone about it’. What you slowly start to realise is this campus has a huge sexual assault problem and I don’t know the figures, I haven’t done that research yet, but chatting to friends, chatting to freshers, chatting to people in FemSoc, it’s those stories.
For me the final straw was when the thing happened in the Stags with Dan Varley. Pulling someone’s trousers down in public, no matter what the intention or result, is sexual harassment and there was nothing from the Union.
That’s when I finally realized, we’re having students being assaulted, harassed and raped during freshers, not during freshers, in halls, outside of halls, in Southampton, outside of Southampton and yet something like that happens and the Union still don’t say anything publically? It’s shameful. I don’t think we’re doing enough, and whats amazing is we’ve got this Sexual Consent Awareness committee, we have groups like FemSoc and LGBT+ society, who are all making motions towards little things but they affect a small community. If the Union can’t come out and simply say we’re going to do everything we can to fight sexual assault, it’s not good enough in my eyes. We will not be doing enough until we can promise you can be safe here, and we know we can never make that promise, so we can always do more.
Just how can bypassing the Union entirely help improve the effectiveness of getting feedback from students, surely it is best to have this integrated into SUSU at all levels so that change can be achieved?
The phrase ‘bypass the Union’ sounds like a sketchy deal but what I mean by that is sometimes, to use FemSoc as an example, we’ve had a question and we don’t know where or who to go to so we’ll approach the Union and it takes ten emails to finally get to the person that we need to be talking to, and about two weeks going through what I would call ‘Union people’ to get to the point.
Setting up a feedback system where you can log your query and it goes straight to the person that it needs to be sent to, whether that’s because of the title or the information or who it’s coming from. So when I say ‘bypass’ I’m not saying no Union involvement, I just mean those difficult intermediate steps that means everything takes longer.
You mention you want to find eco-friendly alternatives and reduce plastic use where possible, but is this not already a major focus for both university services and the Union given efforts such as the reusable cup discount and eco-friendly area of the SUSU shop that have been announced this year?
Sam has really pushed for sustainability this year.
In my eyes, there’s always a next step. Yes, we can cut out plastic straws, so what about plastic cutlery, plastic packaging? Cups which are being sold in the Union that we can’t recycle here?
This is why it’s one of my main five manifesto points, there is so much potential. Putting up comprehensive recycling lists on the bins, putting in water fountains everywhere, getting rid of plastic water bottles on campus. While we are moving in the right direction, we need to make sure the effort is sustained.
How should the Union engage with other campuses such as WSA and Boldrewood etc?
A big thing for WSA is Freshers. Each year their involvement increases, and whilst it’s important to keep that going on, we have to remember that they they are a lot further away. The usual club nights that go on here aren’t going to apply to them as much, how do we take it, as much as possible, over to Winchester while inviting them back here for things like Freshers Ball and Christmas Ball?
As for other campuses, it’s difficult obviously because all of the events tend to centralize around Highfield – and I think we’ve become complacent with that – some people go to the NOC without even visiting here.
While it is important to have things on Highfield, you don’t want to leave other campuses out of it when so many students spend time there. I think just recognizing this is the first step and saying we need to make a change and get more involvement from Winchester students and remembering campus isn’t just Highfield.
How important is freedom of speech and encouraging students to express their diverse range of opinions, even if they are not the same as your own?
Freedom of speech is a difficult one, we get it a lot in FemSoc because people are under this impression that you can’t have freedom of speech in a feminist society (laughs) which is false. I personally have always advocated for free speech, the difference and the line is hate speech. Free speech is being able to criticize the people that govern you. It is having a voice in democracy,being able to vote, being able to join a society, being able to make changes in your course. Free speech is not saying that immigrants shouldn’t be allowed to come to this campus, it’s not saying that gay people shouldn’t be allowed to marry. Those aren’t opinions. If your thoughts and speeches and opinions are putting a barrier on someone’s basic rights to live, that’s where I don’t justify it.
I would never be afraid say to someone ‘that was racist, that was sexist, if you’re going to come and say that again I don’t want you coming to FemSoc’.. While that doesn’t translate to a Union role because obviously you can’t kick people out of a campus, I would really like to place an emphasis on freedom of speech, but not hate speech, and I think there is a line.
We should be facilitating debates and different opinions on all sorts of topics and talking about where money should go, global warming and things like that. What I would never entertain is why should black people have rights? Why should women have equal pay? If your opinions are preventing people from being human and living, then I won’t entertain it.
The majority of your personal statement covers topics of mental health, accessibility, sexual consent awareness and sustainability, these are all issues that fall under the remit of VP Welfare. Are you sure that president is the right role for you?
I am. When I wrote the manifesto I thought, ‘maybe I should just go for Welfare?’. I thought no, because student welfare should be the most important topic at a University. A University is for the students and if the students aren’t enjoying it, aren’t even basically surviving, we wouldn’t have a Union. While I do think my manifesto reads more like a Welfare manifesto than anything else, especially when you’ve got sexual consent awareness and sustainability, I think those should be just as important, if not more important, for a President to tackle.
The president is the face of the Union, and deals a lot with the behind the scenes, structure and admin. I don’t want people to think that’s what I care about. I included things I care about, and want to make change for. It’s these important issues that I am specifically running for. My heart is in the role, you can see that in my manifesto. I care about welfare, mental health, and safe consensual sex and I think everyone should.
Find out more about Emily Dawes and her policies by reading her personal statement here.