Union President Candidate Interview with Matthew Cowley

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Wessex Scene interviews Matthew Cowley, who is running for the position 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 with the relationship between the Union and its members are and how can the situation be improved?

I think there’s a twofold problem. I think there’s a communication problem and a bigger structural problem. I’ll start with the communication problems, I think we don’t communicate well and regularly with students and that’s something the students’ union needs to do better and I think we can’t be afraid to experiment with it. There are lots of different ways that the union could communicate with students, there are lots of different ways that it could engage students and I think it needs to spend some time looking at those and thinking about things that have worked, thinking about things that haven’t worked, and taking best practices from other students’ unions around the country which don’t seem to have the same problems.

Structurally, we have a problem in that we don’t engage students right from day one, we sort of wait for students to come to the students’ union and I think that’s one of the problems at the heart of the relationship between SUSU and the students. I think that’s something we need to change, we need some of the structural things that I’ve been talking about and also some extra things just to make the students’ union more connected to the student body.

We’ve been improving on things like academic representation, things around how we communicate on an academic level with students, and I think that’s been one of the main success I’ve seen. Not so well, the structural thing. We’ve done a lot of stuff that’s changed the window dressing of the students’ union without getting at the core problems in structures that don’t really engage people and I think that’s the big thing we need to be addressing.

Should the Union take a stance either for or against the proposed university restructuring from 8 faculties to 5? How will you communicate student feeling on this issue to the University and what further consultation with the student body needs to be held?

It’s obviously a big issue, I think I want to separate it out into the cuts that they propose to make and the restructuring itself. The cuts to staff members and to admin staff are ill thought through and we need to be firmly taking a stance against those. There are elements of the restructuring that need to be opposed and elements that need to be consulted on again but aren’t necessarily bad in and of themselves. I think there are parts of the restructure that are potentially positive but so long as we’ve had that chance for students to give their feedback and to make sure that there aren’t going to be negative implications that we can’t currently envisage.

Some consultation would be nice from the university’s end, I would like to see a really big consultation on all elements of the restructure, both within faculties and across the student body as a whole because I think it’s ridiculous that the university sprung this upon us with ten days to get student feedback and I think that’s a massive problem in terms of my ability to say what elements of the restructure need to be opposed because we can’t tell what problems there are going to be until we’ve had that consultation so I think that’s the first step that needs to be taken.

In terms of communicating [student feeling]  to the university there’s obviously got to be a direct line of Union President to Vice-Chancellor (VC)  and I think I’ll be harder on the VC. There’s also a level of enabling those communications between the students and the senior management, and the senior management within their faculties. I’d like to open up more communication links through things like Faculty Officers, through a lot of people who are already doing some quite good work but I think we need to broaden the scope of being able to get all of the students in to meet with senior management and senior members of their faculty.

Should the Vice-Chancellor take a pay cut? Where else do you think savings can be made across the Union and University?

I’ve got a two-fold answer. One, I think it’s ridiculous that at a time when the university is under financial pressure the VC’s pay has increased since 2009 by more than 100%. I think if you can’t get a good vice chancellor for £200,000 a year then we’ve got bigger problems than just structural ones. It’s ludicrous to cut staff when you’re paying a vice chancellor £430,000 a year and I just can’t see the logic in cutting frontline staff and not cutting the vice chancellor’s pay to get as many cost savings as we can out of this restructure.

Across the university I think there are a lot of areas of wastage – obviously senior management. I think that goes further than salary, into some of the extra perks that senior management have that other staff members perhaps don’t, so things like the executive chauffeur that was advertised a few months ago. I think things like the South Stoneham tower which costs us £100,000 a year to maintain. And in other areas of the university we have empty houses that are owned by the university across Southampton that are sitting there that could be sold off or rented out, or have something done with them that would be useful rather than having buildings collecting dust while the university decides to cut staff.

Within the union, as I’m running to be President I’m cautious to immediately point at areas. I would want to take a bigger review once I was in place to look at the efficiencies and what might be cut.

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?

One of my proposals is to introduce a recall procedure for sabbaticals and student leaders, not just for if they’ve acted improperly but also for if they haven’t done the things they said they were going to do when they were elected. In terms of holding sabbaticals and part time officers to account, I think we need to do much more. I want to introduce a scrutiny committee as well which would directly hold sabbatical officers to account and make sure they’re delivering on everything that they can.

Isn’t that just Senate?

There is an extent to which that is the role of Senate, I would like to move into separating that out so Senate is a place for students to largely add policy and to debate the core things that the Union is doing and then have also a scrutiny committee on top of that. This isn’t necessarily taking the scrutiny role away from, Senate but adding an additional layer on top of it so there’s another level of holding the sabbatical officers to account. I want to put as much accountability as it is physically possible.

In your view, is the Union becoming increasingly commercialised?

I’m not really sure, to be honest. I think there’s a level of commercialisation, I don’t know whether it’s increasing or not because I haven’t really been paying much attention to the commercialisation of the Union if I’m honest. I think that so long as we’re providing things that are low cost and good for students, that’s a good thing. I think the problem is where it drifts over into providing superfluous things or providing things at a high cost that we don’t need, or rather that don’t need to be at a high cost. So I’m not really sure.

Can donating £1,000 of your own salary as a single prize if elected really help to solve the funding problems some societies are facing given that many have had their budgets for the current academic year cut by rather substantial amounts and the current funding rounds system is very competitive as it stands?

I accept that there are bigger problems with the funding and I want to look at those as well, I’m not proposing that the only thing I would do with funding is to give away £1,000 of my salary. We need a bigger look at funding and how we can improve access to external funding as much as we can access to funding from the students’ union itself.

With regards to the presidents’ prize, I think that there is an element to which the Union President might be overpaid and I think that a salary of £20,000 for me would be still very generous. So £1,000 out of the presidents’ salary to help with a long term project goes a little bit of a way towards helping some funding and perhaps helping a society. I don’t think it’s the solution to all of our problems, but it’s an area where I can see an easy place to take some money and put it into societies which I think is something that we need to be doing.

How would your plans for student consultation and focus groups differ from the current use of ‘You Make Change’ and All Student Votes? What, if any, further input can be gained through these proposed changes given the lack of engagement with current approaches?

The idea behind the focus groups would be that we want to take a more social science orientated approach to gathering feedback. It would be inviting people to give feedback who haven’t necessarily put themselves forward for feedback, and getting a representative sample of the student body. I’d want to do some face to face communication with the focus groups just because I think it would help to have those debates with people who are engaged and people who aren’t so engaged.

With regards to consultations, I think we do some things with You Make Change and with existing projects but we’re often on the back foot, responding to problems that already exist rather than taking a more positive look at how the Union could be tackling things that will come up as problems. If we’d had a reliable means of student consultations, then it’s possible we could have already had some opinions on the structure of the university that we could have fed into the restructure process during that tiny ten day consultation period that they gave us. I want to make a more forward looking union that isn’t on the back foot, and that’s what the Your Voice Your Choice consultations are about.

People already don’t engage that much, so what further input could be gained through Your Voice Your Choice?

Part of the reason people don’t engage is we don’t give them much reason to. It’s part of a broader package, I want to improve that engagement by getting people into the union and telling them what it’s about, telling them how to engage with it right from day one. I want to make a Union where people who want to engage can, people who don’t want to engage but have a strong opinion on a specific issue or what we should be doing have that ability to engage without having to be constantly bombarded with stuff. It’s about changing the culture of SUSU, that culture of expecting students to come to us is part of the problem.

If we go to students asking their thoughts on current issues, if we are out on the Redbrick once a week or even possibly more often than that and actively going out and talking to people, I think people want to be heard, we just make it really inconvenient for them to engage with us and unnecessarily difficult because processes just aren’t that transparent. When I first started out I had no idea how to change anything in SUSU, I still to a certain extent find the processes baffling at times. There needs to be a change in culture at SUSU to make it more about going out and engaging students.

Don’t problems regarding the representation of satellite campuses and sites within SUSU go much further than a lack of permanent representation at WSA/NOC? What will this do for those studying at the Malaysia Campus and at the WSA Dalian Campus?

Obviously, problems go further than a lack of permanent representation, I have a lot more ideas on how we can engage students on other campuses but unfortunately within the confines of 500 words it was more difficult for me to get everything I wanted to say out on paper. I think that all of the things I talk about as new structures, I want to roll out on Winchester, NOC, Dalian.

I’m not sure how the Malaysia campus works but I’ll certainly look at how we can roll out some of the same ideas and some of the same goals on those campuses. I’d like to make it very much about all students regardless of the site that they’re at, having a Students’ Union that engages with them. The permanent representation thing is just my way of saying that we need a SUSU that recognises those campuses are as important as the Highfield campus. In the same way that I’m going to be spreading the other things that I’ve talked about to those campuses, I think we need to spread some of the benefits of the Union to those campuses as well.

How important is freedom of speech and encouraging students to encourage their diverse opinions to you? 

I am a firm believer in the importance of debate, I was president of Debating Society so I’m a big believer in the power and importance of debate. I think that freedom of speech, freedom to protest are all very important but I think they need to be done in such a way as to minimise as far as possible the harms that they can have on people, because speech can be hurtful.

When I was president of Debating, I always made sure that the groups that would be affected by the issues we were debating were kept in the loop about what was being organised, and if we couldn’t find a way to minimise those harms in such a satisfactory way that we were careful and we made sure people didn’t get hurt or offended or insulted by it. I’d like to see a union where we can have these big debates and we can have constructive discussions on big issues and not shy away from subjects.

Find out more about Matthew Cowley and his policies by reading his personal statement here.

More articles in Elections 2018: Interviews with the Union President Candidates
  1. Union President Candidate Interview with Lii Mohamed
  2. Union President Candidate Interview with Emily Dawes
  3. Union President Candidate Interview with Matthew Cowley
  4. Union President Candidate Interview with Shanelle Webb
  5. Union President Candidate Interview with Grant Green
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Third year PAIR student and head of events. Also The Edge's live editor and 2016-17 opinion editor. Fan of cats, gigs and a tea lover - find me rambling about politics and cats @_Carly_May on Twitter.

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