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- VP Welfare and Community George Hart Candidate Interview
Wessex Scene interviewed George Hart, who is running for the role of VP Welfare and Community in the 2019 Union Spring Elections.
So George, what makes you the ideal candidate to be Vice-President Welfare and Community?
Well, I think that’s a very good question and I think ultimately, this is something that I’m incredibly passionate about. So, through my own experiences at University with sort of adverse mental health and sort of, you know trying to find myself and realising what a formative experience University actually is for young people such as us, I’ve sort of really developed, like I say, that passion for helping people. I’ve come to understand the prevalence of student mental health problems. I think it’s something like 15,000 first year students reported a mental health problem in 2016 as opposed to 3,000 in 2006, so it’s on the up, some might call it an epidemic, it’s certainly a big problem, so like I say, I’ve realised the importance of helping students with their mental health and through my own experiences with poor mental health I’ve developed a passion for helping people and wanting to try and make some positive change. Because it’s become a really big problem, I think on a national and international scale, and I think that as a students’ union, we can play a big role in trying to reverse that trend.
The figures you mentioned – are they UK-wide?
So far as I’m aware, yes. It’s from the BBC.
How will you handle the responsibilities that have been added to the position due to merging of VP Welfare and VP Student Communities?
Ok, so I think that as with many things in life and indeed, at University, it’s all about the time management. So it’s two roles which have very much been, you know, fused together so I think my previous experience at University with juggling sort of different responsibilities, so this year, for example, I do work for Wessex Scene as the Travel Editor, I’m the Geography Society President, I also captain a football team, so I’m used to having lots of different commitments and also have a part time job as well, so I’m used to juggling lots of different things and I think time management and really just sort of having a very clear idea of who your network are, you know, which people you can talk to about, maybe something to do with Welfare, something to do with Community, I think really, like I say, mostly immersing yourself in the structure of the students’ union and making sure you know immediately where to go when you need help from somebody, that’s the most important thing.
So you talked a bit about your experience. What relevant experience do you have for the role then and how do you feel this experience will prove beneficial?
Ok, so prior to being the President of the Geography Society I was actually the Welfare Officer, and so that was actually a role I enjoyed a lot more than being the President because it was very much more people-orientated. So I was able to talk to a lot of our younger students, ask them how they were feeling, how they were finding the University, help them overcome some of the challenges they had, help signpost them to like, relevant support, you know, not just within Geography, though we do have a fantastic support structure within Geography that does need to be rolled out to all departments, but anyway not just Geography, but ultimately the students’ union and the wider University, so that was really beneficial.
We also, we have a buddy system in Geography which is something I sort of continued to develop, which involves second and third year students basically taking on a group, or maybe even just one, fresher and basically mentoring them through their first year. It’s something I’m still involved with this year and it’s a really rewarding experience of both parties and I think that gives me the tools to help do this role.
What are the main challenges that you think you’ll face in the role if you get elected?
I think partly, as we mentioned previously, the fact that the roles are changing this year. I think everybody’s going to be potentially going to have a period of adjustment, you know, different responsibilities moving to different people sort of thing. So I think it’ll definitely be very much a transition period, but I think once we’ve all overcome that, obviously, like I say for me student mental health is the biggest issue and it is a big issue. It’s something SUSU on its own can’t tackle, you know even in Southampton, it’s not something that- SUSU doesn’t have the sort of omnipotence to reach out and make everybody feel better all of a sudden. There’s a lot of organisations and stakeholders that need to work together, so I think that’s certainly something that, you know, is going to be a big challenge, we need to sort of continue to destigmatise it within the University and hopefully that’ll help to inspire, sort of, wider cultural changes in the country as a whole.
Additionally, we all know that sexual assault on campus is a really big issue. We still don’t know the extent of these issues – I mean, there’s a lot of research being done into this, I think that’s something that we definitely need to look at as well and also, I believe that the Union’s housing advice isn’t necessarily up to scratch and so I’d quite like to change that, but I know there’s a lot of people with slightly different opinions on that topic.
You mentioned sexual assault on campus, a topic covered in most of the VP Welfare and Community candidate manifestos. How do you plan to address this topic exactly, do you have any ideas?
I’d be really keen to work quite closely with the SCA [Sexual Consent Awareness] Society – they’ve done some fantastic work and continue to do so. I think it’s obviously, like we say, we don’t really know the full extent of the issue, because a lot of it doesn’t get reported. A lot of it’s very stigmatised as well, so I think definitely working with the SCA Society, working with the University, I think it’s a wider cultural change that’s needed. We need to sort of, you know, make people aware that obviously these things are happening, they are going on, we can’t shy away from them. Obviously, in wider culture we’ve seen stuff like the Netflix show 13 Reasons Why has, brought a lot of these issues to light, but then been criticised, for you know, bringing issues that are too sensitive.
We do need to talk about these things, so I think dialogue and talking and communication is actually the most important thing, so once we get people happy to talk about it, hopefully we’ll be able to make some positive progress and I think certainly working with the University is something I’d like to do. I think there needs to be opportunities, for people that have a safe space can go and talk about things. Maybe we need to bring in sort of dedicated specialists into the Advice Centre and into First Support and Enabling Services, who are sort of trained to deal with these sort of situations and these issues and can signpost people who might’ve had a really bad experience and signpost them to further care for the support, maybe even bring in the authorities if needed. I think just having that connectivity between different support services is something that’s really important and giving people the opportunity to access help if they need it.
You also mentioned about the Union’s house advice. One of the most daunting tasks any student faces, arguably, is having to find a house in second or third year. How do you propose to improve the house advice on offer at the Union?
The current tagline you tend to see at the Union is ‘Don’t Rush to Rent’ and that is true, to an extent, but I think it is somewhat misleading because whilst you shouldn’t rush to rent you also shouldn’t wait until the last minute. I think a lot of people get caught out by this and I know that from personal experience and from my friends not just at this uni, but at other universities. I have friends in Bristol and Reading who have had similar issues with housing. Why shouldn’t rush for the first house you see, the first people you meet and you should take your time to make the decision; at the same time, if you leave it to the last minute you might get a bit stuck and be worse off than you would have been if you had started earlier. I think there needs to be more structure and clarity in how they’re giving their advice and the discourse that’s coming out of the Union as I think it is potentially leading to students to make mistakes with the houses they sign.
Another issue is the naivety of the students, most of us have never rented a house before and we aren’t aware of the legal mechanisms. We don’t understand the sorts of tricks that estate agents and landlords use to catch us out and kind of exploit that naivety, so I think its about educating people more. I would want to run housing workshops and distribute more information to the Union in order to make it easier for students to make decisions, stop them from getting caught out so easily and hopefully we will have a more student body and the landlords and estate agents will have to up their game a bit as well in light of the issues we see students complain all the time about like mould and dodgy landlords.
In your manifesto you said that the University needs to dramatically improve their Student Services. One of the biggest complaints lodged against Student Services is that they can’t provide frequent mental health care appointments for students. How to you propose to ensure there is more availability and personalised attention towards students requiring mental health help?
If I got elected I would be looking to meet with people within the University who have responsibility for these kind of things pretty much immediately to identify what resources are available, to ask why they are not perhaps doing as much as they could. We have seen from a lot of other universities that it is possible to invest more money into mental health support, and they already are, so there is no reason why this University can’t. I know this might not be as simple as I am about to put it, but if they can build this massive building by the interchange then I’m sure they can put a bit more money into mental health. Like I said, I don’t think there is anywhere for them to turn because the local NHS services are pretty much stretched to breaking point. We have Steps2Wellbeing who are a fantastic support service managed by the local NHS but it is difficult to get an appointment with them it is hard to get that frequent support. So I would be looking to work with the University to identify what they can do to actually allocate more resources to mental health and I would be trying to sell the benefits of it because a happy and healthy student body would be more productive and are going to achieve more and obviously that is going to raise the University’s profile because, at the end of the day, all the University care about is money and reputation so I suppose if you wave those carrots in front of them we might get somewhere.
In an earlier student media interview, you discussed inviting guest equality and diversity speakers to campus. Tell us a bit more about this.
I’m a great believer in people who have had these experiences or hold senior positions in society or within a certain discourse in debate are really powerful people, and I think that actually be very inspirational and when you listen to someone like this it really can hype you up and make you feel like you can do anything, and I think that is a really important thing. It happens a lot already in the University with people coming in who are prominent in their respective field and it is a really great opportunity for people. As I’ve said before, I would be looking at inviting high-profile people like perhaps some Members of Parliament who might have campaigned for a certain groups rights or even just somebody from another University or students union who might be a good example to us. I’d be looking to bring them in, maybe we’d be able to have a talk in the Cube or in the Union Cinema and hopefully there would be a chance for a Q&A at the end. I think that would just go a long way to engage our students and further inform them on issues and opportunities they care so deeply about and, ultimately, it helps bring them closer to the community.
Finally, you mentioned that you wanted to improve the ‘green spaces’ on the campuses, what does this mean exactly in practise?
I’m a great believer that a ‘green space’ can really be positive for your mental health. Its not just my belief, it has actually been proven – I’m writing my dissertation on it – there’s a proven link between spending time in a natural landscape and an upturn in mental health. I think we are already really lucky on campus we have the Valley Gardens, for example. A lot of people actually don’t know about it and it is a beautiful area, very peaceful and we’re right on the common. But I still think that there really aren’t enough places to go and relax and chill and get away from it all. I am somebody who comes from a very sleepy village in the countryside so I place a lot of value on going somewhere that is very green, very natural with a lot of wildlife. It is very soothing and therapeutic and this is something that the University could improve. I would be looking to speak to the University about possibly creating some new green spaces on campus and improving on our existing ones with planting more trees and things. Obviously this has the dual purpose of creating nicer spaces that are more relaxing and it would also be better for the environment. I would also want to improve access and exposure to current green spaces, as the vast range of students probably don’t know that the Value Gardens exist, probably don’t know that the Common exists or if it was as extensive as it is. So, I think this would be something I would be looking to improve, I could lead guided walks and maybe get some nature experts in to give talks actually in these green spaces, and I would really be trying to sell people the benefit of going to a green space in order to relax and to see the sort of positive effect it can have on you.
Find out more about George Hart and his policies by reading his manifesto here.