Wessex Scene interviewed Aaron Page, who’s running for the role of Union President in the 2019 Union Spring Elections.
Why have you decided to run for the role of Union President and what experience can you bring to the role?
I’ve been at the University of Southampton for six years. I’ve done my undergrad here, I’m coming to the end of my PhD now, so it’s been my home for a long time. I’m hoping to be able to use those experiences as a student for such a long time to improve the lives of as many people as possible. I’ve seen good things come from the Student’s Union, but I’ve also seen a lack of engagement from the students; throughout the years it’s been tested whether the Union has done a lot for them or not. I think that sometimes that comes down to communication and advertising in certain ways and that we can definitely do those sorts of things better.
One of the big things that really pushed me to want to become part of the Union was that currently I’m a Careers Ambassador for the careers and employment service. Being part of that, I’ve realised how many students haven’t heard about the opportunities student services offer, regarding internships during your actual studies, not just during the summer. So many students are not partaking or not getting involved in that sort of thing, which is really disappointing because these are multi award-winning opportunities the University offers and people are going through university not hearing about it.
When they leave, university students could have a greater opportunity to become more professional before they’ve gone out to work and tried to compete with so many other different universities and other people who have been engaged with that sort of thing. That’s why I want to make the student experience better for people, not just in terms of the actual life experience, but people getting the most out of university. It’s not just your course that is going to get you the job at the end of the day.
The UK is scheduled to leave the EU on the 29th of March. How do you think Brexit will affect the university experience for students and how will you address any issues that arise out of it?
That’s a really good question. I think the challenge here will be making sure that people still feel extremely welcome at the University of Southampton. I think that’s the key point. How do we approach that? It might be workshops and making sure the community stays as a whole. We have so many international students and, as a PhD student, in the group of people I’m involved with, everyone’s international. Absolutely everyone. I want to make sure that everyone fully understands and appreciates that what we’ve done as a country isn’t necessarily what the University feels, or what the experience people coming to the country can receive.
I don’t think that’s going to be a huge problem. I think as students we’re extremely open-minded and similarly, I think many lecturers are very open-minded when it comes to all that. I’m confident that as a university, we’re going to handle that very well.
Obviously, if there are problems we need to be really strong, clear and concise on that. Don’t think there’s any room for manoeuvre, we need to be very strong on that.
How do you plan to promote careers and employability to students?
At the moment I’ve been involved in running a lot of pop-ups and that sort of thing with students and actually talking to them directly on campus: across the Redbrick, in the library, in Avenue, at the NOCS, at the cafés. Actually going to the students and seeing if they’re aware. The first question always is: do you know about Building 37, do you know about the careers and employability service? It’s often a no. That’s where our problem is, people simply don’t know about that service.
It’s not just about the opportunities, but people can just drop in, talk to the services and get help. They can ask: “How do I achieve this goal? I want to do this and I don’t know how to get there. How can I become better?” Sometimes people know what they want to do and it comes down to the applications. You can go in with your applications and say: “This is what I want to do, this is what I’ve written, but I don’t think it’s right. I don’t think this is going to get me the job. Can you help me write it and improve myself?”
It’s things like that, not just employability and people’s professional experience. As a whole, at university, we come to get that job and eventually earn money. That’s the end goal. I mean, obviously, we want to enjoy ourselves and there’s so many other things like mental health that we need to make sure we’re considering on top of that. But if we’re missing out on the key aim, we’re really missing out and I think the uni, to a certain extent, isn’t being involved in as much as it should be.
Can you tell us more about your house workshops idea, which you outlined briefly in your manifesto?
Obviously renting is common for all students, we’re all probably going to be renting throughout university. Finding the right sort of home makes a huge difference, not just the day-to-day when you’re at home, but also in being able to partake in your course fully. If you’ve got the stress of rats or mice at home, it’s going to cause serious stress for you and it’s going to cause problems.
But to a certain extent, there is the ability to spot warning signs. I want people to know more on how to spot these problems and warning signs. One example as such, is checking all the curtains when you go round properties, that’s a likely place mold is going to occur because of people leaving the windows open. If the agent or landlord doesn’t clearly state in the contract that that’s going to be cleaned or sorted before you move in, you should be wary before you do sign on the dotted line, because they might then blame you for it. There’s so many examples following off on that: holes in walls, skirting boards where mice, rats, could potentially be hiding. You need to be wary of that.
I think a workshop where people can come along and listen to a lecture is great. I think having a video resource that people can check at any time is also really important. But the third thing I think would be really useful is having some sort of checklist you can be doing as you go round a house. For example, making sure the heating’s working. As soon as you enter a house, ask if you can turn on the boost button, just for half an hour, so as you walk around the house you can make sure the heating works in every room. That’s a classic issue that happens for so many students and the UK’s not a warm place. You want that heating there.
The other side of that is so many students aren’t aware of their rights, as a tenant. In almost all cases the law protects the tenants because you’re the ones in danger potentially, if a house is bad. Making sure tenants are aware of their rights would make a huge difference when certain landlords become pressurising to students. Throughout the years I’ve met colleagues and friends who have had quite difficult situations with their landlords. It always seems to boggle down to the fact that the landlord doesn’t seem to think that the tenant fully understands their rights. Especially international students, they find that their landlord is very aggressive and always go straight to mentioning things like solicitors when they’ve done nothing wrong. Or at least the law wouldn’t turn around to them and say we’re going to penalise you or evict you. I want to make sure that everyone has that available to them.
So obviously, having that online as a resource is great, making sure people can come to a workshop and ask extra questions is great. We’ve obviously got the SUSU Lettings now and that’s a great resource but often that’s best used when you’re in the problem. And having that preventative measure in place, I think that could really help people.
Outgoing VP Welfare, Isabella Camilleri actually helped organise a housing fayre to help students with housing advice and issues. What did you make of it and might such a fayre be a policy of yours?
That’s interesting because I didn’t hear about it. Perhaps that is a case of communicating it better with students, spreading it around more. I’d be interested to know if it was recorded and available on the SUSU website, if people are actually checking that out, whether people are seeing it. I’ll be interested to know if there’s any paperwork resource that people can be looking at, printing off, carrying around with them when they do look at houses.
To me, there’s been a theme throughout my time in university in terms of the SUSU and the student connection and I think there’s some big changes we need to make. Regarding that sort of thing, emails are never enough. If you send an email to someone the likelihood is they’re going to ignore it, forget about it or potentially just miss it. We need greater things. People just coming on to the Redbrick, handing out flyers helps, but it’s trying to really increase that engagement. What I’ve done with the career and employability service has worked really well, just going out and talking to people. Just appearing out of nowhere is actually surprisingly effective. And once one student knows, they’re likely to go home and tell their colleagues or friends. It’s that word of mouth that makes such a big difference and I think sometimes we rely too much on the social media. Sometimes the student body in general isn’t connected with the student union in terms of social media as much as they could be. So we need to push our boundaries out there, make sure we’re more forward facing, make more use of Wessex Scene, Surge, SUSUtv, all of those areas to try and get that message across as much as possible. That’s what my message would be. I’m sure there’s great stuff there, but unfortunately, as a student, I haven’t seen it.
How do you plan on using the Union President’s social media channels in the role to achieve your policy aims?
Great question. Obviously we need to do it in a professional and clear fashion. There have obviously been issues in the past with it not being used correctly. So I think we need a clear voice that ensures that what is appropriate to say is said, and that we make sure that anything we don’t fully understand is checked properly. That doesn’t mean we necessarily need to censor any of the Student Union Twitter pages in terms of individuals because that will slow messages down and possibly damage what we’re trying to achieve.
What I really would like to see though, is see the Students’ Union getting in touch with societies, especially course based societies like MedSoc, the Engineering societies, History, across the board and telling these societies what we’re planning on doing. Letting them know what we think the people involved in their course could really benefit from. It might be more general or it might be for a certain field, making sure they pass that information down.
I was talking to a group of medical students the other day and they said they get all their information from MedSoc. They don’t go to the Students’ Union for anything like that. I know it’s not quite your question in terms of using that social media but what I would like to see is that social media somehow gets trickled down into those societies. I think that’s where more power is going to come to the people.
You talk about ‘ensuring tutors, supervisors and lecturers are properly trained to identify, support and advise students’, in terms of mental health. How are you going to go about implementing this?
At the moment, tutors and all that sort of thing, they get a paper-based resource they can use to understand how to help students, but that’s not really training. If they miss it or don’t read, or don’t see it as a huge problem, they’re not going to engage. You need to have a face-to-face based training for all tutors to make sure they really understand how it is a crisis now. It’s got to the point where, for students, it is a crisis. Studies have reported that ridiculously high percentages, especially around postgraduate students, PhDs and masters, mental health is awful. I don’t have the statistics on me but they’re far, far too high. As a first line of defence, it’s going to be those tutors and supervisors who can help most.
As a Union we would need to come to the University and say: “We know this is a problem, the research is there.” Obviously, the University should respond to the research quite strongly. As a student voice we need to tell them that our first line of defence is going to be the people we talk to the most, our supervisors and our tutors. If they aren’t the first to see the issues and respond and give us the advice that we need, whether we know we need it or not, how is the University helping us? I think that’s often the question, how are the enabling services actually identifying students and helping them directly? That’s why I think it’ll be really useful to have tutors on side.
In terms of how to actually implement that, as a Union we would have to lobby the University to make sure there was better training available. This might be bringing in an expert, recording some sort of video-based resource to give to all lecturers to review and then have a mandatory training session, which all lecturers have to attend. This might be just a one-off, done every five years to make sure it’s a sort of refresher. I don’t know, that’d have to go through discussion and ideas and regeneration and talk to the University specifically. Obviously, as a Union we don’t have direct power over what’s done to the staff. But, I do believe the University will listen, because the research is there and students I’ve spoken to have really resonated with the idea that their tutors could be doing more.
It’ll be a case of that sort of thing, I think.
You also talk about the subsidising of healthy food on campuses in your manifesto. How would more healthy food options be subsidised and what exactly constitutes healthy food?
In terms of SUSU shops, they have to make some money. The first thing that I would suggest doing is trying to do it as a base cost. So whatever it cost to just bring it into the University, just sell it as that. That means the University is not technically losing money, it might generate slightly less for that item, but it’s not losing any money. That would be the first thing. Then, if we’re able to actually subsidise and bring that price even lower, that’s would be great and we’d have to make sure the funding pool is available. But I’m sure as a student, everyone realises that students aren’t rich. We don’t have a huge amount of money between us. Sometimes it’s really hard to eat healthy, you look for your salads, that sort of thing, sometimes they can be like £4 plus. For the best of us, if we want to be healthy, we can’t.
So people are buying less healthy options. In terms of your question regarding what constitutes being healthy, I’m not just saying salads and tomatoes and veg, obviously there’s a way of being balanced. Healthier sandwich options, all that sort of thing, could become part of the options to be subsidised and supported. What I’d want to do is actually speak to the students and say: “What would you guys want to have cheaper? When could we do that?” Then do that for a rotary basis, so one week it’s one thing, one week it’s another. That’s what I would see as being the quickest thing that we could bring in, within a very short period of time.
What I would also like to do though, is bring in bigger ideas, like salad bars and that sort of thing. Pizza Hut has done that in a really good fashion and I love the salad bar. Having students able to have that sort of thing on the University campus, I think would be very beneficial. And I think we could do that in quite a cheap fashion. Roast veg, for example, could also be brought out through the facilities we already have, rather than just things like chips.
But I think the really important thing here is to make sure that everything we do is suitable to all diets. I don’t want to cater for just certain individuals, I want to make sure it goes across the board.
You’re the only presidential candidate who specifically mentions sports issues. Why have you done so and how will you continue to work with VP Sports?
Obviously VP Sports would take the main role, in the sense that that is their role, I’m not looking to take over anything. Definitely not. But I think it’s very important that, as President, every single area is on my agenda so I’m able to support everyone as well as doing my own specific bits and pieces. Otherwise how can I be a spokesperson for the Union in general? I don’t see how that could be done, I don’t see how I could be a leader.
In terms of sports, I’ve taken part in a lot of clubs over my six years and I’ve really enjoyed it. And as I’ve gone through time I’ve seen the facilities have definitely got older. They’ve definitely degraded to a certain extent. What I would like to see is money to be invested into it. This may be surprising to students but the University and the Student Union is thinking about that. This hasn’t resonated as much as I think it should be, so I went to a meeting the other day in terms of discussing students’ ideas and I found out that for the last eighteen months, they’ve been putting forward a proposal. They’re trying to bring that proposal forward and get about £3 million from the University to develop, not just facilities, but a new gym. They want Jubilee mark 2, so to be able have the first one as well as the second one to help capacity, more sport space, dance studios and all that sort of thing.
One thing I specifically mentioned on my manifesto was the martial arts, because I’ve been involved quite a lot in that area and there’s only one small room where you can properly train martial arts. You can fit about 20 people in there, tops. There are so many societies that do martial arts and a lot of these societies have a lot, lot more than 20 people. I’ve seen drops in many of these societies in terms of numbers because they can’t fully participate in the society and I think that is not only a huge shame but potentially a danger, because self-defence I think is hugely important across the board, for the obvious reasons. What I really want are the students to be aware that the Union is trying to lobby for more money and are trying to do things. The next thing is I need the student voice to get behind that. I think it’s really important to have the students sign petitions, turn around to the University and tell them: “We do want this, it’s not just putting money into the services, we actually do want this and we will use this. There’s definitely a need.”
Obviously, VP Sports will be taking over that, will be leading that, but I want to make sure whoever does take over that position has my support as much as I can give to achieve these aims because I think it affects the student’s experience so much.
A significant part of the role of Union President is representing the student voice at the highest levels of the University. A new Vice-Chancellor will be in place next year. What single issue above all would you like this new Vice-Chancellor to tackle and why?
I think it’s very difficult to focus on a single issue because the university experience, student life in general, has no one thing for everyone. I want to make that super clear, there isn’t one thing that I could purely define.
Mental health, is clearly a very important issue that needs to be constantly worked on, constantly developed. Sporting facilities, constantly need improvement or people aren’t able to engage with it as much anymore. Which potentially affects mental health if students aren’t able to de-stress. In terms of renting, is there more we can do to help students with that? Definitely we need to be doing all these things to improve life as students here in Southampton.
I find it hard to say one specific thing, because I think as soon as we do, I think that we’re in danger of forgetting everything else. That would be the danger of President for me, just focusing on one area and forgetting that one area is unlikely to help everyone. I really want to be the voice of everyone as much as possible. So, I’m afraid I don’t think I can answer that one because it’s such a tough one.
Find out more about Aaron Page and his policies by reading his manifesto here.