- Union President Emily Harrison Candidate Interview
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Wessex Scene interviewed Emily Harrison, 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?
I’ve decided to run for the role because I’ve been doing the role of VP Student Communities for the last 7 months now, having been elected in the previous elections back in March. So I’ve had that type of experience, I’ve had a lot of success with that. Also, in our Union review that we’ve undertaken, where we’ve gone down from 7 to 5 sabbs, we’ve restructured the remits and part of the remit that I currently deal with which is looking after students at sites, is going to President. So, it felt right that I could continue on my projects and take that up and after that 7 months of experience I could step up and do the job.
Currently the UK is scheduled to leave the EU on 29th March, how do you think Brexit will affect the university experience for students, and how will you address this?
I couldn’t say with all certainty how it will affect it, because obviously there’s a lot of unknowns which I think is causing the biggest anxiety with student and staff at the University. But possible ways that it could affect it, is obviously in our international community. Currently we have a very vibrant, diverse population at Southampton and it would be a shame for Brexit to mean that diminishes. Also, it might impact our partnerships with other universities abroad and therefore might limit opportunities for our home students to go abroad as part of our Erasmus programme, which again would be a real shame because that’s a fantastic strength we have at university.
Something that I am currently working on in my role now, because I oversee representational support of international students so would very much be looking to continue on next year, is helping support campaigns that lobby the government to sort out deals with other universities to make sure that we can still continue to have those exchange programmes. There’s currently a petition going around to support study abroad that I’ve signed and that we’re going to be promoting as part of Culture Festival next month. And working with the University to kind of secure community partnership relations to make sure that everybody is aware of the benefit of international students and those exchange programmes so that everybody is behind it.
How do you plan to use the Union President’s social media channels in the role to achieve your policy aims?
I won’t be tweeting anything controversial if that’s what you’re asking. Sorry could you just repeat the question? *question is repeated* I think it’s a great platform for students to engage with and find out what we’re doing, what they can get involved in and for raising awareness of important issues. It’s something that I’ve used this year quite effectively, I have a lot of students engaged with my social media and I’d like to continue that next year.
But I think also I’d like to do more in-person things, I think conversation is most effective when you’re talking to students face-to-face, and so I think I wouldn’t just be relying on social media and I’d like to use social media to highlight those opportunities for in-person engagement.
So the next couple of questions are about your manifesto. When you say you want to ensure withheld lecturers’ strike pay is used to benefit students, do you have any particular projects in mind?
Yes, absolutely. Two key things that I think we do need to work on, is improving the library resources and working to improve things like sports facilities as well, those are the two main areas that the University really needs to improve on. Other aspects of student experience like looking at catering and looking at transport links. Something that I’ve really focussed on this year is transport, and I really passionately believe that it’s important to make sure that they’re up to scratch so that students can be connected in all areas so that they can get to their lectures and seminars, so they can get to their labs, their clubs and societies and extra-curricular stuff because ultimately, that’s what brings together a student community. So all those kinds of projects are things that I’d be working with the University on.
And why specifically bubble tea and world food and drink when you mention the catering?
*Laughs* Specifically bubble tea because it’s something I’ve had a lot of requests for this year. Like I said, in my role this year I’ve worked with a lot of international students and that’s something that’s cropped up again and again and again. Back in January we went on some Union visits as a sabbatical team to see the things that work well elsewhere, we went to Sheffield, Leeds, and Leicester and all three of those places, well Sheffield and Leicester currently have bubble tea and Leeds is in the process of getting bubble tea and it works really well. It’s something that a lot of Chinese and Asian students love because that’s a drink that they really resonate with, and also it introduces other communities of students to world food. I think particularly in this time of you know, Brexit, and that sort of thing, we need to be keeping up this interest in international culture and keeping that community alive so that’s why I’ve introduced that.
You mentioned that you want to ensure students aren’t negatively affected during the interim period when Vice Chancellor, Sir Christopher Snowden, leaves in March. In what ways are you worried that students could be negatively affected by this?
I think it’s the worry that students might drop off the agenda, because there is that period where there is uncertainty potentially on the University side of what the projects they’re working on are, what they need to be talking about and how they’re communicating with students because the person that’s in the interim, is the current Vice President of Research and Enterprise, Mark Spearing, doesn’t have experience in the same way, of dealing with students and so I want to make sure that they are being put on the agenda. I think I’m the best person for that because it’s just about being around the table for those kind of conversations and I’m already doing that.
I think having that continuity of a contact so one person to be in contact with the University is really important in a period where their main contact is changing. I think when you come into the role as a sabbatical officer, it is a unique position and it can take a lot of time to adjust to that, so you kind of spend the first couple of months figuring out what to do, where to go and who to talk to. Whereas I’ve already been here for 7 months, I don’t have that, I know exactly who I’m talking to and what I’m talking about, so I’m in the best place to make sure that student issues are being fed directly back to the right people at university.
You talk about creating a zero waste shop. Why not make, or work towards making, the SUSU Shop zero waste?
I think, again this is something I actually came across at Sheffield’s Students Union, and it’s fantastic. I was so in love with it when I found it, it’s only small and they’re looking to grow but there’s certain things that you just couldn’t minimalise as quickly, like there are some things in the shop that it would be difficult to scale down like theirs. We also have contracts with certain providers and lots of other legal, technical things which means that if we did that, you know, got rid of all plastic and made sure everything is organic which I would love to do in an ideal world, it would mean immediately condensing our range.
What I’m really concerned about is not taking away things from students, but the idea of this is that we’re adding something so that we’re giving people an additional service, and then hopefully longer term we can definitely make sure that we’re working towards making the SUSU Shop becoming much more like that. But as a first step, I kind of want to get a small zero waste shop up to really show students the benefits, get them on board, and then work long term with the shop.
Have you got any ideas where this new shop would be?
It’s very much in the works, it would kind of depend on how big it is, how soon we could get it set up. The University is currently embarking on a 10 year building plan, and that does include renovations and changes to the Students’ Union building and other buildings on campus. We’re talking about a lot of different options for availability of space of various projects, so I’m hoping that as President I could very much put a zero waste shop on the agenda. It could be that we host it in Bar 3 and that’s currently under works so it could be something that we host there, or we could even just dedicate a small corner of the shop as it currently is to that. So I’m very much open to suggestions, I’d just like to see it happen.
You’ve detailed plans to set up a recycling reward scheme. If elected, how will you ensure a balance between a scheme with strong enough incentives to encourage students to engage but not offering so much that it undermines the SUSU outlook revenues?
I’m very much working with the current Union services teams that we have at the Students’ Union. They’re fantastic, they’re always looking for ways to engage students, so I’ve already started to have conversations about whether this is a possibility and they’ve said that it could be. So we would make sure that there are boundaries definitely but you know, we offer vouchers and incentives for various things throughout the year particularly during Freshers’, we have a whole pack of coupons for things like The Bridge and that kind of stuff so I don’t see why that would negatively affect. And also, if you’ve got vouchers for a few things, that is drawing more people into our outlets so potentially spending more money, having more custom that we could put back into student experience.
You’ve detailed your experiences of being VP Student Communities in the past academic year and some projects you’ve worked on. One you mentioned was the Boldrewood bunfight which unfortunately received low student engagement. Are there any lessons you’ve learnt already from your year as a sabbatical officer that you think will stand you in good stead for your role as Union President?
Absolutely, I have learnt so many lessons this year, particularly relating to the Boldrewood incident that you mentioned. Yeah, unfortunately we did receive lower numbers than we would have liked for student engagement with that. But that I think was because that was the first time we’d really gone out to that site to do an event, and I think it was good as groundwork to make sure that people do know who we are, know what we can support and get our name out there so that next time there will be more people.
I think we run a danger as a Students’ Union of putting on an event, and it might not work as well as we think, and so we scrap it and we don’t build on that or give it time to grow. Something that I’ve really learnt this year is making sure you don’t make that mistake, making sure that you learn lessons from everything you do and constantly working to make things better. I’ve really learnt what events do and don’t work at certain places. All of our campuses are incredibly unique depending on the student cohort that they have there, and so I’ve learnt for example, the best time of day to have events, the type of event that you have. I could go on and on with the lessons that I’ve learnt but I feel that would be too long of an answer.
…and what project are you most proud of working on in the past year?
The project I’m definitely the most proud of is getting the WSA shuttle weekend service up and running; something that students have been asking for, for a long time now. So, if you don’t know, there’s currently a shuttle that runs during the week from Highfield to the Winchester School of Art which is free for students to use with their student ID card, and that was set up a couple of years ago and is now well established and students use that. They’ve been asking for a weekend one so that they can engage with clubs and societies and other activities between the two sites.
This year I’ve worked hard to make that happen and that is now up and running as a trial, the University have agreed to fund a trial that started on 12th January and ends on 5th June and runs every weekend excluding the Easter holiday, and again completely free for students to use with their ID. There’s 4 runs on Saturday and 4 on Sunday in a minibus that we provide and it’s going really well, our first weekend had 9 people and the second had 27, and the previous weekend I believe we had 48 people so it’s growing all the time and we’ve had a lot of positive feedback from students so I’m really proud of that.
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 for the next academic year, which single issue above all would you like them to tackle and why?
This is a two-part answer, but the two things are very much linked. So, I think the biggest issue is that both the Students’ Union and the University needs to be doing more to outreach to students studying away from Highfield. That doesn’t mean decreasing the support and activities and the fantastic stuff that happens at Highfield Campus, but we do need to be doing more to engage with students that study away because it can be incredibly isolating and just not enjoyable enough of an experience as some might have at Highfield. I think that very much links into mental health and wellbeing.
If you are studying for example at the hospital, it’s harder to get to, less going on, incredibly isolating and particularly in that instance, studying that degree there’s so many stresses and I think we need to do more to relieve that because students’ mental health and wellbeing is such an important issue. It’s something that’s very much becoming prevalent in the conversations that are being had and I think that’s a good thing. I think we very much need to be working more to tackle that.
Could you tell us a bit more about your roof garden policy?
Yeah so again, it’s something which they have at Leeds that works really well. It’s only a relatively small idea in relation to the other policies that I have, it’s not a big policy change but I think we could be doing more to utilise our space here at the Union. It’s something we are basically massively running out of so anything that’s dead space at the moment we should be using better.
Secondly, I think having a roof garden or allotment area for students provides them with an outlet to possibly grow their own vegetables, get involved in more sustainable issues and projects which helps to raise awareness for environmental issues which is a great thing, but also provide an outlet for students to have breathing space and very much links to mental health and wellbeing. I think being out there and involved in those kinds of projects is incredibly refreshing, the Southampton Common forum have a volunteering project going on at the moment on the Common and that’s seen incredibly positive engagement with students and I’d love to be able to do that on a smaller, localised level here at the Union.
One policy of yours is language badges for staff, is this about making international students feel more inclusive and will multilingualism be potentially more in mind for recruitment of future student receptionists under this idea?
Yes, it is very much aimed at trying to make the Union more immediately approachable and more accessible for international students. I think it can be quite intimidating as a student generally, but particularly if you’re an international student. You potentially have slightly more language barriers and it can be very nerve-wracking coming along and talking to someone for the first time so small things like if you see a badge that says someone can speak your language, that’s immediately much more friendly and welcoming.
In terms of the recruitment aspects, it would absolutely not be limiting anybody from becoming support staff or staff of any capacity at the Union, we wouldn’t be turning people away because they don’t speak another language at all. It was more just recognising that we do have an incredibly diverse population and a lot of our staff are multilingual and we should be making the most of that, if people have these skills we should be using them. So it’s not about limiting people at all, it’s just about recognising those skills and utilising them to make sure people feel more welcome.
How will a review of halls catering meal times be undertaken?
So, something in my job at the moment which has cropped up is students that study predominantly at the hospital have raised concerns about being able to make the meal times at Halls because the breakfast can be too late and the dinner time too early. So that means that if they’re out on placement or they’re studying at the hospital for the full day they can often leave before breakfast starts and get back after dinner has ended, so I think it’s just about making sure that we are knowing the trends of when those students are actually in Halls that we can cater to them.
In terms of a review, it would just be having a consultation with those students affected. We’ve already done a little bit, so how I first knew about this issue was when it came up in our “Rate Your Crib” survey that we do with students when they leave halls and it cropped up again in the site survey that I ran just before Christmas which was aimed at getting feedback about student experience at other sites. So we already have a little bit of data so I think it would be focussing on those students that have raised those issues and having further consultations about we tackle those problems.
Find out more about Emily Harrison and her policies by reading her manifesto here.