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- Union President George Fairweather Candidate Interview
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Wessex Scene interviewed George Fairweather, 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?
Why have I run for Union President? I believe Union Presidents of the past have been a bit, for me, hand-wavey and ineffective. They say they’ll do these wonderful things but I’ve not really seen any wonderful things done. What have we had? A rebranding, that was just a waste of money. We didn’t need to do it. We’ve had the controversy with Emily Dawes, she shouldn’t have said what she did and also the stuff said by the media was terrible. Flora Noble, nothing wrong but I didn’t feel a lot was done either way. Back in my day, Benjamin Franklin I think was President? A great bit of fun, but I don’t remember anything much happening there.
What I’m putting on the table is actually something comparatively radical compared to others. I’m actually offering a direct solution to real problems for people. Actual mental health support with diagnostic capabilities, I don’t think anyone has suggested that before? If they have, they haven’t got elected. One to one and group support for sexual abuse victims. Real good stuff. An alcoholic anonymous network inside the Union. I’ve not seen this done before. For me, that’s what I’m bringing to the table. Maybe I don’t have experience running societies like some other candidates might, but I’m bringing new ideas and I think that is critical for Union President.
The UK plans to eventually 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 the topic?
That’s really complicated, because Brexit is just an absolute mess. I’d like to hope it doesn’t affect the university experience but we can’t guarantee that. Depending on what kind of deal we get out of it, hopefully EU students won’t be affected massively. That’s what I’d like to hope. And international students as well, I’m hoping won’t be affected too much. But there may be some issues around visas that would need to be addressed. Making sure that we can guarantee that students who do need to renew their visa can have it renewed very quickly and easily, so there’s not trouble there.
After that, I’m really not sure because it’s just so messy. I’ve been trying to avoid it because it’s an apocalyptic topic. Does the Union need to address it? I think it does but I’m not sure if we need to get political about it. It’s more about addressing concerns that it may have on students and those would I guess primarily be the students in the UK planning on going overseas to study or students overseas planning to come and study here. I’d say those were the keys concerns that need to be met. As far as imports and trade? I don’t think we do a huge amount of that and the stuff we do, the University will probably have a better hand in trying to make sure we can get that kind of stuff done.
In your manifesto you promised to hold surgeries for the student population. How will this work in practice?
An idea I proposed when I was just chatting to a few people, that’s right. I’m going to go somewhere very public, somewhere where everyone knows where it is and it’s easy to access and say: “I’m here at this particular time, on this day. Come and talk to me.” I said Stag’s, for an example. Everyone knows where Stag’s is, easy to access, I’ll be easily visible and you can just come in and have a chat with me, for an hour, an hour and a half. Something like that, and I think, do that every week.
In practice, could I do it every week? It depends on the schedule. I’d like to it every week. But I’d need to see how many meetings would I have to be going to? What kind of public events would I have to be doing? What actual groundwork would I have to be doing as well? My own personal work, as President. But that would be the idea of it. It might not be Stag’s, it might be somewhere like The Bridge. Somewhere a bit more quiet. More private. That would be the idea behind it.
You can talk to me about an issue you’re having with the Union, the University, not outside but still related to student life. Like problems with landlords, stuff like that. Bring it to me, I can then tell my team, whoever the other sabbatical officers are, and say: “Alright, we need to sort this out. This student’s been having this issue, is there anything we can do for them?” And try address it directly and make it feel personal. Feel that the person is actually personally involved in the Union. Because at the moment I don’t think people feel as if they really are involved in it. Unless they’re involved in a society in a presidential role or actively volunteering for the Union, I don’t feel people feel that they’re involved or a part of it. I think this would improve that level of engagement.
You specifically mentioned providing support and awareness for people suffering alcohol misuse. Tell us more about your proposed plans.
Alcoholics Anonymous are a charity that help people with problems with alcohol, they try and help them through the recovery stage and keep them off it. It is an addictive substance and it can ruin people’s lives. Speaking from experience, I’ve had alcohol problems at university and it’s all linked around mental health, so that’s why it’s all linked with my plans for mental health. In my first year, I had a lot of mental health problems and I turned to alcohol to try and solve them. It’s only been quite recently that I’ve seen it all catch up with me because I’ve started to have liver damage from the excessive consumption of alcohol. But I’ve had no real support available, everyone’s just said: “Oh, go and see x, y or z. “Go and talk to alcoholics…” I don’t want to talk to them, I want to talk to someone in my uni. I want to talk to other students. I want people who know what I’m going through. I read a meta analysis a while back and it approximated 10-16% of higher education students are heavy drinkers. Heavy drinking being 35 units for women and 50 units for men per week.
Now, that’s a lot of students who may need support and it’s not really being provided for them. That’s why I think we need that kind of alcohol support and Alcoholics Anonymous would be a great charity to work with to provide that. They have all the logistics, they know what to do, who to bring in, the whole pizzazz.
Overall, you have a lot of welfare-oriented policies in your manifesto. How would you work with the VP Welfare and Communities to implement these aims?
Provide inspiration, I guess. It might not necessarily be my job but it’s a top-down thing. The President needs to provide a sort of inspiring glow for the rest of the sabbatical officers. It might be that the Welfare Officers are having the same ideas that I’m having, that’s wonderful if that’s the case. If they’re not, then I can throw in some suggestions and they can go: “Sweet, we’ll have a proper good hard look at this”. But also I’d be sitting on the University Council and I can hold them to account and actually say: “We, the Union, should not be providing these services. I mean, ideally the NHS should be but they’re not to be relied on at the moment, so you, the University, need to pick up the slack. Why are we doing it?” Try and hold them to account as well to make sure that they’re providing these services.
Ideally, we would not be providing these services, but these are not ideal times. This is why I’m suggesting we provide them.
How do you plan on using the Union President’s social media channels in the role to improve your policy aims?
All the sabbatical officers use social media to communicate with varying degrees of effectiveness. It’s there, it’s available, anyone can look at it but I don’t feel like a lot of students actually read it. I’m not sure how you can necessarily address it, I can’t just force someone to read my social media posts. If they don’t want to read it, I can’t make them. I’m not Stalin. I’m not going to send them off to a gulag.
But I feel like we need to sort of flip the engagement round a little bit. Maybe we need to have constant feedback and make sure that that feedback can be given to us in a really easy fashion. I wasn’t particularly aware how to give feedback until quite recently. It was quite a trawl to get through the website, and see, oh that’s how I’m supposed where I make the…, okay sweet, right. Wonderful. That took a bit too long. It should be really easy. Maybe there should be a letterbox, somewhere in the uni, a letterbox right outside Stag’s. I’ll write something down, put it in, simple. Yeah, you’ll get trolls who put in useless information. But for every ten trolls you’ll get one person who’ll put something useful in which you can action.
That level of constant feedback and constant improvement, little improvement or massive improvement. That’s what we need to be focusing on. Communication, I think we’ve essentially got it sorted, it’s just trying to make sure students actually read it and feel like they want to read it and that goes back to engagement. Make sure students feel as if they’re personally involved with the running of the Union.
Sustainability is a new remit under Union President, following the sabbatical office restructure. However, this wasn’t touched upon in your manifesto. What are your ideas on sustainability in general and how we can improve it?
We need to make sure we’re being energy efficient and we’re also managing what waste we have is not being very wasteful. So like poor waste management. We need to make sure things like recycling are put in the right places and are actually being used properly. I think I accidentally, forgive me, I’ve sinned. I chucked a plastic product into a food waste bin by accident because I didn’t realise it was a food waste bin until too late. Forgive me.
We need to give students motivation to think: “I will recycle. I will be energy efficient. I’ll use less water when I’m having a shower.” Something I’m a criminal of. But it’s not just us, the students, the Union has to do its part. Lights off policies, after a particular time turn the lights off, what’s the point of having them on if no one’s going to be in here? Making sure that any commercial waste that we have, we make sure we dispose of it in a proper fashion and try and reduce it as much as possible. I know I’ve seen Emily Harrison propose a no-waste food shop, which seems like an interesting idea. The viability of it, maybe, possibly. It’s worked at Sheffield Student Union, I think she mentioned. So it could work here as well, I guess. That seems like a good idea. But then also working with the University and their sustainability team because they’ll have some real good ideas and these will be experts who actually know what they’re on about.
I haven’t mentioned it in my manifesto, but I’m not an expert on sustainability. I’ve studied it a little bit as part of my degree but I’m not an expert. So what I’d need to do is communicate with these experts, get the ideas from them and then consult the students on what they could do and consult the Union staff on what we could do, to be more sustainable. Communicating with experts is key, in my opinion. I might not be an expert but I’m willing to talk to them.
Unlike some people over the pond.
A significant part of the role of Union President is representing the student voice at the highest levels of the University. The 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’d like him to able tackle mental health, really. Enabling services, I’ve found, as much as they do good work, are quite ineffective when it comes to providing support for mental health. This Vice-Chancellor comes in, I want [to]try and work with him – him or her. Got to get it correct, sorry! I want to work with them with mental health support, make sure it’s being provided in a nice, easily accessible fashion and there’s good funding provisions for it. I’m not sure what else beyond that.
Also, the accountability of the students is important. Because there was a huge controversy about, is it the current Vice-Chancellor who’s leaving with a pay rise with a stupid amount of money? It just sort of felt wrong. In a time where the lower level end of staff are not getting pay rises, it feels wrong in that aspect. I want the Vice-Chancellor to be accountable to the students. I don’t want them getting silly pay rises, I want them to represent the students on a national level, in a sense. Because that is part of their job as well, to represent the University on a national level. I don’t want them getting pay rises, I want them spending that pay rise on the students or the University staff where possible.
Find out more about George Fairweather and his policies by reading his manifesto here.