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Wessex Scene interviewed Nik Mukherjee, 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 spent a lot of time at the uni, especially at the Union, not really doing much leadership stuff and I really want to change that. I think it’s time that I stop just letting other people make all the decisions that affect me and my experiences at university. I think I can bring an outsider perspective. I do understand a lot about how the Union works and I’ve done a lot of research on it and know people who have worked in the Union so I’m not ignorant of its processes, but have not been involved on the inside so I think that I can represent the general student populous quite well in that regard. I also think that someone has to start leading the students against some of what the University is doing. For me, one of the really frustrating things is that the University seems to be getting away with a lot of bad things in terms of cutting funding, and how much the Vice Chancellor is getting paid. The Union seems to be quite quiet on a lot of these issues a lot of the time. I know the sabbs aren’t in their own spaces but the Union as an organisation is and I want to change that.
What experience can you bring to the role?
I have got a lot of experience in different aspects of the University. I have done a lot of work with societies like the feminist society and sport in the American football team so I have seen how those different aspects of university and student life work. In terms of my own outside of Union experience I’ve worked at Sainsbury’s for over a year now and I worked at Tesco before that so I am used to working in a professional setting and with people, and I’m quite good at forming relationships with the other workers.
Currently, the UK is scheduled to leave the European Union (EU) on 29th March 2019. How do you think Brexit will affect the university experience for students and how will you address the topic?
I think firstly it’s a huge shock to morale. A lot of people in our age group, a lot of students, really don’t want to leave the European Union, and the fact that it’s going ahead despite being sort of an abomination of democracy is abysmal, I think. Secondly, it’s going to affect the diversity of the student populous. The University is probably going to try and look at securing a lot of international students to make up for some of the loss of European students because what they’re getting from domestic groups is going down. Again, that’s going to lead to more money for the University especially as any European students that want to come here would then have to start paying international fees which are massively high. I think the main thing will be the moral effect of students feeling like we’re being ignored by the general wider society.
How would you address that drop in morale?
I think the Union needs to take an active role in reinvigorating the morale of its students by doing as much as possible to support the stuff that’s already happening. I do think the Union should take a stance on Brexit. I know some students feel that it’s inappropriate that the Union or the sabbs, in particular, have posted anti-Brexit things but it does affect lots of students, especially EU students that are currently here, so I think it’s an important Union issue in that regard.
In your manifesto, you state that the Union does not receive the funding it deserves. How will you ensure a financial guarantee from the University?
This is really quite a long-term thing. I wouldn’t be able to do this at the start of my time as President if I was elected. It would be a long process of getting students invested in the issue and getting them to start making some noise and going to the University and saying that this isn’t good enough. Essentially like a student protest. And then hopefully that will leave an impression on the University and the people who make the decisions about how the funding works.
The guarantee part is supposed to be a long term minimum amount of funding the University would promise the Union and I suggested that it should be like a percentage of the University surplus. It could also work with their income because that is always going up as well but the point is that the University’s funds are growing, but they’re not increasing what they’re giving to the Union with that, they’re doing the opposite and reducing funding and that doesn’t make any sense especially as the tuition fees could go up again and then the students would be paying even more for less. That would be a minimum that they’d agree to fund the Union but the same per capita funding system would be in place and by a year-by-year basis they’d determine how much funding to give the Union, it’s just they couldn’t go below that amount.
One of the main complaints lodged against Student Services is that it cannot provide frequent mental health care appointments to students who need them. How do you propose to ensure that there’s more availability and more personalised attention towards students requiring mental health care assistance?
I’ve seen some suggestions to have uni health care professionals employed by the Union but I don’t think that is necessarily the way to fix mental health care at university because besides the logistical stuff of ensuring things like that, introducing an education private health care system is a bit suspect in my opinion.
I think a solution is improving a more holistic approach to mental health care, especially at the Union where there are counsellors or people that are trained to listen and speak to people with mental health difficulties. They could come and discuss their difficulties and then those people could say “I understand what you’re going through, you’re not alone in this and these are some places you can get help.” But it’s also a wider societal issue. Mental health care in the NHS is currently underfunded and there aren’t enough psychiatrists working. I know people who have had to wait 4 months to get an appointment at College Keep and then College Keep didn’t send them the letter in time so they missed their appointment and had to wait another 4 months. Obviously, we can’t fix that kind of stuff in the Union but perhaps we could partner with College Keep to ensure that the lines of communication are better.
You mentioned that you want to propose a redesign initiative of the SUSU website. Which areas of the website are you going to focus on for the redesign?
In my mind, it wouldn’t just be specific things, it would be the whole website. I don’t think it’s that usable. The home page needs fixing. It needs to be updated more regularly and it can’t just have a calendar of events with everything going on at the front page because I know I just ignore it. If there’s something that should be pushed by the University then I think it should get an exclusive banner space at the top so e.g. if it’s LGBT+ month then it should say right at the top and advertise the things going on for that. But as it stands it’s just all the events that are going on.
Also, trying to do research about Union work has been difficult because the meeting reports and a lot of policy stuff just isn’t there. Either there’s no way of finding out without typing in specific things in the search bar in which case you’re met with a list of headers and you don’t really know which one you’re clicking on or there’ll be links to a report and then there’ll just say the thing you’re looking for is unavailable. The website needs to have all those things there so that if people need to find things relevant to the Union it should be there. There’s so much to fix that it would be a huge project but I wouldn’t want to narrow it down to just one or two areas.
How do you plan to use the Union President’s social media channels in the role to achieve your policy aims?
The social media channels are often the direct lines to what is happening, specifically with the sabbatical officers, so I think that the bi-weekly blogs are good but they’re a little bit long. I’d like to see those made more concise, more like a footnotes version and then there should be more detailed stuff on the website. So I think smaller stuff, not only what sabbs are doing at any time because a lot of the times it’s after a thing the sabbs will say we were at this place, we did this. It should be what we’re planning to do, even just what is being discussed in meetings and things like that. Especially, initiatives that are being considered for introduction should be aired to the students and then they can give feedback before they’re introduced and taken to the next stage.
Sustainability is a new remit under the Union President in the next academic year, following the sabbatical officer restructure from 7 to 5 officers. What are your ideas on this area of the role?
A couple of simple things. Lights are always left on in the University buildings, if you walk around campus late at night you’ll see the lights in a lot of buildings so I want to make sure the University switches all those off. At 11pm the security staff go around and make sure the buildings are empty so it wouldn’t be much more work for them to switch all those off as they go around.
With recycling at the University the recycling bins you can recycle more stuff in them than you can at home. I only found out recently so I think we need to make that clearer to students and encourage them to recycle as much as they can on site. In tandem with that, we need to make sure to have more general waste bins to ensure that the recycling doesn’t get contaminated and just becomes landfill anyway.
I’d also like to see the University release some of their plans for their ten-year infrastructure and make sure that they include solar energy and make sure that things like insulation are as good as they can be to reduce energy expenditure. I think that solar panelling on as many buildings as possible would be really good for reducing our reliance on fossil fuels at the University. And ensuring that this is distributed on all the sites so it isn’t just centralised on Highfield Campus in terms of what sustainability resources there are.
Are there not security reasons for at least some lighting in buildings remaining on?
I’m not sure any potential security benefit from leaving lights on all night is really worth it. It’s at a time that no-one is in the buildings, so it isn’t protecting students or staff from harm. It may prevent the loss of some expensive equipment, but I don’t believe that alone necessitates the massive environmental cost. The University already employs security staff overnight, and have invested in an array of security equipment. I doubt that leaving the lights on would do any more to deter any would-be thieves.
Have you discussed with current sabbatical officers about how feasible your one day a week travelling sabb office idea is?
I have. It was actually something that has been proposed before and I want to ensure it is something that goes through to ensure that people on all sites have access to sabbs because even here they’re like tucked away at the bottom of the building and lots of people don’t know where their office is and that they can just walk in and talk to them. It would be one site a week it wouldn’t be like Monday on Highfield, Tuesday on Avenue and Wednesday on Boldrewood, that kind of thing, but one day a week, one or two of the sabbs would go to a different site and be accessible to the students.
You want to set up an online reporting system where people can anonymously report misuse of Library services. What kind of misuse are we talking about and how will incidents be able to be investigated?
It’s more just for when people are being noisy, or listening to music out loud or just too loudly through their headphones, especially during exam and deadline season because it can be really distracting and it can really annoy a lot of people. But often people can be too anxious or nervous to go and ask someone to quiet down or if they do, they might just get ignored. So the alternative is for someone to get up, walk to the front desk and walk back followed by a member of library staff who would then tell the person to be quiet and it’s obvious that you just went and did it. So this would be an anonymous online thing where you can click on a map which part of the library it is and someone from the front desk asks the person to be quiet. It just makes everything easier and better.
How will you ensure there’s no danger of this system itself potentially being misused?
It could be on a SUSSED page so the front desk can see who is making the complaint it’s just that it doesn’t then go through to the person asked to be quiet. I guess I hadn’t considered that students would just for no reason get people to be told to be quiet.
You pledge for the ‘provision of free condoms and sanitary items available discreetly within the Union’. However, we understand this is already the case after a political society, Lib Dem Soc, successfully petitioned the Student Union last academic year with more than 300 signatures and free sanitary products were made available, initially on a trial basis, in the sabbs’ office from March 2018?
Sanitary products are available, it’s really just introducing contraception as well and having those within the same system and making it more publicised. The discretion is also a really big part of that. So yeah, there are sanitary products available and that’s really good, but I just think it needs to be more widely known.
Finally, a significant part of the role of Union President is indeed representing the student voice at the highest levels of the University. A new Vice-Chancellor will be in place in the 2019/2020 academic year. Which single issue above all would you like them to tackle and why?
Think the easiest one for the Vice-Chancellor to tackle is just to reduce their own pay or donate whatever it is, like half of it. They could live very comfortable with half of£400,000 although they said that it would be less than that but so like £300,000 is still 6 figures if you half that so they could just do that, donate it to charity or the Union. In terms of actual Union stuff, I’d like to see the Chancellor on board with increasing Union funds, it’s very much within their remit so with a snap of their fingers they could undo the 6.5% reduction in funds per capita [2018/19 Union funds per capita received from the University, compared to 2017/18].
Find out more about Nik Mukherjee and his policies by reading his manifesto here.