VP Education and Democracy Candidate Interview with Avila Chidume

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Wessex Scene interviews Avila Chidume, VP Education and Democracy candidate. 

Why have you decided to run for the role of VP Education & Democracy?

In my opinion, the role of VP Education & Democracy is often overlooked when it comes to student engagement. I’ve seen for myself how many students have become disengaged with on-campus democracy because they have lost touch with that side of the Students’ Union. Students forget that they have a lot of power, and I think that I am the best candidate to help them reclaim that power and achieve meaningful, long-lasting change within the Union and the University. I have the ambition and drive to really fulfil this role – once I set my mind to something, I make sure to complete it.

What experience do you have that would make you an excellent fit for the role?

I have amazing connections within the University and Union through the development of my business, which I set up during my second year. I have worked with the University to help students pursue their career goals, even going as far as giving a speech to the Faculty of Arts and Humanities on the importance of cultivating student interests last October. Additionally, I have a great relationship with the Social Impact Lab, who I have collaborated with in webinars and seminars to help budding entrepreneurs begin their businesses. I’ve also worked closely with the Careers and Employability department with their own workshops and events, such as the Foundership program. Within the Union, I have partnered up with them to be a panel member for ‘You Are More Than: Graduate edition’, where I spoke about volunteering opportunities and what to do during COVID. These past experiences really helped to lay the foundations for a productive and fulfilling working relationship as VP Education and Democracy. Also, I am active on social media, so I know the best places to find students to engage and how. It’s clear to see that the traditional ways of emails no longer work, so SUSU needs to work harder to show students that it is student-run. There are many amazing forums and platforms which would be happy to collaborate to raise awareness on the work the Union does, if the right relationships are there, and I think I am the right person to facilitate those collaborations. There’s no need to snub certain mediums because they are not traditional: traditional does not mean effective.

What are the main problems you identify with the current role of VP Education & Democracy and how would you fix that?

Currently, students cannot hold the Sabbs accountable because they are not forthcoming with their actions. Rarely do students see what is happening behind the scenes until it is too late and has already been implemented (usually with minimal student consultation). A more open and honest approach is required, even if the issue in hand is not popular at the time, because a good Sabb should be able to communicate clearly and concisely why certain decisions are being made and whether or not students can prevent them from happening. This is not something I have seen in a long time, and it really needs reform.

SUSU has faced a lot of criticism this year for the method and execution of their all-student-votes, with some students arguing that they are neither democratic nor a mandate for action. What is your opinion on this, and how will you tackle this issue in the role?

During this campaign, I have actually reached out to many students from different levels and disciplines to share their opinions on this, and a common response is that the Union does not directly affect them and there is no point in participation. PGR students especially have for too long been saying the Union does not care for them. This is disappointing, as the Union’s job is to adequately represent all students regardless of qualification. Whilst others were happy with how the Union operated in the early semesters, the situation with COVID-19 has drastically changed the climate and a shift has happened. New ways of addressing issues are required to prevent a rise in dissatisfied students. With all-student votes specifically, I will ensure that there is more promotion, student consultation and a wider time frame for them to be completed.

How will you improve the visibility of things like SUSU’s AGM/Making Change Summit, Union Senate and the You Make Change platform? Furthermore, what would you like to see students bring to these platforms?

It sounds simple, but I would use multiple social media platforms as well as in-person events (Covid permitting) to tell people in advance when they were happening and let them know that they can be involved. As well as social media marketing, I will also make sure students are emailed way in advance of important meetings and dates so that they are fully prepared and can voice their concerns or opinions. With the role of VP Education and Democracy involving close communication with academic representatives, I will also be sure to reach out to them in advance to ensure that they inform their peers.

Student engagement in the SUSU elections has seen a huge decline this year, with many positions (including this one) remaining unfilled and the number of voters dropping from 4,323 to 2,145. Why do you think this has happened, and how do you propose to revive interest in student politics?

Whilst these numbers are very concerning, I believe that they can be increased by demonstrating a new era of accountability and action. Students need to see that their concerns are being heard, and that they are not being excluded because of their discipline level. As I have already mentioned, many PGRs feel alienated from the system, which to me goes against the very purpose of SUSU. Additionally, we must stop silencing the students who are actively engaged in politics. We need to allow them to lobby on behalf of students who feel disconnected, and most importantly, let them feel able to criticise the system without the fear of being publicly denounced.

What will you do to support students whose studies have been impacted by the UCU Strike Action?

Until the University find a common ground with lecturers, strikes will continue. In the meantime, the Union should work harder to lobby the University to take into consideration the disruptions which occur during strikes, making sure assessments are adapted to take into consideration topics/modules which have not been taught. I will also lobby the University to be more forthcoming in providing students with extensions for assignments due during strike periods.

What is your opinion on making recorded lectures compulsory?

I believe that the arguments against recorded lectures are inherently ableist. There are many lecturers who try to argue that students will stop showing up to lectures if recordings are available, but the purpose of University is that you complete work set in your own time. The focus should be on people learning and implementing what they learn in exams, not being monitored on attendance. Not everyone can afford to be present on campus every day of the week. Some people live with illnesses, require child-care etc. All in all, life events happen, requiring people to miss lectures which they should not be penalised for.

How will you support the academic interests of students who are typically sidelined, such as Joint Honours students, disabled students and postgrads?

It is important to begin by acknowledging that these groups have been side-lined and to them invite them to discuss what it is they require from the Union to begin working on supporting them better. I am hoping to work closely with existing student officers such as the Joint Honours Officer and PGT Officers to gauge an idea of what these student communities need rather than speaking for them. In the case of disabled students, I would aim to regularly communicate with the Disabilities Officer and Neurodiversity and Disability Society to see how SUSU can better the lives of students with disabilities.

If you were elected, what would be your top three areas of focus?

  1. Reinstating democracy.
  2. Holding not just the University to account, but SUSU themselves.
  3. Providing students with the support they actually require rather than what the Union assumes they want. This could be more support for mental health, more help in pursuing jobs or anything else the student community actively wants support in.

How do you intend to help prevent, the argued, poor communication experienced last semester from the university in relation to grades from happening again?

In short, pressure needs to be applied on the University. I believe that for too long, they have gone without being held accountable by the Union and are comfortable failing students because they know that traditionally the Union has not challenged them enough on this. That will change if I am elected. The reason this will change is because I understand the role is there to serve students rather than the interests of the institution or my own self-interests.

How do you think the initiatives you have been involved with will help in your role as VP Education and Democracy?

The initiatives I have been involved in have allowed me to form important connections within the Union and the University. It is difficult to hold much power or influence if the people you are working with or lobbying do not know or trust you. Politics requires a lot of negotiations and understanding of both sides, but often fails to be honest about the approaches taken to get to those stages. This is what is needed in the Union to properly support students and their interests.

You can access Avila’s manifesto here https://www.susu.org/elections/why/11486/avila-chidume.html

Disclaimer: Wessex Scene reached out to all of those running for the role VP Education and Democracy, but were unable to reach some candidates.

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