Wessex Scene interview Ryan Couchman-Sawyer, who is running for the role of VP Education and Democracy in the 2021 SUSU Leadership Elections.
Why have you decided to run for the role of VP Education & Democracy?
I decided to run for the role of VP Education and Democracy after a number of friends persuaded me to. I’ve been the School of Biological Sciences President for the past two years and have seen the effect that the coronavirus pandemic has had on students and want to work with the university to highlight the issues students have faced during the pandemic. I also want to be a person who is there to care for student concerns and look after their needs in regards to their education at the university.
What experience do you have that would make you an excellent fit for the role?
I have been heavily involved with academic representation whilst at university having been both a course representative and school president. I feel that I have gained so much experience from interacting with both students on my course and members of the university. I have been able to convey the concerns of people on my course and work with my school to find solutions for their problems. I would be able to use the experience I have obtained throughout my time at university to ensure that all students concerns are listened to.
I also have the empathy and listening skills expected of a SAAB. I can be approached by anyone and will listen to their concerns and help them out if they need any help. In my student representative roles, I have always been there for my fellow course mates and will always talk to them if they need help or are feeling lonely. I believe this is a crucial skill for any sabbatical officer to possess in addition to knowing how the academic representation structure at SUSU works.
What are the main problems you identify with the current role of VP Education & Democracy and how would you fix that?
Whilst I feel that the work put in by previous VPs for Education and Democracy has been great on the whole, I feel that not many people know of the work that the VP Education and Democracy and the other academic reps do. That is why I want to highlight the work achieved by course reps within each faculty to ensure that students are aware their voice matters.
I also believe that it can be difficult to recruit course reps later in the year, particularly with first years. The role of VP Education and Democracy relies on a strong communication chain with course reps feeding into department and student presidents and faculty officers. Having low numbers of course reps makes it difficult to reach everywhere. I would therefore intend on making the process of co-opting course reps (through voting at Student Staff Liaison Committees) an easier process.
I would also like to discuss raising the limit for the number of course reps. The current limit stands at 2 course reps per course per year. Courses can vary in size though making it a daunting and difficult task for course reps where there are over a hundred students on their course. Increasing the number of course reps per course will ensure a wider coverage and help gain a better idea of student concerns.
The coronavirus pandemic has had a large impact on many students in many ways ranging from declining mental health to falling ill close to university deadlines. What will you do to ensure the fair and equal treatment of students who experience mitigating circumstances due to Covid-19?
I feel this is a major issue that needs to be dealt with by whoever gets elected to the role. My main focus is to ensure there is an easy way to apply for special considerations for students who have been affected by Covid-19. This will not only include people who have fallen ill to the virus but also those who have been at home looking after vulnerable family members for most of the day and have little time to focus on assessments. There are also people who have been volunteering at hospitals, testing facilities, and vaccination centres who have been providing a key role in fighting the virus in between studying.
Mental health awareness is another main issue that I want to work on, preferably in conjunction with the next VP welfare and communities. The pandemic has been hard on a lot of students with students worrying about loved ones to people feeling incredibly lonely during the lockdown. My aim is to ensure that there is improved support available for students to talk about their mental health during their studies (and especially during the exam season). There is a need to end the stigma associated with asking for help, especially within men who are less likely to talk about their feelings. I will work hard to increase the awareness of support services available to discuss mental health as well as make myself available to talk to. I will also ensure that students who have suffered from mental health illness during the pandemic are able to receive the same mitigating circumstances as those who have fallen ill from the virus.
In the past couple of years, interest in the Union Elections has steadily declined, and this year, the voting arrangements have changed in order to account for this decline. What will you do to help improve engagement in student politics ?
I feel that interest in Union elections has declined as people might not be fully aware of the changes made (or the progress being carried out into changes). I will therefore be as transparent as possible in terms of showing what progress has been made on my policies through regular Facebook and email updates. I intend to do similar things with student representatives to highlight the specific changes made in each faculty. Hopefully, this will demonstrate that student voices do matter.
I also intend to make it easier to contact myself, should I be elected, to allow students to voice their concerns easily. I believe that transparency and openness are key to ensuring that a sabbatical team is able to efficiently represent the students. My work ethic will ensure that I put in 100% to ensure students concerns are acted upon.
Many students have expressed concerns about a decline in education quality due to the coronavirus pandemic and the move to online learning. How do you propose to combat such issues?
This is something I really want to focus on. I feel that the quality of education has been less than ideal this year as the majority of content was delivered online. I myself had no in person teaching at all this year as my school only did practical sessions in person, which while understandable meant that if you didn’t do a lab project you had no in person learning. One way I want to improve the quality of education is to ensure (Covid guidelines permitting) that all students receive in person teaching.
I also want to encourage schools to implement more interactivity if online learning occurs. I’ve spoken with numerous students on my course who have said that they found online lectures where there was something interactive (e.g. a quiz, opportunities to ask lecturers questions etc.) more engaging and easier to understand than pre-recorded videos. I therefore want to work with the university to ensure that lecturers engage with students during online lectures to improve the quality of teaching.
I intend to work with academic reps next year to work on how to improve teaching and use the voices of students to make changes that benefit them. The above are just a couple of ideas I have had based on comments I have heard but in order to improve the quality of education I will need to work closely with student reps in order to determine what students concerns or ideas are across the whole university – and this is something I very much intend on achieving.
How will you support the academic interests of students who are typically side-lined, such as Joint Honours students, disabled students and postgrads?
I am hoping to be inclusive of all students including those who are often forgotten about. For example, the move to online learning has been difficult for some students who are hard of hearing to learn as some lectures don’t have captions put on automatically. I want to find a way to make this a default option for lectures and other recorded lessons to ensure that all students can access content. I also want to work on finding solutions for disabled students who might not be able to participate in certain activities such as fieldwork to ensure they are fairly treated and have an alternative of equal value.
I want to also work to make it clearer to find joint honours course reps as currently on the SUSU website there is no way to specify whether you want to search for a course rep on a single honours or joint honours degree. I feel that finding a way to increase the visibility of joint honours course reps will help engage students on these courses and improve the ways in which SUSU and the University can work to improve concerns that may be specific to joint honours students.
If elected, I hope to speak with postgrad representatives to find out what issues are affecting them and work to find solutions for their problems. I would look to implementing Teams sessions to sit down and listen to postgrads to identify where we need to improve interaction with said students. At the moment I don’t have any ideas for specific actions to improve interactions with postgrads (which I’m not afraid to say) but I am open to ideas and will definitely work to try and find ways to involve postgrad students more.
If you were elected, what would be your top three areas of focus?
If elected my main focus is to ensure there is a fair policy put in place that protects students grades if they have been affected by Covid in any way, shape, or form. I intend for a modified no detriment policy that takes on board students’ ideas and is put to a final all student vote to ensure that students have the final say.
Following on from this, I want to work with the university to ensure a safe return to campuses when the situation has improved. This will be to ensure that students all receive in person teaching next year and that this teaching is what will be expected of a Russell Group university. Obviously, this will depend on whether the government says we are allowed to return to in person teaching but I live in hope and will make sure the safety of students on return is of up most importance.
The third focus is to improve mental health support for students, particularly during the exam period. This year has shown how important mental health support is for students. My aim is to work with the next VP welfare to ensure there is enough support for students and that people know who they can talk to for support. I also want to work to remove the stigma surrounding mental health and work with SUSU to improve mental health awareness.
You state in your manifesto that you want to increase the availability of E-books for all courses. This is something the union has tried to achieve for multiple years now, how do you intend to ensure that they follow through on this claim?
I am aware that the union has tried to achieve this goal before, and currently I don’t know what progress the union has made in making this possible. However, if elected I will look into the current status of this claim and work on trying to see this achieved. I will also keep students updated on the progress being made on this promise to ensure that students are aware that it is on my to do list.
However, I would also like to point out that I not only intend to increase the availability of eBooks but also improve access to them. I have been approached several times asking if I know how to find certain books online and I haven’t been able to find them. I therefore intend to work with the university in order to improve the accessibility to eBooks. This is as much of an issue as the number of eBooks because having thousands of books is not much use when students are struggling to find them.
How will you make the work of Student Reps more visible to the student body?
This is something I really want to do as having been both a course rep and school president, I know that student reps put a lot of effort into relaying concerns of students and looking for solutions to problems. However, most changes go unnoticed by a large proportion of the student community because information tends to flow in one direction (i.e. from the students to the student reps to the university). I want to use the role of VP Education and Democracy to ensure that information flows back the other way, so students are aware of changes that have happened because people have reached out to course reps. The aim of this is to let students know their voices do matter.
My aim is to work with faculty officers (or school presidents in the case that there isn’t a faculty officer) and use regular Facebook updates to let students know of what major changes have been made in each faculty. By doing this, I hope students would be aware of how much of an impact they can have and hopefully improve engagement with SUSUs democracy when they see changes do happen.
I also intend to continue the course rep of the month feature that has been implemented in order to highlight the efforts of students who have gone above and beyond to support their course mates. The work put in by some course reps is incredible and should be celebrated, especially during the current coronavirus situation.