Wessex Scene interviews Benjamin Dolbear, who is running for the role of Union President in the 2021 SUSU Leadership Elections.
Why have you decided to run for the role of Union President?
I am running for this role for three reasons. The first is that I have the experience to succeed in a leadership position. For the past three years, I have been an elected member of a parish council, spearheading a campaign to encourage the parish to declare a climate emergency. I have also successfully held elected positions in SUSU, including as Arts & Humanities Faculty Officer, during which I worked to improve the spaces at Avenue Campus. Secondly, I have the passion to make real social change. Last summer, I appeared on BBC Question Time to speak about race inequality in the UK and decolonising the school curriculum, and I have worked on media campaigns to secure British citizenship rights for Hong Kong citizens who are BNOs. Finally, I am running for President because I wholeheartedly endorse SUSU’s strategy of ensuring that every student at Southampton enjoys their time here, particularly international students and students who have childcare responsibilities.
What experience do you have that would make you an excellent fit for the role?
As English Academic President, I have launched a peer mentoring scheme which has seen forty-three new students at Southampton receive help in their transition to higher education during the global pandemic. As a course representative and department president, I have lobbied tirelessly for greater digital access to scholarly resources and established a successful book club. Through my work with SUSU, I have built a broad network of contacts whom I can call upon to help me fulfil my mission of securing tuition fee rebates, awarding formal recognition for student medics, nurses, and other student healthcare workers and working towards decolonising the University.
What are the main problems you identify with the current role of Union President and how would you fix them?
The role of Union President is not accountable enough. If elected, I would make myself available for drop-ins with students more regularly than at present, as well as touring student accommodation sites to hear what students on the ground are saying.
How will you work to improve SUSU’s presence and visibility on campuses other than Highfield, especially considering the current circumstances regarding online learning?
Over the past few years, I have worked extensively to secure more visibility and appreciation for the other Southampton campuses, including our first-class Malaysia Campus, which many students here may not have even heard of. I am particularly interested in improving the space at Avenue Campus by making more rooms available for society activities, and by securing funding for facility upgrades.
SUSU released a new strategy in the autumn, with their new core values being ‘Stand Strong’, ‘Join Together’ and ‘Take Responsibility’. How will you work to ensure that these values are upheld within the Union?
I am proud to support the new SUSU strategy, and believe that an inclusive, diverse Southampton makes for a stronger student community. This means decolonising our curricula and raising BAME admissions rates, but it also means holding the University to account when it makes mistakes, particularly with regard to transphobia on our campuses, a stain which I would start to tackle by lobbying the University to strengthen disciplinary sanctions against students who violate students’ dignity by persistently deadnaming them.
Students throughout the country have been demanding the implementation of a Safety Net or No Detriment Policy this year. How will you respond to the students’ demand for such policies and how will you work to ensure student voices are heard?
Vice-President (Education) Alex Neill’s mitigating measures do not go far enough in supporting students this year, and it is embarrassing that the Russell Group has released a statement saying that no-detriment policies are unnecessary. As president, I will work every single day to ensure that students are supported by a reasonable, far-reaching policy of no-detriment to account for the impact of COVID-19 on their academic work, but also on their mental wellbeing.
What does ‘accountability’ mean to you? How will you work to ensure SUSU and Sabbatical Officers are appropriately held to account?
As I have already stated, I will pledge to increase drop-in hours upon taking office, and I will ensure that turnout at Senate meetings is improved through wider publicity.
This year more than ever, international students have felt disconnected from the university experience and the Union, how will you work to ensure that international students are fairly represented?
In my manifesto, I have pledged to fight for tuition fee parity between international and home students to reflect the lost teaching, resources, and peer contact caused by the global pandemic. I also pledge to meet once a week with the International Students’ Officer to ensure that students can return to our campuses and make the most of their time at our wonderful university.
With the current coronavirus pandemic and the move to largely online learning, what will you do to ensure that the education and student experience is up to par with what we have come to expect from our time at the University of Southampton?
In my manifesto, I outline how I will work with the University to publish guidelines for online learning standards to ensure that all students are receiving quality teaching. I will also secure, through lobbying the University as well as local and national governments, funding to supplement disadvantaged students who may need broadband or hardware upgrades.
If you were elected, what would be your top three areas of focus?
If elected, my top priority would be to formally recognise and celebrate the medical researchers involved in the mesothelioma breakthrough at Southampton, as well as student nurses and medics who have heroically fought COVID-19 on the frontline throughout the pandemic. I would also implement a framework of tailored support specifically for the 2020/21 undergraduate intake whose student experience has particularly suffered during the pandemic. This will involve lobbying the University to execute a catch-up programme to make up for lost face-to-face teaching, as well as working with our societies and local businesses to ensure that the next academic year sees the greatest number of in-person activities the University community has ever seen. Finally, I will reinvigorate the University’s Centre for Imperial and Post-Colonial Studies by securing funding for a greater number of workshops and research projects to ensure that all students are given the opportunity to understand all aspects of this nation’s, and the University’s, complicated past and present. On this note, I will open an Equality and Diversity consultation within the Union which will result in an action plan to improve accountability and fairness on issues of race, gender and all other protected characteristics as set out in the Equality Act of 2010.
You state in your manifesto that you wish to reduce tuition fees for all students. This is quite a feat. How will you ensure that this is achieved?
The campaign to reduce tuition fees for this academic year is already gaining national media coverage. Change is possible, and with enough students on-side willing to support us, the Universities Minister can be pressured to make a policy U-turn. If I do not succeed in securing a substantial rebate of fees, particularly for international students, I will see my presidency as a failure.
You state that you wish to formally recognise the staff and students that have worked tirelessly as ‘unsung heroes’ of the pandemic. What exactly would this entail?
In my manifesto, I specifically mention formally recognising and celebrating student medics and nurses. Throughout much of this pandemic, many of these students have worked long hours, unpaid, in dangerous wards with COVID-positive patients, putting themselves and their families at risk. To me, this is a travesty, and these students should be reimbursed for their selfless contribution to our society. I propose making a substantial fund available for eligible students to take from if they have worked in such conditions and are now struggling financially; this could be seen as payment in arrears for dedication to the global effort against COVID-19. I will also work with relevant heads of school in ensuring that the chaos we have seen over the past academic year, with poor communication with regard to placement details and assignment deadlines and weighting, can never, ever happen again.