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In March 2010, Robbie Pickles ran uncontested for LUSU President. There was, therefore, no great surprise when the former Cartmel President and University Council Representative won his election. Pickles’ time in office came at the end of years of constitutional changes to the Students’ Union, led mainly by his predecessors Tim Roca and Michael Payne.
It was felt by many that they had left Pickles with a lot of tidying up to do, a task which he relished from the offset. “I spent three months over the summer rewriting almost every Union bylaw, and they look pretty snazzy now, it has to be said […] I think all of the bylaws I’ve rewritten will be my legacy!”
While it’s easy to joke about the amount of administration involved in his first few months as President, Pickles also notes the importance of what he did. “I think we’ve steadily expanded on things that have happened in years before, I think we’ve become more accessible as an organisation. It’s interesting – some of the things that have changed during this year were so common sense that people have forgotten already that we’ve changed them and have just assumed that it was always like that.”
These small changes have already had an impact. Just a few weeks after finally clarifying the roles of the Cross Campus Officers (CCOs), there was a significant increase in the amount of people running for these positions. “Students will only engage if we get those roles entirely correct. […] I think if you spoke to the various CCOs, I think they would feel like they have a more positive impact. I think it would be wrong to write [the changes] off as change for change’s sake.”
Pickles does, however, respect the nature of change in a union such as this. “If I came back in three years time and they’d all changed again, I’d be happy with that as long as I felt it was positive. I’m not precious about the things I’ve changed – I myself have changed things, and then changed them again already, and that’s fine as long as it’s always positive.”
Pickles was also one of the people behind the changes to the election process, which notably included the scrapping of proposers and seconders for nominations, booklets explaining officer roles and a shorter campaigning period. Pickles claims to be “really proud” of these changes, which in March this year led to the highest turnout in recorded history of LUSU elections.
Pickles is also proud of the way in which he has helped officers work together to promote better on-campus events for students. “I ran for President to change the Students’ Union and move it forwards, so wherever I’ve defended LUSU it was where I felt it was doing things right, and I’ve changed a great number of things. There’s now more decisions in the hands of students than there ever have been before, there’s more money going straight into the hands of elected officers rather than staff than ever before.”
Pickles’ time in office has not been completely smooth-sailing. The increase in tuition fees is something that has weighed heavily on his mind. “I will always remember that I was President when fees went up to £9,000 and I think that will haunt me for a long time to come”, he explained.
Yet it is not his legacy that he has concern for. “I’m pretty certain that I won’t be remembered. The turnover of students at Lancaster University – in three years time there’ll actually be nobody here who was here when I was […] Personally, it’s actually quite upsetting – Will I be able to forgive myself? Maybe not, but I’m not too worried about what the students will say”, he said.
During the time of the fees rise, LUSU was quick to respond – the Union covered the cost of taking students down to London for the University and Colleges Union (UCU) and National Union of Students (NUS) protest on November 10. LUSU took more students than any other union in the North West and soon became one of the best represented universities, with LUSU becoming the go-to union for quotes by national news coverage. Pickles was not without criticisms from students during this time. “I will accept that there were some students who will say that I didn’t go far enough, that I should have come out and defended free education, there will be some students who will think we were wasting our time, that it was always going to happen – you’ve got to strike a balance.”
The fees rise at Lancaster to £9,000 led to further problems for the LUSU President. The annual meeting of University Court in February of this year led to a motion being proposed, by Alan Whitaker, seconded by two former presidents, Roca and Payne. The motion, which sought to create a working group to ensure the University did all it could to improve the student experience through the new fees system, split the Students’ Union in half in the week leading up to Court. Pickles spoke against the motion, and it was not passed. He completely stands by his position at the time.
“The position I took at [University] Court has been entirely vindicated since, in my opinion. We now have more student representation on committees than I’ve ever seen in the past […] we’ve got more students on University Management committees,” he claims.
“I think that if we’d taken a different stance in Court, none of that would have happened. I know it was controversial at the time – it split the opinion of officers. I’m glad that we had a debate in Court, but at the same time I wouldn’t go back and change my decision. I think it was exactly the right thing to do,” Pickles said.
However, the relationship with the University has not always been so good. “I remember in November being shouted out of a meeting by two members of University Management for my ‘precocious views’ on Students’ Union activities space, and being told that I was very presumptuous – so a big falling out there. I remember falling out with quite a few people in University Council, but since the University Court speech in January, I think that really signalled a new approach for LUSU,” Pickles said. He went on: “It’s about having a good working relationship with Management, and if you don’t have that working relationship, you can’t expect to achieve anything.”
This working relationship will have hopefully secured two major developments for the Students’ Union – the new activities hub is in the pipeline, and the Union will soon know if its bid to take over the college bars has been successful. Pickles doubts that these things will fall as part of his legacy though: “Let’s say in four years time, LUSU is moving into a new, purpose-built activities hub, let’s say in a year’s time students are chilling in Furness Bar, they’re having a fantastic time with their 50p soft drinks, nobody will go ‘Oh, I’m glad Robbie Pickles provided this activities hub’, no-one will go ‘I’m glad Robbie came up with the idea of 50p soft drinks during the day’, but you know, I’ll know and I’ll be happy that those were the legacies that I will leave.”
Pickles claims the events of the year have allowed the progress to be made. “There’s something specific about the nature of this year, particularly around the increase in tuition fees, that has actually allowed us to have more opportunities,” he said.
Pickles has been involved with LUSU since his first year, when he was elected as Treasurer for Cartmel JCR. The following year he became President of the college. As someone who has always been involved with the Union, he has plenty of advice for people wishing to get involved.
“It’s wrong to say that there’s nothing better you can do with your time at university than to get involved with LUSU,” he said. “Clearly for students there are many things that you can get involved in, and obviously it’s down to opinion – I’m not going to say it is the best thing you can possibly do, it’s not.”
“There are more ways of getting involved in LUSU now than there ever have been, and I think the real thing to say to students if you want to get involved – ask, involve yourself. We’ve been much better at communicating this year than we have in the past. The point of officers is that you go up to them and ask them questions – if those officers are inaccessible, then they’re the wrong officers and you should try and replace them, quite frankly,” Pickles said.
Pickles appreciates that all the changes he has made may not have been noticed by the wider student body. “Even though I think students won’t see exactly what changed within LUSU, all that matters is that students see the end result. […] It doesn’t matter whether they know that I did it, it doesn’t matter whether they know what happened, as long as the benefits are visible,” he said.
Speaking of his immediate plans, Pickles said: “I’m going to go back to Shropshire, going to go and chill with my mum and dad – it sounds really sad, but I’m alright with it. I’m not going to be a politician, I’m just going to debunk that now. I’m not going to be a politician, I don’t want to be a politician. Who knows if I’ll end up being a politician, but it’s certainly not my plan. I have no defined direction.”