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In a year in office, George Gardiner has presided over a Students’ Union which has faced arguably the most tumultuous year in the University’s recent history, which may well come to be remembered as strategically definitive of the years to come.
In such a year, the Students’ Union President must be judged on negotiating these issues, but also on his ability to adhere to the key manifesto points upon which he was elected; value-for-money, student experience and student engagement.
On the significant moments of his tenure, Gardiner immediately pointed to the death of Lancaster postgraduate Anuj Bidve, tragically shot dead in Salford on December 26th 2011, as “certainly one of the more difficult times of the year,” also praising the University’s handling of that incident.
Politically, the year has been dominated by collaboration discussions between Lancaster and Liverpool Universities, and the University’s Business Process Review (BPR). “Lancaster-Liverpool could have fundamentally changed […] this university’s future,” said Gardiner, adding that “the strategic conversations that will move forward still could have that effect.”
Gardiner said that “what I’m particularly pleased that LUSU did is how quickly we reacted and took a lead in responding to the original Green Paper [outlining the initial collaboration plans] and […] got a strong statement back to the University in a really short space of time.”
He also highlighted the mobilisation of 370 students who attended LUSU’s first quorate General Meeting in three years to vote down the BPR, which he said highlighted “that people at this University care about their experience in Lancaster and they care about the people who deliver it as well.”
The arrival of Professor Mark E. Smith as the University’s new Vice-Chancellor is the most significant long-term change which has occurred this year. Gardiner praised Professor Smith’s “strong” initial approach, particularly in halting the BPR and Lancaster-Liverpool federation plans, both of which had their roots in the tenure of previous Vice-Chancellor Professor Paul Wellings.
He did, however, warn that constituent parts of the Review will remain in process and could still be seen in the near future; in particular, development of a replacement for the Lancaster University Virtual Learning Environment (LUVLE), is already well underway.
“I would wholly encourage the University to try and constantly improve its services for students. It’s how you go about that, the principles behind it and ultimately the goal at the end of the day,” said Gardiner.
Indicative of the Vice-Chancellor’s approach to student relations is the addition of the LUSU President to University Management Advisory Group (UMAG), a meeting of senior management discussing all aspects of institutional strategy.
“The fact that we’re able to have student representation at that level is hugely significant,” said Gardiner, who welcomes the opportunity to input at such a high level.
Because UMAG takes collective responsibility for its decisions, concerns have been raised that Gardiner could find conflicts of interest arising where UMAG’s official line is disparate from LUSU’s. However, Gardiner stressed that “I drew a clear line in the sand” on this issue, and that “I’m able to – and presidents in future will be able to – express opinions and differ from UMAG.
“The conditions to that are consistency and integrity in the Students’ Union President. I feel confident in the fact that i have been consistent in speaking against stuff in UMAG and speaking against stuff outside it as well,” he said.
In his overall approach, former Fylde College President Gardiner sees himself as “someone who leads with honesty, integrity and respect.” In implementing the value-for-money element of his manifesto, Gardiner cites preparing for the new fees regime by analysing the quality of students’ first year, and tackling additional course costs such as books, equipment and printing.
A research project has been conducted, with recommendations sent to the University “to be clear in managing people’s expectations […] so that people can be clear about what they’re expecting to spend when they arrive at university.”
This campaign remains ongoing, with Gardiner saying that “although we’re not quite at the end point that I would have liked to have been right now, we’re certainly moving in the right direction.”
Regarding student experience and engagement, Gardiner pointed to the success of Roses 2012 and the expansion of LUSU clubs and societies to number almost 200 as indicators of achievement.
“People commenting [and] engaging in SCAN, voting in elections, going to the clubs and societies, 400 people turning up to the General Meeting, […] I think they’re all positives which hopefully [show] I’ve stuck to my manifesto,” he said.
Reforms are also beginning on a much-maligned aspect of LUSU’s processes, postgraduate representation. This month’s Postgraduate Students’ Association General Meeting passed a motion which Gardiner explained meant “the Students’ Union was given the green light to go ahead and put the effort in [and] take a lead on postgrad representation.”
Gardiner stressed, however, that this was only a “platform” for subsequent developments, and that “serious change […] doesn’t just take twelve months.”
Trials are also in place currently of open-source democracy models, which include an online forum for students to raise and discuss any issues they wish. These remain at an early stage, with Gardiner admitting to the “disappointment, that we’ve not had time to try and develop that further.”
LUSU has on numerous occasions been criticised from some quarters for a lack of political activism, especially when the decision was made not to facilitate a Lancaster presence at demonstrations in November 2011 organised by the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts in London.
In response to such criticism, Gardiner said: “I disagree, I think in the tuition fees debate the Students’ Union historically has been heavily involved.” He also noted a National Union of Students (NUS)-fronted campaign in November 2012, of which he said “it’s easy for me to say but if I were here we’d be going down because that’s an NUS nationally-organised demonstration.”
Gardiner argued that “the politics of this year have been that so many changes have been happening at a local level. That is politics playing out in real life, because the £9000 decision made last year at a national level the year later filtered down into this university as an impact.
“Our responsibility as a students’ union is to react to that, and I think that’s what we’ve done and that is political because the strategy of the University as a public body that affects 15, 000 people immediately and all those people beyond that is a hugely political thing.”
Asked about the challenges of the coming year, Gardiner identified the managing of expectations for students paying £9000 and imminent decisions regarding the University’s medium-term strategic direction – both of which he stressed require student input and which he sees as “a real challenge.”
He also raised the question of a new building for the Students’ Union, anticipating a decision within the next year of “where [LUSU is] going to be in terms of physically where it’s going to live on campus.”
Gardiner was slightly critical of President-elect Stephen Smith’s campaign pledge to take LUSU “back to basics,” which includes significant reviews of democratic structures. “My personal opinion and my personal approach is that if I had someone representing me I would rather them be spending their time fighting my corner than deciding what the representational structure should look like,” he commented.
As a LUSU President departs, the question of legacies is always raised. On this subject, Gardiner was pragmatic. “I’m not bothered about me personally being remembered, I’m more bothered about people remembering what’s gone on this year,” he said.
“I’m more bothered about the fact that when this university looks at its strategy it knows that the Students’ Union input in that made a real difference, over the next ten years I know that the new Vice Chancellor will recognise that the Students’ Union has a serious part to play in the University.”
On his own future, Gardiner firstly plans to take a break to enjoy Euro 2012 and the Olympic Games, before looking to find work in the short term.
“In the longer term,” he said, “I’m currently exploring charity work and senior management work in charities.
“I’ve had an experience in one particular type of charity this year through the Students’ Union and its Trustee Board, and I’m really interested in working with people, doing something for a community.”