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Ste Smith has presided over a year in charge of Lancaster University Students’ Union (LUSU) which has ended with an unprecedented level of change; new Full Time Officer and Cross Campus Officer structures have been implemented, LUSU will be moving into new space in Bowland College, it will have a new Chief Executive, University Management has a significant amount of new faces, and a new constitution is currently being drafted with a view to it being implemented next academic year.
A lot of Smith’s time has been spent working on developing some of these new structures. In his SCAN interview last year, former President George Gardiner said: “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,” in a perceived criticism of some of Smith’s manifesto points.
This response given to these comments was quite direct. “I think that may be a fair criticism if that’s what you think,” Smith said, “[but] I think that if people have seen me in Council, and UMAG, which obviously no-one else has seen me in, you do fight the corner for students and sometimes it can be difficult.
“The democratic structures, I think the key thing he may be getting at is there’s been a criticism of a previous President who spent a lot of time focused on bye laws and the constitution and things like that and if that’s all you do, you sit in your office and you churn out another bye law, then that’s fair enough, that’s a fair criticism, [but] I don’t think that’s what I’ve done this year.
“I listened to my students this year that wanted to go on a national demonstration and we took them there. I got up and stood in front of NUS National Conference and spoke on issues, so fair enough if you think that changing a democratic structure to make it more effective so we can actually represent the views of our students, if anybody doesn’t think that’s a good use of time then fair enough. I’m not here for the quick wins. I’m here to have a long term strategic impact.”
Smith has been engaged with LUSU politics from the start of his time at Lancaster. As a Fresher, he came across one Michael Payne, ex LUSU President, at a LUSU stall.
“I saw him and I thought, I’m sure I recognise him from somewhere. And a few weeks previously I was stood behind him in a queue to go and watch Question Time. And it was in Chester, and it was on the same day as the Crewe & Nantwich by-election. And I was chatting to him in the queue, and then saw him at the Students’ Union. I was kind of taken aback because we were talking about the Labour Party, the election and everything, all the things I was very much interested in. And then I was chatting to him at the Students’ Union stall and he was very charismatic and passionate about what he did, and I remember saying to him: ‘Oh, I’d love to do your job.’ And here I am a few years later, doing it.”
Gardiner was Smith’s Freshers’ Rep, and through this coincidence, Smith found out about JCR elections. Smith ran for Chair of Fylde College against three other candidates, two of whom were already on the JCR. He won by just four votes.
“From there it just kind of grew and grew I suppose,” Smith said. “I got involved in different things, became President of my College, became a CCO for Campaigns, and I wasn’t particularly interested in campaigns per se … I just wanted to be on Union Council because I was really interested in policy and things like that, and that’s why we introduced LUSU Councillor, so people like me who don’t necessarily have a niche specific interest can still get involved and implement policy. But after doing President of the College, I thought you know what, I really want to give it a go and be President of the Students’ Union and see if I can make a change.”
Smith regards the Full Time Officer (FTO) review as his biggest achievement in office. “Being in this job you have to look at the long term, and the strategic picture, the holistic view of things and the FTO restructure means that next year the officers will be better equipped, will be more focused, and have areas some of which have never really been touched before to develop.”
But is he fully satisfied with the version of the review that was finally implemented? “Kind of. I wish I’d gone further. I would only have five FTOs.”
This inevitably leads on to the question: which position would you cut? “Campaigns & Communications. It’s not because I don’t think those areas are important. I’d have put some of those things with the Union Development role. Student Media I’d put in Activities, not because I just see them as an activity group or a society, [but] because I think they’re really key to some of the things we do, but they’re also seen as a tool which I find quite frustrating.
“The campaigns side, I think all officers should be campaigning to a certain extent. And that’s not just FTOs, that’s everyone. And I think having that Campaigns & Communications FTO, my main worry is it means people will leave campaigning to that individual. I think the hope is they’ll work as teams. Rachel [Harvey, current VP (Media & Communications) and VP (Campaigns & Communications)-elect] with all her experience next year will really shape that role which is great. I’m just not convinced that we need all six positions necessarily. But the other ones, largely I’m quite happy with, but I’d be happier to go down to five myself. And put that extra £17,000 or whatever it is of salary into doing extra things for our students.”
Similarly, the Cross Campus Officer (CCO) structure underwent change this year. Is Smith happy with that at present? “No. I see it as a process as opposed to a revolution. We made significant cuts to the number of CCOs and then we added more LUSU Councillors. I’d have cut more. I wouldn’t have a Socials CCO. I wouldn’t have a Media & Communications CCO. Media & Comms specifically, you have a Vice President who spends a significant amount of their time dealing with those things so I don’t know why there needs to be a CCO for it, and you have the heads of student media, who take a significant leadership role within their own areas.
“Socials, a lot of JCR officers are very vocal and felt we needed to keep it so we listened and we did, I still don’t think it’s very effective, I think the current Socials CCO doesn’t think it’s an effective role.
I’m not totally happy with the structure. I think it’s a large improvement on what we had. And I’d like to see the faculty reps back on Union Council as cross campus positions.”
The final piece of the jigsaw puzzle of reform was to be a new Constitution for the Union, which would bring a completely new structure. This was due to go to referendum this week [Week 8]. Why hasn’t it?
“We haven’t got the Constitutional Review finished, that’s because there are other things that have cropped up,” he said. “When we sat down a few months ago and said are we going to do this, we made the decision that we would, we’d go for it, and it was ambitious and we knew it was going to be. It was going to be all hands on deck. We could have gone to referendum, we had a draft ready in time. I wasn’t happy enough to go and do that though.
“I didn’t want to be accused of railroading through changes without proper consultation. And it’s not that I felt that was what I was doing, but we could have spent more time going out and consulting people if we just put it back a bit. It can be ready for the start of January 2014 and I think that’s fully acceptable. We also haven’t done enough work with the University. This document needs approval from them as well.”
One of the biggest issues of the year has been the closure of the Music degree scheme. LUSU has come under criticism from some quarters for potentially being slow to react to this. “I think as an organisation we probably reacted too late to everything that was going on. Saying that, I’m not convinced that we ever would have changed the outcome. I think that music was going to go regardless of how many thousands of students would sit in the square and campaign about it.
“What we did do was we made a stand. We had an Emergency General Meeting. We got over 300 students into a room who all unanimously voted against this policy of setting grade boundaries at ridiculously high levels which lead to departments such as history which are fantastic getting 49% less applications. I’ve never been so proud of student officers in senate, how much they contributed. It was absolutely astounding and I don’t think the senators had ever seen so many students get involved and say this is what we think as a student body.”
But despite this student engagement in the issues around Music, turnout in the FTO elections fell for the first time in recent memory. Why was this?
“I don’t think there were as many candidates, and I think some people felt, I’m not saying this is my personal opinion, some people felt that there were some clear winners in some of the races and so when it’s not as competitive if you like, it’s not maybe as interesting. Walking around campus, I don’t feel there was as much of a campaigning atmosphere as there was before. Getting out and speaking to those students is a big way of getting them to vote for you.
“[Turnout] did fall this year, we probably could have done more, but I probably do think the onus is more on the candidates to prove why people should vote for them to be one of the six leaders of the Union for next year. And some of them did smashing campaigns. I just don’t think there was enough of it going out there, and more candidates and more competition probably would have helped.”
Whenever one reviews the performance of a President of LUSU, the question of legacy always comes up. However, Smith balks at the word.
“I’ve never gone out to have a legacy and I think it’s a ridiculous idea that someone will remember you two years down the line, you’re just that man who used to sit in that office who was a bit grumpy. You’re not out to leave a legacy. And if I’m going to have a legacy, in inverted commas, it’ll be that I’m the President that nobody will remember potentially. But hopefully had that long-term impact. That did the FTO review, that challenged the way we work as an organisation and changed certain internal things and external things.
“I think that’s certainly one way to describe me, as challenging. You know, not everyone likes that but this year I have gone in, I have rattled some cages, I’ve been an active member of UMAG, I’ve done those things, and I hope that certain people in certain areas will maybe think about engaging with students a bit more going forward into the future. We’ll have an officer structure that hopefully works and is beneficial to our students, we’ll have a democractic structure that isn’t so bloody archaic that students can’t even engage with it, and we’ll do those different things so, I won’t leave a legacy and I don’t care about any legacy. But I’m hoping that those things will have an impact in years to come. And I don’t care if anyone remembers it was me or my team that brought those changes in, but I just hope that they have posititve impact and hopefully by the end of my time in office, we’ll also have appointed a new CEO, and I think that’s one of the biggest things that a President can ever do in their time in office.”
What would Smith have done differently? “There’s a few things. I probably would have started the Constitutional Review earlier, to get it through in time before I left so that box was ticked. Acted faster on Music. But I think the way we did act had a bigger impact on the speed and the energy. I’d have probably put the General Meeting about the bars back a week so it reached quorum, but I don’t think that’s going to have changed any outcome. I’d have written my SCAN comment piece more often!”
Over the Easter break, Smith stood for election as a Trustee of the National Union of Students (NUS) at their National Conference. Smith was unsuccessful in his election.
“I’m interested in the NUS and the way it runs. I’m not particularly fussed on NUS politics per se. I think that a lot of it is quite disconnected to what goes on in Lancaster. It’s also quite party political and all those factions that exist, I’m not really interested in that. So, I didn’t want to go for the NEC. I’ve no intention of being a Full Time Officer of the NUS, I couldn’t think of anything I’d want to do less.
“I just think being on the NUS Trustee Board I had something to give, a voice of honesty and independence I think if nothing else. And I wasn’t elected. As we all know. Which wasn’t necessarily surprising, but I actually think it’s the first time in a while that someone from Lancaster has run an election and going up on stage and saying you’re from Lancaster, putting your name up there, I think was good and I really enjoyed the experience.”
With so much reform being implemented, and so much influence over that reform on Ste Smith’s part, did he ever consider re-running?
“Yes. Most definitely. I think actually my plan, not from the very start of my year in office, once I’d been trained and got into the summer, started off, we had the rocky General Meeting with the bars and I thought it’s a hit to the confidence when you first begin. And then we got on with the FTO Review properly, and I really wanted to see it through. I really wanted to have a new democratic structure in place and I really wanted to be the person to be there to oversee it.
“I really thought about it. I just think it’s time to move on. I think with providing so much change, the only thing I could do next year is preside over that change. It may be a bit of a cliché, but it’d be more of the same. I think the Union’s had enough of Ste Smith. It’s best to move on and let somebody else take over the reins. So I’m excited to see what they do.”
So, now Smith has decided to move on, what’s next? “I’m going on to do a Masters in Management at Liverpool University next year. And then from there I would quite like to go into the Civil Service. I’d quite like to into BIS [Department for Business, Innovation & Skills]. And one day potentially be involved in Higher Education policy at some level. So that’s my intention from there really.”