Laura Clayson: My yearly reflection

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As my year is coming to an end, I felt it only right that I offer the students I represent a yearly reflection, especially having set a precedent for this kind of article at the end of Michaelmas Term.

I now find myself in a much healthier head space than I was when I last wrote. Having now learnt the motivations and agendas of those around whom I engage with it is much easier to differentiate those who are supportive and pro-active from those who would rather sit back and criticise. The aftermath of the increases in tuition fees and rents has been something that has shaped my year and I have learnt a lot about the value of negotiation as a consequence. For years students have been forced to accept an increase here and an increase there, but first term saw students autonomously organising leading to the University reopening dialogue channels.

What I have found particularly interesting is the different context LUSU finds itself in in comparison to Unions based in urban settings, especially London. Here there are often protests and occupations. Whilst we are involved with the national student movement to a degree the way we operate has to acknowledge the complexities of our isolationism. In the neo-liberal University context, especially at Lancaster, change relies on the relationships you have with those who have the financial power to make those decisions. For Lancaster to thrive it is important the Union has a critical but functioning relationship with the University. Not to have this would be a disservice to the students we represent.

Interestingly, throughout the year I have noticed a change in the narrative at the top. I have raved all year about how students need to be reconstructed as partners in the decisions the University makes and slowly but surely I have started to notice a shift in the way students are talked about. Controversial decisions, over who to give honourable degrees to for example, have considered the reactions of groups of students – would certain choices result in student opposition in the form of protests? To me this is evidence that we are in the process of a reconstruction of students as active participants, rather than passive consumers, of their higher education experience.

On a personal level I have fluctuated between political perspectives. Some days I am an angry anarchist who wants to smash up the hierarchical structures that perpetuate Union under-representation on University committees etc. whereas on other days I am thinking how we need more people involved at the grassroots to get into positions of ‘power’ so change can be pursued through a combination of top down and bottom up collaboration. At the moment I would say I am a combination of the two. What has been especially important for my political stance is the realisation that an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ rhetoric against University management is neither progressive nor useful. Without constructive dialogue and compromise nothing will ever change. Especially not in the space of one sabbatical year. Societal change is a process, consistently being shaped and shifted by the circumstances we find ourselves within. Far reaching change requires patience, compromise and organisation.

With this in mind I thought it would be the perfect time for me to reflect on the manifesto pledges I was elected on:

Gender and Representation: during my election campaign, I highlighted how in LUSU’s history only five Presidents had ever been self-defining women – a statistic provided to me by the Women in Leadership group who played a vital role in bringing these issues to the fore. I aimed to be the sixth. Upon my election I vowed to empower students who wished to take action on various societal issues. An example of this is the successful launch of the umbrella campaign called Lancaster Shouts Back, which aims to empower all self-defining women against structural misogyny. This was launched through collaboration with several other Union Officers including Vice-President (Welfare and Community), Mia Scott, the Ethnic Minorities Officer, Omena Osivwemu, and the Women’s Liberation Officer, Caitlin Shentall. The campaign thus far has consisted of an article written for SCAN articulating why we need more women in leadership positions, supporting Caitlin in organising Lancaster’s first Reclaim the Night in a decade, and a speech given by Mia and I at Cartmel’s event for International Women’s Day. Forthcoming is a video themed around why the Union is “shouting back” against all forms of sexual harassment. On reflection this campaign needed to start off a lot more inter-sectional than it did, and I am sure the Union will focus on this in the coming years. It’s easy, especially when operating under time constraints, to just push forward with campaigns, but inter-sectional liberation is integral to the student movement so we must ensure we begin all of our campaigns in this way.

Living Standards and Personal Well-Being: Living Standards and Personal Well-Being: I supported Mia to successfully lobby the University to sign the Time to Change pledge (which intends to smash the stigma surrounding mental health) and also to research the experiences of Care Leavers at our University – Mia and Student Based Services had a success with this, getting management to commit part of the Widening Participation budget to a Care Leavers bursary. The Union also supported students in their occupation of University House against the fees and rent increases. It is due to this that we have entered the most meaningful negotiations on rents with the University in recent years (bursaries and scholarships are part of this conversation too). In terms of progress on this both the LUSU President and VP (Campaigns and Communications), Ronnie Rowlands – utilising research conducted by LUSU Councillor, Lee Dudding – have written a Cost of Living paper for the Negotiations Working Group, outlining proposals and resolutions on how to tackle rents on campus and making the case for an increase in bursaries for certain groups of students. This ground work will be something that our successors will hopefully be able to build on next year, as the cost of living will continue to detrimentally affect a large proportion of our membership.

Defending your education: alongside supporting the fee and rent increases protest and occupation we have been part of the national campaign for Free Education, marching alongside 10 000 other students back in November. As our support for Free Education is only mentioned as part of other Union policies, there will hopefully be a policy passed this term holistically focused upon this in its own right. I have also worked alongside the Pro Vice Chancellor for Education, Sharon Huttly, on the Postgraduate Funding consultation, which is due to be submitted at the end of this month. Whilst this has been a long time coming, I still perceive this new financial support to be a neoliberal response to the wrongs that the current economic system imposes on people, serving only to descend students further into debt – further evidence that capitalism doesn’t work for the people, but those in the higher echelons of society. In order to continue maintaining legitimacy as representatives of students it is imperative that future FTO teams campaign for an education system that isn’t commodified, but one that sees the pursuit of knowledge as an end in itself.

Accountability and Transparency: I have realised that as one person I cannot make the Union as accessible as it should be to all students. Whilst I have tried my best, this is an area that was impossible to fully commit to. In my election campaign I stated that I was going to move my office downstairs so that I was more accessible to students. However, once I realised that I was never actually in my office, as well as the fact that the Union could be made accessible in other ways and it should not just be isolated to one building, I chose not to act on this as a priority (also when I have to write papers I would rather sit in the open plan office on B floor, as it is impossible to concentrate downstairs!) I tried to do weekly drop in sessions, perching myself in random venues around campus, however due to lack of attendance I figured this was not the best utilisation of my time. Instead, I have ensured that I am accountable, approachable and friendly in other ways – be this through writing articles for SCAN, attending Union Council or going on LA1:TV when I have had the time to do so. I have also launched the Union’s first year of the participatory budgeting initiative which saw students vote on what they wanted a portion of the budget to be spent on – the bookable megaphones have now been ordered and will be available for students to book once the quiet period is over! This initiative has also been factored into the Union’s 2015/16 budgeting process to ensure that it is carried forward in future years, but bigger and better!

Go Green: I committed to improving Lancaster’s green credentials and have pursued a strong environmental agenda this year, establishing both divestment and the creation of a behaviour change group as partnership projects between Union Officers and University Management. An Ethical Investment Policy was something Mia and I were told would never happen. However this negativity only spurred us on! Alongside a group of fearlessly committed student activists we have successfully partnered up with the University to commit to developing one. A survey is currently being created by the working group created off the back of University Council’s commitment. This will be sent around to everyone in the institution to ascertain what different stakeholders’ desire from this policy, i.e. what the University as a whole perceives as ‘ethical’. We are hoping very much for fossil fuel and arms trade divestment as these have been the basis of our two year campaign, and what 1,198 people have signed our online petition supporting!

In terms of the food sustainability agenda the student led Broadbean Campus Co-Operative is potentially going to be embedded as part of Green Lancaster. This is to make it sustainable, both in terms of longevity in the context of a transient student population and the food sold – the intention is to source from the Eco Hub. As a founding member it makes me happy that despite most of us who started it are leaving, it will carry on, fulfilling a vital role in the campus community. Alongside these, Union Council have passed Anti-Fracking policy which condemns the process and mandates Union Officers to lobby the University to decrease further their carbon emissions, through enhancing their renewable energy initiatives for example. Lastly, at University Council’s away day on Friday 22nd I will be presenting a paper on whether or not environmental sustainability is an institutional priority… fingers crossed.

Improving support for International and Postgraduate Students: the Union has been working alongside the International Cross-Campus Officer to set up the International Students Association, which should be established this term. This will hopefully increase our support and representative structures for international students. As well as offering continuing support to Graduate College and the Postgraduate Board, VP (Education), Joe O’Neill, and I are working alongside the University to adopt and implement the Postgraduate Employment Charter. These activities have been taking place alongside our talks with University Management about an increase in financial support for these two categories of students in response to the fee rises.

Outside of my manifesto commitments I have travelled to the West Bank, Palestine with Dr Simon Mabon from the Politics, Philosophy and Religion department to strengthen links between An Najah University and Lancaster; have got the Union involved with the national campaign for profit-free periods meaning that we are now selling the most popular sanitary items at cost price (there are rumours of moon cups too); worked on enhancing our vegan range of food and held the police to account in The Guardian (after a run in with them at the Tap House we can confirm that they are definitely still unhappy about this!)

In light of what I feel has been a very political year for the Union I have learnt perhaps one of the most difficult lessons: as an elected student representative you have to accept the criticism you get – actions are either too radical or not radical enough. You are never going to please everyone and this means that you have to take the toxic articles that are written about you and your fellow officers (usually from people who have never even spoken to you) with a pinch of salt. At the end of the day we are only able to do as much as six human beings can deal with and I am monumentally proud of the progress we have made.

In all honesty whilst I can say that I am proud of how far I have progressed with my manifesto commitments, I really cannot take full credit for them. If it wasn’t for my fellow FTOs, Union officers, committed student and community activists, Union staff, lecturer friends, University staff, friends and family I wouldn’t have got anywhere.  I am monumentally thankful to all of the wonderful people I have had the opportunity to meet and activist with this year.

Overall, I believe that this year has been great for student activism. I have never been as inspired and determined as I am now. I envisage that the next five years are going to be very challenging to the student movement, with higher education being transformed at the whims of whoever the Conservatives choose to dictate policy from the top down. We need to recognise the intersection of all the inequalities we fight against, uniting environmentalism and feminism, to the anti-austerity movement and the national campaign for free education. We all need each other.

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