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Tom Burgess from SCAN interviewed Atree, the new VP for Union Development.
How has your lockdown been? Have you learnt any new skills?
Over the last few weeks, it’s been more of a case of visiting a few new places near Lancaster and things like that- a few outdoor spaces. That was fun. Obviously, we’ve had work over the last week which has been pretty interesting and it’s been fun meeting all the other people in the Union. In terms of an interesting skill, I’ve learned to kind of video edit which was something new- I just want to be able to do update videos and things like that.
What exactly does your role involve?
Widely speaking the role deals with the political side of the commercial services: The Sugarhouse, Central and Purple. University development on a wider scale acts as a liaison to the JCR’s on-campus and focuses on the Union itself and internal structures and sorting that out.
What are your main aims going into the academic year?
I’ve summarised my manifesto into three main points. The first thing is the ongoing Constitutional Convention, ensuring things happen in a timely matter. I want the changes that students want to take place on a reasonable timescale- 12 to 18 months maximum. My second priority is a lot of student groups have issues with the NUS and Unioncloud- £35,000 a year to be associated with them. As we’re going to be struggling financially I want a referendum to see if students still want the relationship with the NUS. Thirdly, colleges are an integral part of the Lancaster experience. I want to make it more than just a Freshers Week and to develop the college experience.
You mention in your manifesto the ‘Lancaster 100’ and setting that up as it will help governance and democracy. Could you expand on what that does?
Up until mid-2016, there was a Union Council but it will be hard to undo the lack of engagement that was lost towards the end of it. My understanding is that people who are FTO’s or PTO’s or JCR exec’s don’t understand why there is a lack of engagement because we are the people that are constantly engaged. It’s hard to create a platform if you are making what you think it should be rather than what students actually want. The ‘Lancaster 100’ was something I came up with based off a system Keele uses. The Keele 100 holds two meetings a year with as best a cross-section of the student body as possible to discuss the most important issues for students. This could provide a way to get to a Union Council which acts in a way to hold officers to account with boosted engagement.
Do you think that the NUS membership is letting us down? If you want a referendum is that because you think it is a waste of money?
It’s not all good or bad. There are benefits like stuff in Central is cheaper than if we tried to source it ourselves and even that is up for debate as some would say stuff is expensive anyway. There are wider issues though as we can’t choose the benefits that we as a university want. It’s a tricky issue to understand and cover all of but it needs to be talked about. Tough decisions that the union makes are often related to what can be done in regards to the NUS rather than what should be done. It’s really important to present all the information to students and then say you decide.
You’ve mentioned the lack of student engagement at times throughout the year and that you want to improve campaigns to get more participation. How would you do this?
From an electoral point of view, there should be a campaign to hit 30% in election turnout. A lot of people don’t feel represented- Women’s Plus PTO ran a campaign which focused on empowering women who run and that they have an equal chance of winning if they do run. We haven’t had a similar campaign from the other liberation groups: BAME, Mature, International etc. Those will be the groups that don’t feel represented in our Union. I understand that they have the PTO roles and that is something you can run for but it should be wider than that. There should be more diversity in FTO roles too. It’s a case of running a coordinated campaign with all the PTO’s rather than individual ones. The moment you have someone in an officer position that you relate to you’re going to be more inclined to understand the decisions they’re making and what they’re doing and how that impacts you. That can be the starting blocks of greater participation.
What is the Constitutional Convention and why do you think it is important?
The last convention was in 2015/16 due to a lack of engagement. This constitution simplified the process and made engagement easier. A lot of students that are engaged have realised that this has reduced accountability and engagement. The bodies created aren’t having the expected impacts. This upcoming convention will have a look at the present structures from the ‘Articles of Association’. Maybe this will be bringing back the Union Council. Maybe it will involve actually empowering officers by altering the stretch of their powers. It is very hard to make a meaningful change outside of a constitutional convention. If we can engage students this Constitutional Convention could really change the way the Union engages students
The university did recently disqualify the RON campaign from the Presidential election and this has caused quite a bit of controversy. What do you think about it?
No one is disguising the fact that students had a movement of sorts around the RON campaign. The NUS was a part of this issue. From my understanding, it was the NUS returning officer that made the judgement call that they did. Our Union’s deputy returning officer cannot overrule their manager. I’m not trying to push the blame anywhere else, it’s an issue of looking at what the NUS does and whether this was acceptable that the NUS runs those types of things. People are missing the mark on where the mistrust and anger is being directed to and they do need to look at the NUS.
You’ve mentioned making fundamental changes to the SU’s commercial facilities, student leaders and engagement with students through campaigns. Is this all your aims or have you thought of anything more recently?
My wider message used those aims as three avenues of action. A small change that has come to light is that the Sugarhouse is called the Sugarhouse based on the fact that it used to be a sugar processing plant back in the 1600s when sugar was shipped over from the West Indies and places like that. I’ve talked with the other officers about where the decision lies to pioneer a name change if there is a decision to be made. In our upcoming meetings, we’ve talked about having a discussion about BLM and the implications of the name. I think there will be other issues like this that come up throughout the year but my plan is to use those three avenues to engage with the student population.
What is the first thing you want to do when you get back to university?
If possible I’d quite like to do a bar crawl of all the college bars. I like the environment of being in the bars. In terms of the long term, being back in the Sugarhouse would be quite fun. I miss the same music being played over and over again and bumping into people I know from uni.
What have you missed most about the city of Lancaster?
Fortunately, I have never left. I do miss the student population when walking through town and bumping into people you know. It’s one of the perks of Lancaster being a small city.
Final question, which is better Sultans/ Ketcap?
Sultans, it has to be. The food is nice and if any of the other officers answer otherwise I think we’ll be having a stern conversation.
Thank you very much for answering all my questions!