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Tom Burgess from SCAN interviewed Oliver Robinson, the new President of the SU.
How has lockdown been? Have you learnt any new skills?
The skills I have been learning have all been work-related- just learning to be President! Nothing too interesting I’m afraid, it’s all very dull stuff- I’m afraid I haven’t been getting fit or anything in lockdown but I’m still doing my best.
What made you run for your role?
The reason I ran is that I believe the Union has a lot of work to be doing over the next year and I believed I was in a position where I could hopefully deliver on a lot of that. I’m sure you’ve seen we’ve come second to last in the National Student Survey. It’s a devastating result for the Union itself and I think it is a clear indication that we have a lot of work to be doing in terms of making students feel heard. Actually engaging with them and doing what we are saying we are going to do. In my campaign, I’ve done my best to make public promises that are actionable.
What does your role involve?
I am President of the SU and Chair of the trustee board. This is a three part role, I am a full-time member of staff, trustee and political representative. I am therefore responsible but mostly in the role of political representation as SU President and for strategic oversight as chair of the trustee board.
What are your main aims going into this new year?
My foremost ambition is to ensure that by the end of my term the trustee board is fully elected. I think it is only right that the most powerful body in the SU is elected by the students. The charitable objectives are to represent and further the interests of the student body. I think the best way to ensure that is to make sure that we have a fully elected trustee board.
Is making the trustee board elected possible? How will you do it?
Yes, it is possible. You need to convene a company law meeting and 75% of the trustees will need to vote in favour of that change. It’s definitely possible. I will certainly be proposing it at the first opportunity which will probably be after the governance and democracy review works through the system, which will hopefully be some time in autumn. Hopefully, we will have this done and dusted by Christmas. That’s my dream.
How will you get the university to announce a climate emergency?
The university is reluctant to big changes like that. They don’t like making big political declarations. My job is to convince them that it is worth making the political declaration as a statement of intent to back up. Lancaster University is a multi-million-pound organisation with huge environmental impacts. We’re not as bad as other universities but I think cleaning up our investment strategy is a quick win-win.
Could you explain what Scrutiny Officers are and why we don’t currently have them?
Each FTO/PTO is meant to have two students that keep an eye on their activities and hold meetings with them, I think on a bi-termly basis. The idea is that they produce reports on how well the officer is doing. This hasn’t happened because they are a terrible way of producing scrutiny. I have a friend who was a scrutiny officer and they write reports that nobody reads and they arrange meetings that no one goes to. They are probably one of the least effective checks and balances in the entire Union. As far as I am concerned checks and balances should be the responsibility of political bodies, so that is the exec committee and hopefully in time the Union Council.
Just following up on that, are you planning on abolishing the scrutiny officers?
I plan to abolish them, they’re pointless and get nothing done. I think they are well-intentioned, don’t get me wrong. I’m not scornful of the scrutiny officers themselves, in practice they just don’t work. If something is not working we need to change that. This is not an issue of operating the process badly but an issue with the process itself.
In the upcoming Constitutional Convention, what are your top priorities for change?
My top priority is twofold: the establishment of Union Council which is something that we voted for at the last AGM and for a majority elected trustee board. I would like to see the trustee board fully elected. I think that the governance and democracy review is a great opportunity for us to hold this constitutional convention in a way that is fair, gets the opinions of students and feeds back through professionals so we can get high-level legal advice where needed. Obviously, this shouldn’t be acting as a limiter on what students want, but rather as a facilitator.
You have already mentioned the National Student Survey score (Lancaster second last above Durham) how do you plan on increasing this score?
It is worth highlighting that Durham SU has its own problems that are, in a way, even more significant than ours. Over the last year, our Union has made itself very unpopular in three ways. Firstly, there was the proposed sale of Sugar which kickstarted everything else. Secondly, we had an AGM that passed dozens of motions, lots of them are still unimplemented and untouched. Thirdly, perhaps most crucially was the ceasing of college sport. There will be big decisions to be made this year and students should be a part of it.
You have mentioned that you want to create the Union Council. Last time we had one the level of engagement slowly tapered off. How will you ensure engagement is maintained this time?
I think one of the best ways of maintaining engagement with a body is by giving it power. If an organisation or body is seen to have power and an impact it will maintain engagement. You need to make the Union Council more responsible for the management and oversight of the Union. To take jobs originally given to the board of trustees and bring them down through the organisation to ensure proper delegation of power. The trustee board should be doing one thing and that is providing assurance: financial assurance, governance assurance and reputational assurance. I hope to be leading a trustee board that takes a less interventionist stance on the affairs of the Union. There are still certain constitutional responsibilities that I set out but the governance and democracy review coming through will be part and parcel of this- setting out the different parts and roles of the different responsibilities of each element. This will hopefully balance out and create a fairer division of power.
The RON campaign was controversially disqualified from the Presidential election. What do you think about this?
It’s constantly on my mind, I think that it kicked off the year in a very 2020 kind of way. It needs to be clear that the SU did not disqualify RON but that the National Union of Students did. The Union communicated that very poorly and I believe that we have a duty to be more transparent. I am going to be trying to get those numbers released to the student body and I will be doing my absolute best to ensure that we have confidence in our elections. All the democracy reform I put through is worthless if students don’t trust that the electoral system they are putting their votes into.
What are you looking forward to doing when you get back to university?
I’m looking forward to going to bars and drinking with my friends. I’m looking forward to the reopening of Sugarhouse although I can’t say when that is going to be as it will be entirely contingent on the government. I’m also looking forward to enjoying the city, being in the middle of it all.
What have you missed most about the city of Lancaster?
I think the buzz of the place. I live in a rural area so being in a city, even a small one like Lancaster can be really good but friends above all I miss most.
Final question, which is better Sultans or Ketcap?
Sultans, they’re lovely and their curry is great.
Thank you for your time!