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Exeposé at the Guild President Debate

Image credit: Simon Dewhurst

Tonight saw the candidates for Guild President, James Hitchings-Hales, Joel Smith, Ronnie Henderson and Rachel Gillies come together for the XpressionFM Guild President debate, chaired by Meg Drewett. Ajay Gaur is also running for the position of Guild President but was not in attendance.

The first question was based around the issue of student experience at University. Hitchings-Hales spoke first and introduced the idea of a free entertainment event on a greater scale than SSB. He insisted that all of the budgeting was done and was  more than happy to share info. Inclusion, representation, safety and events were his four main priorities when it came to increasing student experience.

Joel Smith focused on three main areas where student experience could be enhanced. Improving resources, the library and wellbeing would to some way to ensure student got good value for money. Relations with the wider community were also important and it was essential to ensure Exeter is a nice place to live. He also proposed opening up the guild so students can see it is working for them.

Rachel Gillies wants every student to ask what they want from your guild. She wants students to see, live and love their Guild. She also introduced the idea of a Guild App in order to ensure a closer relation between the Guild and students. She also suggested that there should be healthier options in Ram and other campus services.

Ronnie Henderson opened up stating that every student has different needs. He said that he had the ability to appeal to all students whilst acknowledging that his manifesto was very broad. He added that everyone can get involved with the Guild whether it be through sport, employability or the societies.

 Smith was pressed on what facilities he felt needed addressing. He suggested there was a problem with workspace in the library. With most people taking their laptops, there was insufficient desk space. He also wanted to ensure that Wi-fi printing is available. Improving the quality of  halls accommodation, especially the cheaper ones was extremely important given the recent price rises. Gillies pointed out that the Sanctuary is a good alternative to the library when it comes to studying and this would be one way of overcoming the shortage of desk space.

Henderson pointed out that the council have stopped the University from any further building until 2015. With this in mind, it would make sense to make the space we already have more efficient. He also mentioned that there is lack of study space for postgraduate students. Hitchings-Hales remarked that the university is currently taking on 600-1,000 extra students a year. With fees tripled, the student experience needs to be upkept. There will not be enough facilities available for more students if current trends continue.

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Hitchings-Hales was then questioned on his plans for hosting an event on a scale bigger than the SSB. He said that he had been in contact with Tracy Costello, Chief Executive of the Guild, and had plans to open up the Forum, Peter Chalk and Devonshire House.  Joel Smith pointed out there was already an event of this scale held on campus.

On the issue of funding would use the template of an American University’s event with free food and entertainment promised. The alumni fund could provide £5k with the rest of the bill being propped up by private sponsorship. Hopefully, the event will grow year on year and take on a similar profile to the SSB.

Henderson said that it was admirable to attempt to create an event of this magnitude but the money raised could be better spent. The last SSB cost £65k. This money could be better spent on improving the A and V department, possibly hiring at least 2 extra members of staff a year enabling societies to run more efficiently.

Gillies agreed with Henderson, stating that the £65k should be going on other things. Gillies also raised the point that the Alumni fund may not be available every year, raising the issue of the sustainability of such an event.

The second question from the chair concerned how the candidates would represent the student body with turnout in elections at less than 40 per cent. Gillies referred to her diverse experience in wellbeing, academics and societies, as well as the range of opinions from varying types of student gathered from her focus groups whilst acknowledging the need to encourage voter participation. Hitchings-Hales stated that it would be very difficult to represent everyone, but with “passion and determination” would seek to include first years by placing Guild contact points in halls.

Henderson explained that he hadn’t represented everyone as it was impossible but where he had done, it was on a broad spectrum, citing his membership of an AU club and working on a CA project, as well as wanting to include the Penryn campus. Smith agreed with the difficulty of representing everyone but explained he would go out of his way to hear students’ views.

At this point, Gillies told Hitchings-Hales that just because she hadn’t mentioned international students in her manifesto, it did not mean she ignores them before asking him to explain the staffing of contact points in halls with only 52 paid members of the Guild and 30 halls of residences.

She continued by proposing her own Guild app idea and by asking Henderson to explain how he would keep Penryn involved, which led Alex Louch,Vice President for Academic Affairs, to elaborate on the current complexities of Sabbs representing the Falmouth campus. The candidates also discussed the inclusion of a Sabb column in Exeposé, with the potential of Cornwall having some interaction in it, with Gillies explaining she would not seek to take over Exeposé.

The third question of the evening was, “Only one candidate mentioned local community, how would you tackle issue of creating more ties between Uni and City?”

Ronnie Henderson began, saying that though it wasn’t in his manifesto, he did think that local links could be used to increase employability, creating greater links with local businesses and funding internships. Joel Smith asserted that he did address it and had spoken to Rory Cunningham. He would encourage relations with the community and create a network of support for students.

James h=Hitchings-Hales deviated from the previous answers saying though the local community was vital to students, students were his priority and using student societies would be a good way to integrate with community. Rachael Gillies mentioned cultural events such as the carol service, and using outside groups to bring in puppies, as well as agreeing with Hitchings-Hales regarding student societies bringing local community.

Meg Drewett interjected to address Gillies stating that her manifesto did not put it forward as a community issue and questioning whether it was a novelty.

Gillies responded by saying that it had been successful at other universities, particularly in Scotland. Hitchings-Hales disagreed, saying that for student wellbeing it was better to focus on Wellbeing Centre and general student stress. Gillies responded to the counter-remark, saying that it was not her only way to reduce stress, mentioning bean bags, free tea and more space. Ronnie Henderson entered the conversation to bring up the issue of Guild and university links in terms of funding and making sure that Guild grants are maintained and increased.

Questions were then opened up to the floor. All candidates were asked about the privatisation of student debt and the current student occupation of the Queens building.

On the issue of privatisation, Smith said the issue was problematic and there is a need to deal with it differently. The occupation of Queens was not the best way of dealing with it and  there are other ways. Gillies saw this as a student group wanting their voice to be heard. If this had happened when she was elected, she would work with all students to create a solution.

Henderson acknowledged that Occupy was in the national news a lot at the moment. He saw the issue as a Catch 22. One the one hand, you are making students pay more sooner or paying less but over longer period of time. Regardless of personal opinions, his priority is representing all opinions and the best way we can achieve this is through a compromise which satisfies everyone’s ambitions.

Hitchings-Hales saw his role as a Sabb candidate to be in touch with all students and when there is a valid concern, as there is in this case, the movement needs to be correctly understood. It is important to communicate, represent and understand all concerns. Smith concluded stating that communication is the key and the priority would be to speak to these students and not working against each other.

There was a question from the audience asking if Exeposé’s £16,000 printing costs were worth the money. Henderson, Gillies and Hitchings-Hales were all very supportive of the work of XMedia but Smith suggested that the money could be spread out more evenly between societies.

On the issue of maintaining the independence of the Guild from the University, whilst at the same time fostering relations between the two, Hitchings-Hales was keen to establish independence of the Guild from the University. He stressed the importance of being hands-on. In addition, it is important to have a good relationship with key figures within the University.

Henderson stressed the importance of acknowledging what the Guild actually does and the amount of benefits the Guild provides to students. Smith said the most important thing was to maintain relationships with regular meetings with University officials. Gillies found that in her focus groups, there were lots of first years that don’t know the difference between the Guild and the University. She suggested having a Guild app on the MyExeter page.

When pressed on the issue of medical students finding it difficult to get involved in the student experience, Hitchings-Hales pointed out that it was important the Guild reaches out to the Medical Society and that there voices were not ignored. Smith saw it as a matter of going out and speaking to people and finding out what students want to do.

Gillies said it was important all students feel included, suggesting that a Guild app could go some way to deal with the problem. Henderson found that this was a unique problem with integration. There was nothing to say that they cannot get involved/access grants. Practical solutions such as a drop in session to increase visibility and availability of sabs, needs to be better publicised, regardless of academic discipline and discuss issues.

Meg Drewett then asked the candidates if Rachael Gillie’s ‘Guild app’ idea was a good one, and if so, why was it not on their manifestos? 

Hitchings-Hales agreed that it was a good idea but said that his manifesto was more hands on and concerned streamlining digital communications. He stated a daily effort to communicate with students needed to be made. Ronnie Henderson asserted that it should be designed for and by students, mentioning that the current iExeter needs changing, concluding that the focus needed to be on student needs.

Exeposé editor, Jon Jenner asked a question from the audience, “Part of the role is to be a figurehead, being the voice of every student, what is the key thing about you to make you a leader?

Gillies began, saying that being a figurehead was about listening to students and approaching students, listing off Welcome Team and Love at the Lemmy. She talked about implementing what people have to say, for example the interfaith winter formal. Hitchings-Hales answered the question by saying that as a figurehead, he could move forward and show his passion in representing students. He also referenced his social and supportive personality.

Henderson talked about his three-pronged experience in representing, including as an academic representative, a community representative and as a society representative. Smith reiterated the need to represent students to the Guild and visa versa, referencing his own experience in Arts at Exeter.

The debate turned to Twitter for its next question. The tweeter had asked, not all students have smart phones, making an app unfeasible, what other ways would candidates connect with students?

Joel Smith suggested that his main line of communication would be through an Exeposé column and through a monthly email system. The other candidates were all quick to point out that such a system is currently in place, however. As she was the candidate who put forward the Guild App idea, Rachel Gillies was quick to confirm that she understood not all students had smart phones.

She wanted to integrate a Guild tab into the MyExeter website to brand the two together. She also claimed that this digital campaign would not detract from her hands on interactions with students. Ronnie Henderson agreed that digital communication was vital, he also wished to implement a space for SABBs in the refurbishment of Devonshire House.

James Hitchings Hales suggested a simpler version of the regular Guild email would encourage more click through rates and be more accessible to students. Joel responded to his critics by pledging to be visible, he wanted people to know his face and feel able to come and talk to him.

The next question was aimed specifically at James Hitchings Hales and his campaign video, which featured a sample of the song Blurred Lines. You claim to be aware of University issues, but you seem to be unaware of the controversy surrounding Blurred Lines, are you aware it could be seen as offensive.

James was very forthright in his answer. He claimed that his representation of the song was ‘completely satirical’ and that how you approach the song should be based on ‘content and context’. He furthermore claimed that his version was in fact a feminist representation, wherein he took the role of the woman. He finally did apologise claiming that he only chose the song to reach out to as wide a body of students as possible.

The penultimate question of the night was, what would your role be in the strike action of academic staff?

First to answer was Ronnie Henderson. He claimed that whilst only a relatively small number of academic staff were taking action, it was most important that the student body was being informed correctly. James Hitchings Hales called simply for open communication between the Guild and the University, as he himself has been affected by the strike action this week.

Rachel Gillies agreed that whilst it was only a small number of staff who were involved, they still constituted a voice to be listened to. She promised that it was an issue she would be more than happy to tackle if she was elected. In a similar vein, Joel Smith wanted to establish that his concern was with the students, they must be informed correctly of the issue so that a plan of action can be formed.

The final question was asked by current Sabb, Alex Louch. He wanted to know, What skills do you have in leadership?

James Hitchings Hales told the audience of his year spent as a member of the residence council during his time in America, as well as being head boy in sixth form. Ronnie listed his various Guild involvements, stating that he is president of Classic’s society as well as being academic rep on soc exec, his work with CA has also allowed him to outreach positively with the local community.

Joel Smith described how he was director of Shotgun, who sold out the Northcott with their production of Spring Awakening. Finally, Rachel Gilles, also a member of the soc exec team as faith rep, described how she helped to set up Love at the Lemmy as well as owning a shop before coming to university.

The debate concluded with the candidates being given the chance to sum up their arguments. The candidates took this opportunity to return to their manifestos: James Hitchings Hales championed inclusion, he described how he would be the Sabb to talk to you face to face. Joel Smith simply claimed that his university experience has been the best time of his life and he wants to give every student the same experience.

Rachel Gillies kept her summation short, simply claiming she will always listen and be approachable, encouraging students to ‘see, live, love’. Finally Ronnie Henderson described his manifesto as appealing to the widest range of students, encouraging every one of us to ‘stay classy’.

Dave Reynolds, Online Comment Editor, James Smurthwaite, Online Screen Editor, Imogen Watson, Online Features Editor and Olivia Luder, Online Editor

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