With seven candidates competing to replace Naomi Armstrong as VP Welfare & Diversity, tonight’s debate was tipped by many to be the most exciting of the week. It appears that they could be correct, with some genuine polarities being revealed tonight, in stark contrast to the previous two debates, which were both heavily criticised for featuring candidates of near-identical dispositions. Jack Sheeran and his eclectic variegated socks returned to chair the debate, with it proving to be a genuinely electric insight into a variety of people’s views on how to improve welfare and diversity within the university, with everything from mental health to estate agencies being raised.
Leah Fuller dominated the opening buzzer round, collecting a commanding five points to a second-place tie between Lucy Curry and Alec James’ respective scores of two. Laura Howard, Will Vasey and Paul Rota all scored one point. Mikhaile Perkins was unfortunately less successful, failing to score a single point during the round.
With Mastermind out of the way, the debate fired into gear. Sheeran asked each candidate to present their core policy; Vasey proposed a ‘Magic Nightbus’, designed to get students home safely, whilst Rota called for the university to leave the “regressive left-wing NUS”. Howard promised a “Strong Start” program to put those with physical and mental conditions in touch with the right people. Curry was determined to raise the voice for majority and marginalised groups in order to ensure universal support, whilst Fuller wanted to let people with similar experiences meet each other to help cope with their respective aftermaths. Perkins unveiled a motion to coordinate and promote mental disability workshops in order to help as many people as possible, whilst James promised to increase student subsidies to encourage more inter-student support.
Can we get a shout out to the Estate Patrol as well? They are incredible help to students on nights out. Caring and Kind #ExeterVote
— Matt Hacke(Y) (@MattHaacke) February 10, 2016
The issue of whether there was a diversity issue on campus was met with a variety of responses, with Curry commenting that certain groups feel uninvolved, and the need for a more diverse discourse, a view echoed by Vasey and Fuller to a varying degree. Howard proclaimed that certain groups were underrepresented on campus, and highlighted her desire to resurrect Diversity Week to try to combat this. Meanwhile, Perkins pointed to what he saw as the already diverse nature of campus, but also decreed that student’s needed to be treated according to their needs, noting that far more needed to be done to support and engage students. Rota took a different approach, stating that we shouldn’t be scared of diversity, and to say no to cultural appropriation.
As for the question of whether Exeter was a safe space or not, all candidates agreed that, whilst Exeter was a relatively safe environment, more needed to be done to ensure people’s safety. Howard, Rota and James all called for more awareness of existing services such as the WiD and Voice, whist Curry and Fuller both urged students to look at the success of last year’s #NeverOK campaign, whilst also encouraging more aftercare for those affected. Perkins went down a different route, suggesting that the University works more closely with the local community and police to expand local support.
Vasey used this as an opportunity to roll out his trademark policy of the ‘Nightbus’, an initiative pioneered by other universities which would loop around various locations in order to get student’s home safely. James raised the fact that Voice are always on hand to offer advice and walk people home. Indeed, the student helpline, received considerable praise throughout, with the majority of candidates citing the need to increase awareness of the line, which will change its name to Student Nightline next year as part of a rebrand. James called for it to be included in Fresher’s Week packs, and Howard and Fuller both recommended that it be displayed on My Career Zone.
The most noteworthy portion of the debate, however, was when Rota was asked to give his opinions on the Liberation council, citing them as “useless”. This prompted a fierce response from Curry, who defended the Liberation Council’s history and pointed out last year’s hugely successful campaign against the Tampon Tax, which was run by the same council. The response itself prompted the single largest round of applause from the night. Sheeran himself stepped into the ring briefly, asking Rota how he could stand for a position for welfare and diversity and want to abolish a council that is encouraging diversity across the campus?” In response, Rota suggested creating individual reps, questioning the need a council, and stating that a council is simply an “echo chamber”.
Perkins also threw his hat into the ring when he was asked to clarifying his point about fighting for students without bias or prejudice, citing Rota’s call for a ban as “absolutely disgusting”, a point which earned him applause, whilst proclaiming the need to “value those with a difference”.
Following on from this debacle, Vasey, James and Rota were all queries on their lack of policies concerning religion, a point which was agreed on by every candidate was down to the fact that people have, in Vasey’s words, “discovered the idea of giving religious groups more space”. Rota echoed this view, whilst citing the manifesto’s 500-word limit and promising to give them more support. James rebutted the point by citing his faith as the foundation of his manifesto.
When the time came for the audience to ask questions, the opening selection primarily constituted of Rota-baiting, with questions of his reasoning to run and comments of “if he’s a joke, he’s not a funny one” emerging from an audience that was largely hostile to his most notable policies. Rota in response asserted that he was the only one willing to hold another referendum on leaving the NUS, due to his belief that student opinion regarding the organisation has radically changed in the past year or so. He was then called out on his lack of actual campaigning, which led to him announcing that he “did not want to become a part of the Guild”.
The controversy returned with a discussion on trigger warnings, which was supported largely supported by most candidates. Indeed, earlier on in the debate, Howard called for trigger warnings to be placed at the start of all relevant lectures, in order to assist students suffering from relevant conditions, calling upon her own experiences with content. Rota disagreed, testifying that coping with triggers was not aided avoiding them, a point which Mikhaile again bit back at, proclaiming “if you take away trigger warnings, then you do not care about students”. The point was followed soon after by an attempt from the audience to raise the issue of donating part of one’s salary to charity, a debate that was swiftly shut down by the chair.
Everyone still thinks the elections are based on popularity. Please, please believe me when I say they're not. #ExeterVote
— Roy Osborne (@ROsborne4lyf) February 10, 2016
Nevertheless, all candidates agreed that sporting opportunities should be expanded to help those with mental conditions, whilst they also agreed that more had to be done to support postgraduate students, with James reciting the time he met a postgraduate student who had to live in Dawlish in order to access the appropriate housing. Housing reform also proved itself to be a universally-supported issue, with Fuller promising to lobby estate agencies to release houses later on in the term to prevent student’s from being left out. All agreed that more had to be done, with Vasey citing his desire to allow second and third years to mentor younger students, whilst also creating an estate agency operated by the University, akin to the one in Bristol, although other’s called for changing the culture surrounding it to be the major priority.
Unlike the previous two debates, sparks certainly flew tonight as candidates clashed on a number issues. With that said however, the vast majority of concerns were, as with the previous two debates, met with a broad consensus, albeit with a greater variety of ways to tackle them. Nonetheless, the candidates were far more defined this time around, a factor that will certainly aid in determining our next VP.