Head of Xpression FM News, James Woolcock, hosted the VP Welfare & Diversity debate last night, undertaking the difficult task of scrutinising all eight manifestos in the limited time available.
All candidates assembled on stage in the Forum: Samuel Shie, Olena Savytska, Nicola Wong, Louise Ord, Jess Cassidy, Hope Hughes, Hayden Cooper and Katalina Karamani. Woolcock opened the debate by allowing each candidate one minute to introduce themselves.
Shie drew on his campaign strategy for his introduction by emphasising the open door policy he would champion: “talk to me about anything”. Cooper opened with the promise of “radical change” with mentions of his ties to various welfare oriented societies. Savytska made it clear that her focus would be international, while still looking after home students. Wong introduced herself as a candidate who would draw on existing diversity to build a strong community. Both Ord and Cassidy made heavy references to mental health in their opening statements. Hughes, like Shie, also made it clear she would make herself accessible as a VP Welfare & Diversity for all students. Karamani closed the opening statements by heeding calls on Twitter for policies, mentioning her self-defense and meditation classes as ideas to push.
After all eight had given their speeches, Woolcock made it clear he was taking no prisoners. Having carefully researched all the manifestos, he began directing specific questions at candidates.
Cassidy was asked about how she would fund her idea to subsidise graduation gowns. Xpression FM had crunched the numbers, estimating it would cost over £200k. Cassidy indicated that tuition fees raise enough money to allocate money if the university considers it important. She suggested the university should provide the gown rental as a parting gift for studying at Exeter.
Next, Shie was asked about his idea to expand the #NeverOK campaign against sexual assault to include anti-racism, and whether conflating the two missed the point. His reply referenced the numerous instances of racially motivated abuse encountered by his friends, suggesting prejudice could be intersectional.
Savytska was asked why her manifesto points were stronger than other candidates, to which she replied that larger problems needed to be broken down for smaller ones could be solved.
Ord, a current postgraduate student, was asked how her perspective differed from those of her undergraduate competition. She referenced her knowledge of the changes to treatment of PhD student teaching staff, citing the difficulty of being treated as part time workers and working enough hours to support studies.
Hughes was questioned on her stance on drug testing kits, specifically whether their provision would encourage use. She claimed it was naive to think the Guild could seriously change drug consumption habits and instead the Guild should focus on supporting student welfare.
Cooper was asked about the reference to PREVENT in his manifesto. He said the university had an obligation to inform students of its discriminatory effects and that he would challenge it.
Karamani was called up on the fact that not all her manifesto points from her existing Guild position had been completed. She pointed out that her term is not over and that there is still time to fulfil her promises.
Lastly, Wong was asked to detail her plans to move the Advice Unit. She suggested it needed a more central location, perhaps swapping with a potential society space.
The infamous quick-fire buzzer round put the candidates to the test with questions on meal-deals, prayer rooms, ILPs, Nightline, FXU, Residence Life Teams, ISC, the accessibility room and vegan meal options. Ultimately, Karamani won the round with 5 points, Shie came second with 3, while Hope, Jess and Louise came joint third with 1 point each.
Questions from the audience came next.
The first asked about candidate support for a Rent Strike or alternative policy to housing issues. Cooper was quick to reference his work with the housing coop and was clearly engaged with the issue. Hughes pointed out that a blanket strike couldn’t be imposed in case students suffered as a result, with Ord and Wong agreeing. She also clarified that a housing coop was in her manifesto. Cassidy referenced the role of the Guild in publicising efforts to tackle housing issues.
The next audience question asked how candidates would make campus more accessible, for example to students and visitors in wheelchairs. Karamani suggested more ramps in A&V to help access. Ord forwarded the idea of accessibility maps to clarify the existing accessibility routes through buildings, with Wong and Savytska agreeing. Shie reiterated that he welcomed all students to come to him with accessibility ideas for change. Cassidy countered this by suggesting some students would not be forthcoming and that the VP should encourage societies to make the first move. Cooper suggested the appointment of a disability officer to help facilitate a full discussion of the issues.
The third question concerned representation of religious students. Karamani said multi-faith prayer spaces on both Exeter campuses was a priority for her. Cassidy suggested an integrated calendar of religious events. Shie made a point of thanking the chaplaincy for their current work and advocated broadening #NeverOK to tackle religious discrimination. Wong suggested making local links with religious groups in Exeter. Savytska said encouraging more events would help tackle racism on campus. Cooper agreed that religious consideration should enter into policy decisions, such as how the provision of vegan food also caters to halal and kosher diets. Hughes made it clear that she wanted religious representation to be lead by groups themselves, with her in a supporting capacity. Ord emphasised the role of strong communication with these groups.
The fourth question from the audience asked the candidates to justify the £18k salary of the VP position. All eight vehemently defended student democracy and issues of inclusion, as well as defending their own manifestos as strong – therefore worth it. Cooper referenced the recent Exeposé investigation that revealed antisemitic and racist graffiti on campus as evidence that the VP role was needed now more than ever.
The fifth question asked how candidates would work with LGBTQ+ Soc and FemSoc, after they weren’t mentioned much in the manifestos. Shie opened by acknowledging his personal experience couldn’t speak for everyone and that his emphasis would on be tackling racial discrimination. Wong was open to working with both societies but referenced her own shocking regular encounters with racist abuse as fair reason to focus efforts elsewhere. Hughes, an ex FemSoc committee member, has close ties to the society and would ensure the student record system was updated with preferred names and pronouns, for example. Ord suggested educational festivals, such as around International Women’s Day. Cassidy had consulted both societies, learning about the demand for gender neutral toilets and how subtle changes make a difference. Cooper also favoured educational opportunities like Black History Month and returned to his anti-PREVENT stance. Karamani was the last to respond, saying she would support 99% of FemSoc events unless they are too outrageous.
The debate closed by asking candidates for a Yes/No with regard to their support for TEF, the Teaching Excellence Framework. Cooper gave an emphatic ‘No’ while many other candidates sat on the fence.
By the end many Twitter users using the #ExeterVote hashtag had complemented Woolcock on his ability to hold candidates to account in the debate, although many – including candidates themselves – were frustrated by the time limitation.