Guild Elections 2023: Candidate Question Time – Round 2
The second Candidate Question Time took place on Tuesday 21 February, offering students the chance to ask candidates running for Guild President, Communities & Equality Officer and Student Living Officer about their campaigns.
This year six candidates are running for Guild President: Emma de Saram, Mathias La Pira, Manan Shah, Captain ‘Trey’ Hook Tallon, Jack Liversedge and Tejas Nagpal. All of which showed up to the question time event. The pirate candidate brought some amusement to the evening, even being challenged to a duel. The message that united the candidates, was ensuring the Guild provides high quality support and opportunities to students. Mental health, better representation, the cost-of-living crisis and diversity were the themes that dominated the evening.
The first topic to be debated was looking at the functions and structures of the Guild currently and how they could be changed in each of the respective candidates’ opinion. Mathias La Pira began by proposing the need to change the advice team to wellbeing team so students can feel confident in giving feedback to the university. Manan Shah took a similar view stressing the need for options for students to voice concerns; Tejas Nagpal also had a mental health focus talking about how yoga can help with mental health problems. Interesting but not entirely related to the Guild’s structure. Jack Liversedge, who is currently Education VP and became the continuity candidate as the evening unfolded, wants to maintain stability in the Guild and by keeping its current course change will be successful over the next few years. In direct contrast, Emma de Saram wants to overhaul what she sees as too much hierarchy. The salaries paid to some staff in the Guild, in her view, belittle the idea that it is a student organisation. The pirate also wants to overhaul the system, but only to make a parrot the Guild mascot.
In relation to issues of structure, a question came later questioning whether each candidate would support electing student trustees to the board. All candidates would support this change citing a need for democracy and greater diversity. Liversedge went against the grain and stated that a job interview style recruitment was better as elections may put off great candidates.
On the cost of living, the candidates were unanimous in agreement that food is too expensive on campus. Liversedge wants a less localised solution, taking the issue further out and lobbying government and the university to create real change. The £2 meal campaign was championed by all, but each candidate wants more widely available affordable food on campus: the pirate, in an unsurprising statement, wants a university wide rum ration. The rum ration got a cheer equally as big to £1 coffee on campus, a clear split amongst the audience. De Saram brought attention to the 1/10 students who rely on a foodbank and deems it unfair that the Vice Chancellor can walk away with a salary in excess of £100,000 whilst this is happening. Nagpal and La Pira added that accommodation was becoming increasingly unaffordable, and they would lobby to change this.
Wellbeing was the preeminent issue of the evening, cutting across the cost-of-living crisis and diversity. The stress on international students being away from home was flagged by Nagpal, La Pira and Shah who also added how international students had limited access to the success for all fund currently provided by the guild. The need for a wellbeing centre was agreed upon by the whole panel with the idea of a 24-hour wellbeing hub and safe space getting nodding heads from all. The pirate, with a more useful intervention, highlighted that the university spend over a £1000 on marketing per student and only £40 on mental health per student. Liversedge did highlight that throwing money at the problem cannot be the only solution and that the systems may need changing. He spoke of better equipping tutors with the tools to reach out and help students who need it.
The last question came down to how to reverse the £6 million debt the Guild has found itself in. (See end of article for the Guild’s comment on this). It is clear to all that this will not be fixed in a year, but as mentioned by de Saram and Nagpal diversifying income streams will be important. Liversedge stressed again the need to maintain the current board as they can provide expertise on how to fix the issue, the pirate wants to cut the amount of money sent to the NUS and SUSS. It was mutually agreed that the money the university gets needs to be directed at helping students directly.
In their closing remarks, La Pira stressed that he was an apolitical candidate and wants to help wellbeing. Shah said it is time for change in the Guild, he will be more caring and utilise his work in student activism, anti-racism and EDIs. The pirate promised a year free from scurvy and full of adventure although we do not know if he won his duel so he may no longer be around for the result of this week’s vote. Liversedge stated he has a good relationship with the stake holders of the university and that this critical friendship was important to creating any change. Nagpal reaffirmed his approachability to anyone and that he was ready to deal with real problems. De Saram referred to her track record of change and is ready to be create radical, compassionate change.
We eagerly await Friday’s result.
Communities and Equality Officer
There are two candidates running for Communities and Equality officer: Mia Robillard-Day and Khurram Usman.
Introducing herself, Robillard-Day outlined her commitment to student safety, stating the work the Guild does could not be possible without students feeling safe. Usman focused on his experience as president of the diplomatic hub, emphasising the underrepresentation of international students at the University.
In response to a question on the main priorities within the role, Robillard-Day discussed the need to reflect community voices, stating “it’s important that this role is massively involved in the student community”. She outlined the need to attend in person and society events in order to take as many student voices into account as possible. Usman emphasised the difficulties of people from different backgrounds and need to ensure they do not feel as though they treated worse than British students. He said to identify these difficulties “we have to work with them and engage with them”.
Speaking about his role on the diplomatic hub, Usman outlined his work with students from different backgrounds. He spoke about his inviting the Spanish ambassador to Exeter to speak about his diplomatic experience, and how this work would prepare him for the challenges of the work
In response to the same question on experience Robillard-Day spoke about her year in industry creating a new diversity and inclusion strategy for the company; her work with Exeter’s student led charity Sit Down and Shut Up, putting together events on student safety and LGBTQ+ inclusion; and running social media activism through her account Recovery With Mia. She stated through this she frequently talks to Exeter students about their issues and mental health struggles, preparing her for a role in which she would “act as a sounding board for many different students”.
A question from the audience asked what practical plans the candidates had if they take office. Robillard-Day spoke about her ideas with Manan Shah to create a cultural competency board in order to ensure student activists who work in areas of EDI at the university get paid for their labour. “It’s really important that we uplift these voices and make sure there’s paid opportunities for them to be heard.” Usman spoke about the need to identify student problems, highlighting inflation, cost of living and accommodation cost. He focused on support for international students through increasing the hardship fund limit and minimising cost of living.
When asked how he would help to promote and strengthen the Guild’s advice service, Usman stated “the Guild’s advice service is very effective but we can make it better” He spoke about the limited help available for students, stating this gap should be filled by using the resources of the Uni.
Robillard-Day also spoke about the hardship fund, pointing out that the Success for all Fund is limited for international students. With regards to the Guild’s advice service, she spoke about the need to diversify the way the university offers services, stating “as an autistic person a lot the time the things on offer are too difficult for me or too stressful for me to access.”
Following this, when asked what should be done to achieve equality amongst the student body, Robillard-Day argued that the most important thing is to “uplift student voices as much as possible”. Different parts of the student community should be heard, Robillard-Day said, and this could be achieved through Guild Drop-In Sessions and other opportunities that people can contribute to. She stated that Guild Officers should be more present for students, and that there should also be more opportunity for one-on-one contact, as Robillard-Day herself did not know about the Officers until recently.
Usman focused on the experiences of international students, and how there should not be a divide between them and British students, as international students should feel that “they are equal”. Usman acknowledged that students have different backgrounds and face different social and cultural issues, so this should be recognised. As some international students can experience language barriers, Usman argued that there should be ways to improve international students’ confidence, particularly as they may feel alienated by the different types of communication in societies, or intimidated by the confidence of native-speakers. Usman emphasised that there should be support on a monthly basis. Usman also touched upon how the issues international master’s students face are even more acute, as due to only having a year of study Guild services may seem unreachable. Accordingly, there should be changes to make Guild services more accessible for international master’s students.
On the topic of clashes between societies, Usman responded that the reasons for the clash should be properly understood, to identify the problems that need to be resolved. Usman championed the importance of open discussion between societies, as this can create breakthroughs to rectify clashes. Through finding the issues, the solutions can be made accordingly.
Arguing that debate is “healthy”, Robillard-Day upheld the importance of free speech, as long as it does not result in hate speech or bigotry towards others. She asserted that “healthy debate between societies” should be fostered.
Answering a follow-up question from the Guild livestream around what should be done if one society claims that another society is impinging on their ideals of equality, Robillard-Day admitted that this would be something that would have to be learnt while in the role, and something that could be worked towards. Usman again emphasised the importance of communication in order to reconcile these differences in opinions, stating there has to be effective streams of communication to resolve conflict.
An audience member asked about dealing with racism from staff members, Robillard-Day identified this as a key issue within university, and that there are wider issues for people of any marginalised identity. Robillard-Day argued that there must be better training and that there should be a better complaints procedure, so students feel validated. Referencing the University’s sexual assault statistics, Robillard-Day asserted that, for any type of complaint, there can be fear around whether this will impact grades or one’s experience at university. Robillard-Day suggested that there should be more paid opportunities for people to develop training sessions and to improve teacher’s cultural competencies.
Usman agreed that teachers should be worked with to understand the origins of derogatory remarks, in order to prevent them in future. Issues of racism should be raised in teacher training, Usman said, and there should be active work to prevent these problems from occurring. There needs to be collaboration and communication to address these problems. Usman also argued that if needed, issues could also be communicated to the Vice-Chancellor, to find the best solutions.
In Usman’s closing statement, he expressed his understanding for issues of communities and quality, due to his experiences of difficulties from being an ethnic minority from a deprived background. Usman presented his wish to help people as much as possible, and to sympathise with any issues students may have. Usman claimed that he would “make Exeter a better place for all students” not only today, but in future, as he argued that he will work hard to make meaningful change and improve the services of the University.
Robillard-Day closed by expressing that she does not want others to feel let down by the University, as she has. Through experiencing the Welfare system and the complaints procedures, Robillard-Day argued that there needs to be change, and that new and positive policy would be implemented with her as Officer. Robillard-Day also referred to her social media activism as an example of her passion which would be applied to the role.
Student Living Officer
In the first year of this new role, there are two candidates running for the position of Student Living Officer: Cavanagh Davis-Holmes and Pip Shaw. Unfortunately, Pip was unable to attend the debate and instead a short statement was read out by the moderator. Pip’s statement drew primarily on issues of housing and finance, offering ideas on providing a ‘platform for support and legal advice’ given the 26% rise in student numbers. Alongside plans to work on student safety (creating safe-zones for those walking alone) and sustainability (suggesting a zero-waste solution with refillable stations on campus). The audience were then encouraged to visit her page on the guild for further information.
As the questions began, the audience were crucially reminded that this is a new role and that its responsibilities are yet to be established. When asked to define the role, Cavanagh responded he sees this as a ‘two-fold position’ focusing on welfare provisions and longer-term issues that require increased campaigning. Both candidates here promise to draw on the predominant issues of housing in Exeter with a rapidly increasing student body. Looking at a long-term approach, Cavanagh also suggested an annual review to address the changing needs of the student body, largely due to the current cost of living crisis and the inability of the student loan to cope with this change.
When asked how he would specifically assist first-years struggling with second-year housing, Cavanagh drew attention to the need for a ‘broader system.’ This broader system would entail information on landlords and different estate agents available to students. The discussion shortly shifted to the matter of student safety when they are not on campus, as Cavanagh highlighted the potential expansion of campus security roles and working with the local government on areas that are less safe or poorly lit.
As audience questions commenced, it was highlighted that first-year accommodation fees have risen by 7% and Cavanagh’s greatest concern upon hearing this was maintaining the availability of living on campus for those from poorer socio-economic backgrounds. Similarly, to support students with living costs he noted the hardship fund was a ‘step in the right direction’ but more short-term solutions such as loans are needed. An audience member then asked Cavanagh how he would look to help students who wish to live in houses when student numbers continue to rise, and private housing numbers remain at capacity. Initially, his response suggested adding a cap over the current limit, but that it is ultimately the responsibility of the local government. However, the guild could push to campaign and engage with them for change.
Lastly, it was asked whether he was willing to negotiate with both the local community and stakeholders and how he planned to do this. The need for communication was reciprocated in his response and he noted that there is a ‘tension that won’t be dissolved instantly’ but he will work with them regardless.
In his closing statement again focusing on a longer-term impact was a key area in his campaign. He suggested that in this first year of the role the focus would be setting ground for longer term solutions to enable greater benefits for students to gain from.
Regarding the Guild’s £6 million debt, a Guild spokesperson has commented the following for clarification purposes:
“As in our published audited accounts (2021-22), our historic ‘defined benefit’ pension scheme liability is at £5,065,714. It is a complex and an ongoing liability for the Guild.
The Guild is a member of the Students’ Union Superannuation Scheme (SUSS) which other Students’ Unions around the country are also part of, including NUS which is the biggest employer in the scheme. This is now a closed scheme (and has been since 2011) which means no one else is able to join it. The SUSS pension scheme has a funding shortfall and it is underfunded, this means that when it comes for people to withdraw their pensions, there isn’t enough money to sustain their payments over time. There are plans in place by SUSS to try and reduce the shortfall, this includes a deficit recovery plan which is profiled until 2035 and the Guild makes repayments every year to help make up the funding shortfall.
It is not the case that our pension liability has been caused by the closure of other Students’ Unions. It is a ‘last man standing’ scheme, which means that if another Students’ Union who is also a member of SUSS closes, its pension liability could be distributed amongst other SUSS member employers (including the Guild), but this has not yet occurred. The pension liability is an issue affecting many unions across the sector, and it looks disproportionately bad on the balance sheet because students’ unions do not have assets (e.g. buildings) to balance their liabilities.
It is an ongoing risk, but the Guild is working with the Trustee Board and University on how we can minimise the risk. We are exploring the option of transferring the Guild’s liability out of SUSS and into another pension scheme where we would have more control. This is complicated and detailed work involving pension experts and legal advisors. The pension liability doesn’t impact our day-to-day delivery for our students as we have budgeted for the repayments with support from the University.”