Below is an unedited copy of the final version of an opinion piece I submitted to Cherwell. It was rejected this morning for being "too one-sided". This after me being clear from the outset the I would be "opinionated and not pull my munches". So I once again find myself publishing something on the OUSU Elections that Cherwell refuses to. Democracy is about having an opinion, and testing ideas. We can't do that if we silence the conversation.
This is without a doubt the most boring OUSU election I have ever seen. We have somehow managed to reach 6th Week without an ounce of spice to perk up the whole affair. The only exciting thing to happen so far was a Cherwell Broadcasting interview with the Presidential candidates from a skip in Somerville. So who’s to blame? Some responsibility must lie with the candidates themselves. For the most part I believe they are living in this mistaken world where being on a slate is a bad thing, and therefore they haven’t put the effort into finding candidates to join their teams. At least I hope that’s the reason, because if it isn’t, then they simply don’t care, and that means we’re all truly stuffed.
But what about the Press? Sure as night follows day, student journalists will take the easy option with a story. So while we have had an average amount of coverage, it’s mostly been bland regurgitations of candidates’ manifestos, with little analysis digging down in to the issues. Like a post-Park End chip sans a sprinkle of salt, it really doesn’t satisfy.
But fear not – your democratic seasoning has arrived.
I’m going to focus on the contested Sabbatical Officer positions, because frankly Marina, Beth, and Orla have shown themselves to be pretty well set to serve in their Vice Presidencies (Graduates, Charities and Community, and Women, respectively).
So we move to the candidates for Vice President (Welfare and Equal Opportunities). Jenny Walker is running as part of the Welfair slate, and Sandy Downs is running as part of the BackJack slate – both have showed a deep commitment to the issues they are discussing, but for me it is Jessy Parker Humphreys, running independently, who has shone the brightest. What sets Jessy apart is their clear communication of not only the issues, but how they will get stuff done. Their ideas are bold and brave, but these are accompanied by a pragmatic outlook on what can actually be achieved within the Oxford system. Jessy will face a tough election as an independent, but their unique brand of radicalism rooted in reality is what students need, and they deserve to be a strong contender.
There are two candidates for Vice President (Access and Academic Affairs); Duncan Shepherd of the BackJack slate, and Eden Bailey of the IOU slate. Both have served as representatives on Divisional Boards. Duncan has been a JCR President, and Eden (who ran for the same position last year) has experience in a number of access schemes. I’ve worked a little with both of them, and they equally show the ability to process vast amounts of information, recognise the salient points, and present them in a way a University Committee would be responsive to. They have different personal politics, and different priorities when it comes to policies, but I would be equally happy to have either one take office. You should have a read of their manifestos and decide for yourself.
Finally, we have the two candidates for President; Jack Hampton of the BackJack slate, and Eden Tanner of The Big Picture. Eden is the current MCR President at St. John’s, and has a set of decent policies on providing training for Common Rooms, Societies, and Campaigns, and bringing students together through technology – building on her experience with the First Response App. But the policy I want to focus on is her promise to produce a ‘Welfare Vision’. Similar to the ‘Education Vision’ that I worked on with former VP Access and Academic Affairs, James Blythe, this would be a strategic document, setting out beliefs of the student body on this topic and the long term campaigning points we will focus on. It all sounds very sensible, and that’s because it is. So sensible that the current Sabbatical Officers are already planning to do this, and will have it all wrapped up before the next President even takes office. And Eden knows this. It is also disappointing that Eden’s wish to remove college autonomy so policies can be implemented centrally has not been discussed more widely. I’m not saying it is wrong, but it is a radical change that would have a deep impact on how our University is governed. It deserves much more scrutiny and questioning.
Jack Hampton, former JCR President at St. Catherine’s, has a manifesto that focuses almost exclusively on the matter of mental health provision, with some minor points including visiting every Common Room each term (that’s 74 meetings in a term of 55 days). Mental ill-health is certainly a big issue, but Jack seems to have forgotten that this is also a topic very close to the heart of the current President, Becky Howe, who campaigned on a similar platform last year. To paint the picture that little is being done at the moment is disingenuous. But last year’s candidates aren’t the only thing Jack has forgotten – for his manifesto proudly states that he is “currently the OUSU representative on the Student Sub-Committee of the University Education Committee”. Except that he isn’t. He was, but he isn’t anymore. You may think I’m being petty, but precision is the name of the game when you’re a Sabbatical Officer – you can’t afford to forget which committees you do and don’t sit on.
Allied to this, at the recent hustings in Wadham, Jack had no idea of what was in the Higher Education Green Paper (this despite his slate retweeting an article about it a few days before). To put it in context, the Green Paper is the most radical set of reforms to be proposed to Higher Education in at least 20 years, and will probably be the single issue that dominates the 2016/17 Sabbatical year. And then, at the Central Hustings, we were told how the biggest issue facing graduates is funding (ok!) and that this can be solved by helping graduates apply to the Research Excellence Framework (No. Just No). The REF is the mechanism by which central government funds research at Universities. It has nothing to do with graduate students. You can’t apply to it. If I had said that in University Council, they would have never taken me seriously ever again.
For me, when I’m picking who I feel is best suited to being a Sabbatical Officer, it is less about the manifesto points, and more about who can be an effective advocate for students on the University stage. And I can’t, in all good conscience, having written what I have just now, and having seen first-hand Jack negotiate with his college, say that he is cut out for University committee life. Yes, I haven’t seen Eden in similar circumstances, and she has made an almighty gaffe with the ‘Welfare Vision’, but she knows her stuff, has shown a passion to engage every student, and will always give students the voice they deserve.
There is something I need to make very clear in conclusion, and this is a point often forgotten from elections in Oxford. Jack, Eden, and indeed all the Sabbatical candidates are running in this election for honourable reasons, with the best interests of students at heart – I have no doubt of that. But that cannot prevent us from asking serious questions of all of them.
We are about to elect 6 Sabbatical Officers to serve through one of the most important years in recent times. They will have to deal with the outcomes of a wide-ranging review of Higher Education, the implementation of the Prevent counter-terrorism strategy, any reforms the new Vice-Chancellor wishes to impose, the effects of Oxford’s upcoming Quality Assurance audit, and anything else that might crop up. These challenges need a committed and qualified team, the question is, who are you going to choose?