The Tab Interviews: CUSU Welfare and Rights Candidates
Experience and knowledge Vs. placement and advocacy
The CUSU-GU Welfare and Rights officer is perhaps the most important role up for election at the moment. An integral role which can make or break the success of the Students Unions ability to support its students, and achieve long term change which Cambridge so desperately needs. Former President of Student Minds Cambridge and Emmanuel Welfare officer, Keir Murison, put questions to the candidates and give his take on their answers and suitability for the role.
First, I wanted to find out more about their experience; how they had shown a commitment to welfare over their degrees and what they had learned from this. Christine clearly came out on top in this section, having held roles as a BME officer on her JCR as well as disabled officer on WomCam. While both pointed to their personal experience of using different services in Cambridge and that they have written personal blogs posts about their experience, Wali seemed to have focused more on less related projects such as the Law Society and RAG. Christine said she had ‘learnt from these experiences [that] welfare is political. Welfare is not a one size fits all, and it is important to adapt support to the individual so that they can have their specific needs met.’
On the topic of their own lived experience around using the support services, Wali said she understood the ‘importance of easily accessible, holistic welfare, which I believe can make a great incremental impact on wellbeing’ , with Christine focusing on her ‘inside knowledge of the strengths and weakness of the current system and [I] know exactly what I think needs to change.’ Ultimately both candidates are clearly driven by their own experiences and desire to make them better, but perhaps Christine better highlighted the need for change in the systems rather than just more visibility.
Voting should really be about policy over personality, and on the question of how their policies will address the greatest issues with welfare in this university, there were more differences in focus.
Wali again highlighted her own experiences which left her feeling that she 'had to have a really big problem before approaching the university or asking for more support. I refrained from doing this because I felt like if I did try to access services like the University Counselling Service, I would be taking resources away from more serious cases.’ Her ideas included ‘facilitating continuous access to daily forms of welfare, improving visibility, and by making sure everyone feels included. By taking a holistic approach to continuity, I want to help all students get daily forms of welfare through things like discounts and arts and crafts throughout term (not just week 5).’ An interesting idea, but seeing as most of these ideas are already carried out by JCR welfare officers, it remains to see how effective they would be at a university level. Furthermore, Wali said she ‘will increase the visibility of welfare services like the Advice Service by pushing for all colleges to promote this service on their websites and social media.’
Christine believes that ‘lots of the biggest causes of the problems with welfare at this university exist on a institutional level – lack of policy on sexual misconduct, the structural racism and misogyny that exists within academia (that results in attainment gaps), oversubscription to and the lack of funding of existing services such as UCS and the DRC, unfair disparities in tutor training between colleges, and much more.’ She saw her role ‘as to broaden out support beyond the existing services, so that less students reach clinical levels of distress before being offered help. I want advocate for all colleges to get in-college counsellors and I want more thorough and inter-cultural training of these counsellors and other college-facing staff. I will also push for colleges to offer more workshops that tackle a variety of the issues that have an impact on the welfare of students on an individual level, such as things like sexual health, sleep hygiene, neurodiversity and disability, stress management, and more.’
Another interesting idea, but perhaps over ambitious due to the time constraints on students limiting how many will actually be able to turn up to these.
I also asked them if they could fix only one issue with welfare in the university what it would be, to try and find out where they thought the deficit existed most. Christine echoed one of Wali’s earlier points about reaching out; saying ‘The fact that because Cambridge is such a high-pressure environment, there is a culture where stress and misery is normalised. Because of this, so many student's don’t believe they need or are entitled to welfare support.’ Wali returned to the issue of visibility, saying ‘the change with the widest reach I would make is an increase in visibility. You can have great systems in place, and Cambridge does have some good ones, but they won't have an impact unless people know about them.’
Continuing the theme of extremes, I wanted to know what the candidates thought the hardest part of the role would be. Similar answer’s here from both candidates – Wali saying ‘achieving structural change at the university level as I'd have to resiliently fight before bodies and committees that may not always be open to it. I plan on dealing with this by using well-structured arguments focusing on the lived experiences of different students to show those at the top the problems with current systems and then developing a plan for change.’
Christine thought that ‘tackling and pushing against the fact that lots of the most powerful people involved in the university are people who have more of a vested interest in the results of the students than their welfare. However, I believe it's within the interests of this university to fix the problems of welfare for the sake of it's future – this university cannot and will not remain as respected as it is if it fails to put the wellbeing of it's students (as well as a lot of it's staff), first’ Again, while similar in response, it seemed like Christine showed more understanding about the reasons behind the difficulties rather than just identifying the issue.
Finally, because I’m mean, I asked why each person thought they were better than the other for the role. Christine noted that she ‘had a lot more experience than the other candidate, who has virtually no experience working with students on any anything welfare related in a university setting. In my manifesto my policies address more specific issues and more importantly give concrete solutions to them, whereas I feel that her policies appear a lot more vague. For example, I acknowledge that financial difficulties are a huge problem that take away from the welfare of students, but while my opponent only suggests things like discounts (which largely already exist for students), I suggest focusing slightly bigger issues like hardship grants for intermitting students. She mentions the need for making welfare provision not only something for week 5 but throughout term and addressing disparities in service provision between colleges, but she does not detail what that entails.’
Wali was keen to stress that she did 'have a wealth of experience and expertise that makes me best suited for the role. In Malawi, I worked with Legal Aid to defend destitute prisoners who would have otherwise had no one to protect them. I have done internships with the World Health Organisation and UNICEF, fighting for groups the system had abandoned. I was part of the RAG Central Committee and have been Social Secretary for CULS. Throughout all these experiences, I have developed the advocacy and negotiation skills which are essential for any Welfare and Rights Officer.’ Also noting that ‘In terms of my policies, I am more dedicated than my opponent to cater for the welfare needs of students who may feel as though the system has left them behind.’
After going through all of their responses, it is clear that both Wali and Christine are very personally motivated by their personal experiences but also their observations of Cambridge life. However, throughout, it did seem that Christine had a better understanding and experience of the reasons behind the problems and would had clearer ideas going into the role. That is not to detract from Wali who does point to a number of professional placements that she hopes will help her in the role, alongside wanting to look at groups of people that might not always receive full attention, and like any role, she will be able to learn on the job.