SUSU Elections 2011: An interview with Aaron Bali

The Soton Tab, The National Student and the Dolphin’s Blowhole bring you these exclusive interviews with seven of the eight Presidential Candidates of the SUSU 2011 Elections.  The writer is […]

The Soton Tab, The National Student and the Dolphin’s Blowhole bring you these exclusive interviews with seven of the eight Presidential Candidates of the SUSU 2011 Elections.  The writer is an avid writer in student media and believes strongly in media independence; especially when it comes down to promoting student talent and encouraging transparency within our institutions. To encourage fairness, every candidate was given an opportunity to participate and were asked questions on their manifestos, experience and election activity. Brought to you by Jonathan Bates.

Jumping straight into it, Aaron Bali immediately tells me what defines him from the other candidates:

“The main thing which sets me apart from the other candidates is I’m really concerned about the environment. I have ideas such as solar panels and allotments for students alongside doing more outreach activity  as well as making council tax automatically done online from your school straight to the council which saves a lot of paper and a lot of hassle for students.”

Aarons idea for council tax has been very popular. What was his inspiration for this idea?

“I had one of those house mates who submitted their letter late, and you then got all this hassle such as the letters and the bailiffs rounds, which as a student is very intimidating to deal with…I also found out Southampton Solent do it – and if they can do it, why can’t we? Its such a universal problem which effects students and with this simple idea we can do something very positive for students.”

Last Friday, the candidates were grilled by the student body (or other campaign teams rather) about a variety of issues, one of which was the Cube.

JB: “On Friday, after jumping off the stage to give your speech you answered a question on the Cube in which you said you had little events experience. Was this wise?”

AB: “I think this is a bit out of context. I said I had no events experience compared to the venues team or Charlie [Torrible] who has run events all his life. I don’t want to lie to voters and say I know how to run these things – but what I want to say is I want to consult them and figure out what works rather than assuming I know what’s best and end up doing nights which turn out to be a failure.”

Candidates in all positions have mentioned Winchester or other satellite sites to some degree. Visits, consultation, advertising – all buzzwords, but does anyone really have a clue what to do with Winchester and sites? Aaron Bali suggests we charter a safety bus between Winchester and Highfield.

“It will go a long way in fostering a cohesive student’s union spirit, an inclusive atmosphere. I want everyone to feel as if they are part of the same union; and while I appreciate that other sites this is still an issue [exclusion] I want Winchester to be the site where we can test these ideas [the safety bus] out before we roll it out elsewhere.”

Is the safety bus the answer to the integration of sites? Maybe, is the impression I get from Aaron’s answer. After this, I question Aaron about another idea he has for the safety bus to make more regular visits to Portswood. Does Aaron agree that the students union should be a taxi service?

“I appreciate it that some people would see it as a mobile taxi service but my fundamental concern is not that students are easily able to get from A to B but rather a real concern for their safety and well being. People have seen there have been attacks and so on in the area – and to help people new to the area who think its alright to walk home alone at night with little money there is a viable option to take the safety bus instead.”

Like other candidates, Aaron has had extensive experience of the inner workings of the students union. Also like the other candidates, Aaron has mentioned “consultation, market research and advertising” as strategies to get students involved with their union. I ask Aaron if these buzzwords will really solve the unions deficit in participation in services and democracy:

“[market] research is a means to an end. Its not a solution in itself. For example, I couldn’t possibly say I know the answers which effect post grads and international students as I’m not one myself, the issues are wildly subjective and different. The best way to deal with these  things is not to say I know best but to go and consult these groups.”

Part of Aarons experience has been his time as the Environment and Ethics officer at SUSU. In a drive to improve the “green” credentials of the Student’s union, Aaron has suggested the implementation of solar panels. However, he has again quoted the need for consultation before these were to be implemented. I simply put this to Aaron – is this a commitment to saving the world or not?

It is. I would love to be wildly idealistic and cover the whole of the students union with solar panels but at the end of the day, we need to run this like a business and make sure this is a sensible investment which will pay itself off…if you have a union president who is committed to making these kind of changes and is passionate about it you would be surprised what we are able to do.”

There is a long term plan to Aaron’s thinking on the environment. By improving the union’s “green” credentials, we have a lot more lobbying power to make the university to do the same I am told. In his role as Environment and Ethics officer, Aaron has had great success already in improving such credentials of the Students Union – and indeed the image of students in general. At the end of the last student year, Aaron ran a recycling project to collect the rubbish and waste of students who were moving out. I asked Aaron whether this scheme would happen again and how he would improve on it.

“Last year we donated 10-15 bags of clothing to the Salvation Army, and we’re looking to expand that further…the scheme we ran last year was essentially a trial and we took a lot of things away which we could learn from. There is an intention to give as much to charity as possible”

Student elections give opportunities for new ideas to be exchanged and tried out on the electorate. As well as gimmicks. I asked Aaron what was up with the cardboard robot going round on campus. With a smile, Aaron tells me its not only an example of “resourcefulness”, but also “thinking outside the box”. After apologizing for the “poor metaphor” (again another smile), Aaron links it to the issue of sustainability by saying how by using materials such as cardboard in “different” ways rather than just throwing it away.

Going back onto the more serious questions (is there such a thing in student elections?) – The issue of 2010, 2011 and 2012 will be the increase in tuition fees. I question Aaron here how he will be able to realistically achieve his manifesto point of pushing the students union and the university to improve services and give real quality to students; even in the wider context of a reduced budget from central government.

“I can’t say – because we still don’t know what the university will be doing regarding raised fees and the value for money proposition. We can’t exactly say what students will be getting for their money, but what I can say is I am committed to making sure students get the best value for money and the best education possible “

Showing his knowledge of student politics, Aaron follows this up by telling me about how students will have a 40% stake holding in university income when the fees go up. As a result of this, students will have a stronger voice in asking for improvement in services being provided by the University. What happens if the answer from the university in response to improving services is there simply isn’t any money?

“A president will have to take this into account when making decisions that this may be an outcome but to work as hard as possible regardless…you have to have a president who will work against the grain and fight for it regardless.”

As leader of the NO team in the NUS referendum, Aaron has direct experience of campaigning in student elections. Does he think it was handled well?

“It was handled quite well, we were both given adequate chances to explain ourselves, campaigning was handled quite fairly…I’m not saying it was flawless, but it was handled quite well”

A criticism of student politics is that elections are sometimes nothing more than glorified popularity contests. What does Aaron think of this claim?

“No. I would certainly hope not. You could say that so and so was voted in because of being involved in a sports society or something – so having that many members makes them a shoe in for whatever position. But when you consider that last year we had 7000 students voting, fundamentally you can’t know 7000 people. You’ve got to have a solid manifesto, a solid campaign you’ve got to put yourself out there. It’s not about who you know but how you do it.”

In these interviews, I have asked candidates what they think of media independence, which has been mentioned multiple times during this election period. The question I put forward was:

JB: The Wessex Scene has not been allowed to report details of the candidate’s manifestos or provide impartial commentary for students who want more scrutiny of the candidates or the union. Do you think this is an effective way to promote student talent and a more transparent union?

AB: “The Wessex Scene has been an issue which has come again and again during my time as my experience of an executive officer, and it is a very cagey subject because while they need to write articles and [individual writers] need to promote themselves, I understand they don’t want to discriminate against any particular candidate. So in theory, I would love to have a Wessex Scene which could which could scrutinize manifestos even handedly – but in practice it is hard to find the writing style of who would be neutral and effective enough to do that.”

JB: “So how do we get that impartiality – or those writers?”

AB: “I would float the idea of maybe utilizing external writers, which goes against the grain of having a student’s newspaper but as every student has some kind of stake in this election its hard to do that.”

Speaking of student journalism, in the months since its publication, the Soton tab has featured Aaron Bali in it’s writing several times. One such issue was over how Aaron was controversially sacked after attaining several “black marks” which are acquired from missing meetings. While Aaron was reinstated back into his position of an executive officer by Union Council, I asked him whether this was represented fairly in student media.

“I think the Soton tab is great an as alternative to the Wessex Scene as it encourages competition. As a result, the quality of student journalism has increased as whole for student journalists who want to write and students who want the news. Whether I’ve been portrayed fairly, that’s up to the Soton tab to decide. I trust students will make up their own minds on what they read.”

From the Dolphin’s Blowhole, are the reforms being proposed for SUSU and Union Council more than just superficial rebranding?

“I think that they are, by shaking up the Sabbatical, executive and student leader structure we are making us reconsider what we value in the students union. In turn, that then makes the candidates who run for these positions reconsider what the priorities of these positions are…I would like to see a lot more of an online side for Union Council with minutes being ratified online to save time. If elected, I would personally like to see more training sessions at the beginning of the year for people who go to these positions.”

Again, commenting on his experience as the Environment and Ethics officer, Aaron Bali has stated his support for the transition university and union initiative. This year he has already helped societies to work towards the goals of this scheme. He also tells me they are a feature on many of his manifesto points – being sustainable.

So, should Aaron Bali have your vote? Here is what he had to say in his final sales pitch:

“I’ve got experience. I’ve been a part of this students union for three years. I’ve got ideas which do set me apart from the rest of the pack, ideas that no one else has really mentioned, for example the environmental and sustainable side. As a candidate, I think I am an approachable person. People should know I can then respond effectively to their problems as I have done over the past few years and I think that’s what makes an important leader as well.”

More interviews to come! Would you have voted differently if interviews and scrutiny would have happened sooner? Leave your comments below!