SUSU Elections 2011: An interview with Jess Staff

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 with contributions from Helen Turner.

The thing that strikes you most when you talk to Jess Staff is her passion and enthusiasm for the Student’s Union. Jess has a huge amount of experience, having been Chamberlain JCR President, a member of the Union Management Board and the Union Council, as well as being a SUSU trustee this year. Now she is running for the top job of Union President, and she immediately tells me why she thinks she is the best candidate for the job.

“I’ve wanted this job for two years, ever since campaigning for Steve O’Reiley. I really think I can make a difference to the union; I have so much passion for the Student’s Union. I really think I would make the best president, so I hope that people will vote for me”.

So what is it that makes Jess think that she is the best candidate? The first major point of her manifesto is how she would help the university to respond to the rises in tuition fees. With the increase in tuition fees coming into effect from next year, there has been a demand that there is better value for money for students from what they get from their degree.  Jess has made a point in her manifesto that she will push the university and the students union to improve their services to be of the highest quality. With a reduced budget from central government, is it realistic to achieve this? And if so, how will she go about it?

“Well, Deborah Humphries has admitted to me that the block grant coming from the University to the Union will stay the same, and I think that will make a big difference in the experience that the Student’s Union can provide. We have a desire to extend this best experience throughout the University by continuing to lobby. We can’t have an effect on what the government are giving us money-wise; students are going to be paying 40% of the funding for the University, so they deserve the best experience. All we can do is continue to push for the best”.

Jess has six main topics to her manifesto, the first one being communication. Are a lot of her points in this section essentially just a website redesign project, to better advertise student services that a lot of people are currently unaware of?

“Yes quite possibly. However, I felt it needed to be broken down into the key problems at the moment; I don’t feel like redesigning the website is enough. I feel I need to explain to students who don’t currently use the website what the issues are with it at the moment, what they’re missing out on, what other Student’s Unions provide so that they’re more aware, as student’s might not realize these things are not on offer at the moment, and they could be. In fact they should be.”

A question from the Dolphin’s blowhole, are the democratic reforms being proposed for SUSU and Union Council more than just superficial rebranding?

“They are looking at making union council more representative of the student body because at the moment it isn’t very representative at the moment – such as where JCRs who hold the most positions turn up the least to union council. From an admin perspective, the logistics of union council such as how its run aren’t being addressed at the moment which is something I have mentioned in my manifesto.”

Jess has ordered her manifesto into various sections, and the next notable one of these is titled “SUSU meeting your needs”, which has “Transparency” as a sub heading. “Transparency” is another one of those words often thrown around in student elections, and typically it is used alongside a pledge to find out where fees students pay for go to. Being a point on her manifesto, Jess first agrees with me that it is an issue which is often talked about. Why hasn’t it happened yet?

“I don’t know. This is a question which is asked every year, it just isn’t made clear where this money goes. Even in things where we do know where money is going such as the grad pool, you really have to look for it. The average student won’t even know about it and they really need to have that option”

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?

“The introduction of a Winchester and sites position will help with this… I am hesitant however to remove this position at the end of the year, just as students start to become engaged with the position and the union. I think its very important who gets that position this year to do everything they can to get those students fully engaged with a fully integrated support system.”

Speaking of integration, what does Jess have planned for International students?

“I would like to start off with a fresher’s week [from the union] rather than a university run week…I do think they have to have their own separate events to integrate them into the culture of home students…being a ifriend over the summer, I think we should do this all year so you can have someone to ask about the culture and to just be there for you.”

Medics at the University are a huge body of students as well as faculty. Jess makes a unique point in her manifesto to give them extra representation in the students union. Is there a genuine need for this and is it fair?

“Think about it this way. There are 1200 medics at Southampton, theres also 1200 students at Winchester and they have their own Sabb. While the conditions are slightly different, they have to cross hurdles such as distance as well and there is currently no one there to represent them on that level except the School President”

More on representation and democracy. Jess mentions in her manifesto the usage of e-petitions. Like the one being used by Downing Street, if there is a petition with enough responses to it, the relevant Sabb will be forced to respond to it. A brilliant idea to get student issues quickly noticed by the Union’s leadership, but I play devils advocate to ask whether this system could be abused by a minority or hijacked by friendship circles to float ideas which wouldn’t be “helpful” for everyone else.

“I don’t believe one person could get all their friends behind them to back a petition – that’s also not to say Sabbs have to act on it, it just guarantees they get a response. If it something which people are getting really passionate about then they [the responsible Sabb] will act on it.”

Jess has experience as a brand manager at Twisted, the weekly event at the cube. The cube is a hotly debated topic in this election – does Jess think it was a success this year or are we flogging a dead horse?

“I do think it has improved from a student’s perspective this year, from a financial perspective it hasn’t and that’s because we are running two nights this year. I would like to look in too bringing it back to one night a week…”

JB: “Would you scrap I Love College?”

JS: “It would be a Wednesday night, but the premise of I love college is great. We need to really work at it to see if its viable, to get some working groups of every day students and see what they think of that aren’t necessarily involved in the students union to really think about it. I’m not saying we scrap either of them as the concepts are great but we need more student input this time around as well as really advertising and getting the hype around it. I want to see a queue outside the cube every Friday – I want it to be a place people go to every week”

Jess also mentions that we should use the cube to host other events more often such as Union films (she goes on to tell me that cinemas are really booming nationally and we should take advantage of this) alongside a single but big night club event every week.

I comment to Jess that everywhere I look on campus there is someone wearing yellow – her campaign team definetly has a presence. Are student elections anything more than just glorified popularity contests?

“I think every political contest has an element of being a popularity contest. its inevitable. I don’t think there’s anything you can do about it, but I would also view it as positive thing. Without wanting to sound arrogant, you aren’t popular for no reason. A key point of my manifesto is visibility and that’s a key theme of my campaign. I want to reach as many people as possible and I hope i’m achieving that. There’s no point of campaigning in the SUSU clique, you need to get yourself out there.”

More on student democracy. Was the NUS referendum handled well?

“There were considerably controversial issues with it, but it came together in the end. I think that in part that was by luck. I do think the referendum needed to happen however, it was the right decision and it is a question which needs to asked again. It was the right decision to run a referendum this year and I hope we can learn from the mistakes of it for next time.”

Consultation on the stags head and union building is another point of Jess’s manifesto, I ask her when we would see any changes as a result of her ideas for changing the Union’s buildings. Jess uses the “five year” business plan as an example on looking ahead. “As a Sabb”, Jess tells me, it is about looking ahead rather than just having a good CV where you can say “I did this, this and this”. Another idea concerned with looking ahead is the University and Union initiative. The Dolphins’s Blowhole asks whether candidates will be supporting this initiative.

“The energy rating of the students union is not acceptable. It’s not however a priority for students I think, but rather just us as an organisation…there are small changes we can do and we should keep doing them, but the big changes such as putting solar panels on our roof aren’t priorities for me. I would like to encourage more recycling and switching lights off in buildings”

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?

JS: ” I do think it is important writers of the Wessex Scene have the opportunity to be independent. When your a journalist, you can’t give out your personal view, you can’t be biased. It would be good if they could look at canidate’s manifestos and to look at the good and bad points of each, rather than just picking them all apart. I think you can however be independent and provide impartial commentary”.

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

“I would really appreciate votes for Jess Staff as I do believe I am the best candidate. I’ve got loads of experience from a wealth of different places. I believe in listening to every student voice, and to be really visible as a Sabb. I’m really passionate about this union and I hope people can see that. My manifesto is written by students and every point is feasible.”

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