SUSU Elections 2011: An interview with Sam Ling

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.

Sam Ling is a candidate with excellent credentials due to his long history in being involved in the students union. He has won an award for his contribution and within student politics at Southampton University he is well known. Now he has decided to put himself forward to have the top job of Union President of SUSU. It is this experience which Sam immediately tells me about.

“I’ve had so many incredible experiences here, which is essentially why I am running. I want to use the experience of my last five years to benefit students. I’m running for President not to be the boss, but to make changes which benefit all students regardless of background, site or course.”

So specifics – what has Sam’s experience told him about what student’s want?

“I’ve learnt that all students want something different. There are lots of different groups of students, post-graduate students, international students, mature students; and then these groups split down into even more groups. It really is about different opportunities for different students, but they all need to be the same type of quality…above all, when the union works alone, we struggle. When we have students and the union working together, we can achieve anything”.

One of the most pronounced points of Sam’s manifesto is the creation of a student housing agency. His idea is based solely on a model being done at Cardiff University. He tells me there was an initial £20,000 pound set up cost, but there is now an annual £100,000 turnover. Sounds profitable and it sounds like Sam has done his research. If he were to win the election however, would he be able to guarantee to his voters who put them there that such a plan would be in place by January?

“I haven’t made that promise and it’s important to remember that. It would be goal, but it would be rushed. My core idea is long term thinking – I’m not going to say I will rush to implement an idea like a housing agency for the sake of getting votes. I believe it could be implemented by the end of my year however.”

The Dolphin’s Blowhole has wanted to ask candidates whether they will support the transition university and union initiative. Being another prominent point of Sam’s manifesto – I comment that while a great idea, no one knows about it. I ask Sam what he wants students to think of this initiative.

“The initiative is essentially tackling the problems of climate change. I put it in because it’s important we think of our environmental impact. It’s also important we don’t just do a few quick things, the transition points out that it’s the community that needs to act rather than the students union [building]. We don’t need to tell students what to do, rather they need to tell us what to do as a community, how they can contribute to lessen our impact as people – it’s essentially a grass roots project.”

The issue of 2010, 2011 and 2012 will be the increase in tuition fees. I question Sam 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.

“Firstly, the student union budget hasn’t been reduced; it’s independent of the tuition fees [issue] as it comes from a block grant from the university and the union’s commercial services. Essentially it’s about understanding the organization, and the simple fact is for £3000 we should be expecting the highest quality. For £9000, regardless of the reason why it’s £9000, we should expect the highest quality.”

Here Sam shows us again his far reaching experience in being involved in student union politics. It was during this answer that he identified what the real threat to delivering the student “experience” by the university was:

“A lot of the problems we have are because these admin staff [which run the university courses] are severely understaffed, and that’s where the assault is going on at the moment and no one is talking about this. It’s about understanding how this works which is what matters and is why I will have success in dealing with this.”

So Sam knows his stuff. He knows about Union and University structure, and where to look for solutions to problems. One such issue he has identified on his manifesto is student hostility to 8am-8pm lectures. When we are asking for more contact hours, transparency in our fees and better quality for our courses – the university has to time table this “somewhere” I ask. How will Sam deal with this?

“the simple fact is the university has over-subscribed itself, and students shouldn’t suffer if the university shouldn’t do this…we need to know how many students this university can take. We are already oversubscribed in halls and lecture theatres than we can realistically take. If we don’t have the space isn’t there we shouldn’t take them. As part of my role of President I will do a thorough audit of that with the university to find that out…”

“Is that really your job?”

“It’s my job to make sure that the university does its job. I won’t do this alone, but by working with the university we can do it. Information is power, and if we have that information we can pressure them… by 2014, students will have a 40% stake holding in this university – and with that we have a lot of clout”.

Speaking of money – Sam has said that we shouldn’t have to pay more for our courses than we are already charged. The examples he uses are that we shouldn’t have to buy core text books, pay for field trips or fork out money for placements. Indeed, these could be very big vote winning policies and would bring a lot of satisfaction to students by saving them money – but if the answer by the university to Sam’s proposal is “We just don’t have the money”, what happens next?

“If it costs a few thousand more to run a core module which [students] aren’t paying for, then it shouldn’t be a core module. The university needs to find cheaper options”.

Accountability. It’s an issue which many candidates and sabbaticals talk about – but with a one year term in which candidates aren’t seeking re-election afterwards there is little room for it outside evidence of misconduct at a disciplinary hearing. Sam has thought of an interesting mechanism for to provide a measure of accountability through how Sabbaticals gain a reference at the end of their year.

“A single student with a grievance won’t ruin a reference. It will be a thorough independent survey of students.  The student opinion is the most important opinion – it is essentially a “risk” [for sabbaticals], but if I don’t do my job properly then I will get a bad reference for that. It really forces sabbaticals to tell students what they’re doing and how they are doing it in order to get that reference.”

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? Again, Sam has a lot of experience working at Winchester and sites which he explains to me before talking about his ideas for Winchester.

“It’s not just about a token visit. It’s about regularly visiting the site and advertising your going….it isn’t just about hovering up votes for these sites. I am extremely passionate about sites from my experience….its not an end but a start to have a president who will visit them.”

People who get involved in politics find out a lesson about being in public office very quickly, and that is the nature of external events. Hard to control and often unpredictable, an unplanned event is the opportunity to define or derail any politicians agenda – be it at the top levels of government or those involved in your student’s union. One such example in the last year which took up sabbatical time more than any other issue was tuition fees. I asked Sam how he would react to external events and his time table. Does it take into account “real life”?

“Firstly, if something big comes along, I shouldn’t drop it and forget the rest of it. Secondly, worked into the plan, is a mechanism for constant review… this is due to constant feedback from students. If it goes in a direction that students don’t want it to go, then I change. The important thing is I do have a plan.”

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? “

SL: “it’s very interesting. As a candidate, I don’t want anything said negatively about me, or anyone to pull apart my manifesto, I want votes. But the truth is, it’s not easy to make these decisions – the Wessex Scene should be allowed to comment more in their coverage. ..having debate would make it very challenging [for people to be impartial] but we would gain something from that.

The Dolphin’s Blowhole wants to know whether the democratic reforms being proposed for SUSU and the Union Council more than just superficial rebranding?

“I would say yes…a lot of things need to be improved, but to go back to my manifesto, you have to stop from the top and for me that is the AGM (annual general meeting). Let’s get the AGM right as it is the one meeting that many average students will go to.”

After last year’s AGM meeting which was described as not “ideal” by many, we move onto another topic of student democracy, the latest referendum SUSU held on joining the NUS. Was it handled well?

“I think it was healthy we had the debate, there were improvements which needed to be made. The campaign was quite last minute and too quick. It is easy to criticize the people in charge here but having worked with the sabbaticals on this I know how hard it is organize something like this and make the right decision”.

Being recognizable is important, especially when during a student election such as this one where you have so many candidates wanting to get the attention of voters. A criticism of student elections is that they are usually described as nothing more than “glorified popularity contests”. I ask Sam what he thinks of this.

“People will see on Thursday! Yes and No. I think more students vote on manifestos, on policy than we think. I talk to students and I ask them two questions. The first is why do people vote – and the answer is it’s a popularity contest…the second question is why did you vote? And the answer then is based liking policy…I think we need to push it towards policy but it’s not as bad as people say”.

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

“Vote for me because I know how to improve this union, to make things better. I have worked so hard for this union over the last five years and I can reassure you that I can make real changes. I am the only candidate who has put forward a plan of how to improve the union, I am the only one with a plan for Winchester, talked to the president and done their homework on that. I spent four years talking to students and researching this – every policy point is from students and its all about empowering you, to give you ownership of your union. So for a president who understands you and speaks your language, vote for Uncle Sam.”

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