Elections: VP Academic Affairs Candidates' Interview

Alex Bees quizzes the Academic Affairs candidates.

Voting has already opened but in case you haven’t made up your mind yet we at The Tab have been all over this year’s elections like a Portswood tramp on Special Brew. So we’ve brought you a selection of questions fired at the five candidates for VP Academic Affairs to help you decide who wins your vote.

1. Students want more exam/coursework feedback, how are you going to achieve this without pissing off the academics? Just the one hour of tutorials a week already interrupts their ‘very important’ research.

Sophie Kamperis: Firstly, it is important that academics get the balance between teaching and research correct. The attitudes of many academics are very negative, and create a barrier to communication. I want to work with the Dean of each Faculty, to push for what students want! Also many postgraduates cover tutorials too, so that partially solves this issue.

Sasha Watson: It’s a top-down approach – with the Faculty restructure, academics have a clear line manager now, all the way to the Dean of the Faculty, so it’s about ensuring pressure is applied when standards aren’t up to scratch. I developed a Benchmark for feedback, which I want to use, and I’ve had senior University staff agree with me that if people want to just research – well they can leave and do so.

Mairead McGuirk: If they give more feedback we can write better essays so in future they’ll need to give less feedback as our essays will be good so we’ll be happy with a good degree and they’ll have time for research. Plus make it easy for them by giving them a guideline layout for giving feedback.

Oli Bills: Firstly, it does have to be said that Southampton is of the quality it is because of the ‘very important’ research that the academics produce. Having spent time working with them, I do know the pressures that they are under. Sometimes, they do need a bit of a push and a bit of pressure to get the feedback sorted and up to an acceptable standard as set by the university, which we do need to do. However, given that there are limitations on their time, I’ve tried to focus on purely realistic goals and trying something new, hence my suggestions for peer review with students learning from each other’s work and giving feedback to each other to fill the gaps. Other methods of feedback, such as feedback before marking from the lecturers based on previous performances or feedback from students of previous years are also important and realistic options.

Rachel Stockey: Firstly, I want to share best practice between faculties because some (namely Humanities) have a great system and a little communication could help introduce some of these practices elsewhere. Secondly, with the introduction of the new e-submission system the amount of feedback given can be monitored, I want to use this tool to make sure feedback is of a decent standard. As for the academic’s research, I know we are a research led university, but we are a research lead UNIVERSITY an educational institution so I want to introduce incentives for staff to show them the importance of their teaching duties.

2. SUSSED is in a dire state, what are you plans to sort this out?

Sasha: Already on it – SUSSED is due to be replaced in September 2012 by a thing called Sharepoint – it’s currently going through the process of getting a final bid for money approved, then it’s all systems go. I’m currently working with iSolutions to make sure it has everything students want, the most useful links are on the homepage, and that you don’t bloody log out every 2 seconds…

Rachel: Yes SUSSED is ridiculous, it seems as a university in general we are playing catch up with our online resources in comparison to many others around the country – this is not a good feeling. The replacement is coming but they are taking their time with the launch but if its not rushed hopefully it will be worth waiting for. However in the mean time lets challenge iSolutions, SUSSED has been this rubbish for all my three years and I want to find out why and see if there are actually any realistic short term solutions.

Oli: I’m from ECS, so I do have a technological background but Web Science and my experience means that I’m not just thinking about the technological considerations. We need to listen to student opinions and make SUSSED the product of what we all want to see – it should be something we want to use, not something we want to avoid. For example, in the past, students used to be able to use SUSSED to be able to put up adverts on SUSSED and perhaps that’s something people would like to see again, along with many other possibilities that would make it a useful student resource (Less than about 12 clicks to get to results would also be nice!). Working with the Director of Education, iSolutions, the research and innovation team and the other research teams across the university, with both the technical and social knowledge, we can fix SUSSED – even if it ends up being a student-driven project and offered as a (better) alternative to SUSSED rather than a replacement (at least at first).

Sophie: Things are being done to SUSSED, to sort out the state of it! It’s a working progress

Mairead: SUSSED is being overhauled as we speak and a new and better version is currently being trialled by students (me being one) which is more user friendly and will work.

3. Socially aware students aren’t doing enough (or any) independent learning. How do you want to change their attitudes’?

Mairead: Make it easier to do extra reading by having the journals and books that are useful easily available. Remind them that you only get out of your degree what you put in so it’s in their best interests to do some independent work.

Rachel: I think that’s a rather broad generalised statement that many socially aware students would disagree with. However independent learning is the key to achieving the best grades and many students can be complacent about the amount of research because a passable grade is achieveble without a vast amount of independent learning. I think to combat this tutors need to put more emphasis in marking schemes on student’s own ideas rather than regurgitating lecture notes and other academic’s arguements. Students can be very opinionated, lets channel that into the academic work.

Oli: I think this is joined together with some of the problems already discussed. Poor support and poor feedback can very often lead to people becoming demotivated, just accepting what they get and becoming disenchanted with the whole process. With stronger support, feedback and encouragement, people can become a lot more engaged and a lot more interested. When they know what they’re achieving, what they can achieve and how to achieve better, it can be quite a different experience. Reinforced with a better support community and more opportunities to engage with other students in an academic environment along with the potential for extra-curricular but enjoyable academic activities, I believe a lot of attitudes could really be changed and that the academic side of university could become so much more than it is now.

Sophie: To be blunt, it’s their degree, they can take it as seriously as they wish.

Sasha: You can’t force people to independently study – we’re not nannys, we’re officers who ensure that the quality of education that they receive is up to scratch, and it’s up to people to engage. There is something in making people aware of what is available though, so I want a “Transition to University” module in first year to help people settle in and understand what is really required from University.

4. If there was a candidate to beat you to the position, who would it be and why?

Sasha: You bastards, I’ve trained 3 of them! It’s like asking a father to pick a favourite daughter! Seeing as I didn’t come from a background of student representation, and I picked up the ropes pretty quickly and have achieved a lot, I don’t think experience is vital (although it helps)… I’ll go for RON because they never win. No idea how I’ve managed to successfully squirm my way out of that one…

Oli: I think it’s fair to say that I’m in the underdog in this running. I’ve done my research, I’ve thought out my ideas, I’ve worked hard, but running against the incumbent, Sasha, is no easy task. Firstly, he has his support network behind him from the previous campaigns and the connections he’s made over the last year. He’s also able to talk about all the issues that have been raised and dealt with other the past year, many of which are not public yet, so are obviously harder for the other candidates to comment on. I’ve been trying to focus on the issues, the job and what matters to me, but when it comes to voting, it’s more likely the lecture shout-outs and night outs are what people remember…

Sophie: RON (Re-Open Nominations) because of his superior election experience.

Mairead: Probably Sasha as people like to go with a name they know and he is the most well known candidate.

Rachel: This is a tough question, I think I would have to say Sophie Kamperis because I think it is important that the sabbatical team changes each year. We need fresh ideas and fresh enthusiasm with SUSU experience and as the person  who is running for the first time with most SUSU experience apart from myself I would say she’d be pretty good.

5. To coincide with the tuition fee increase what are you going to do to ensure students are getting the most for their money? For example some Geography students have only 5 hours of lectures a week, yet an Engineer has over 20. They both pay the same fees, this doesn’t seem fair.

Oli: It’s not all about the contact time, there’s a lot more to university than just the taught hours. For example, many fourth year courses have significantly reduced contact hours compared to the earlier years, but that’s not an indication that students are not getting as much value for money. Different courses have different styles, although it is important to make sure that students are getting the chance to learn all they can, which is again where feedback plays an important part – if students don’t feel they’re getting what they want to out of their course, this would require urgent attention. Beyond contact hours, one of my lecturers at the start of university said to me that university was as much about learning from each other as it was learning from the academics, which again is why I put a lot of emphasis on the community in my manifesto and why I’d like to take things further with learning beyond lectures, be it discussions and debates on interesting and topical areas or constructing a Unipedia, a Wikipedia-alike resource for all university knowledge.

Mairead: Make sure that every student gets the best quality of teaching they can, by giving them access to the new research that is coming out of this university as well as making sure there is enough support from academic tutors as well as access to the resources they need.

Sasha: The difference in hours comes from the different ways in which the courses need to be taught – you can’t go home and reflect on critical theory of engineering – it’s either right or wrong, whereas for other subjects, independent learning is much more important. What I want to look into though is having optional seminars, taken by PhD students, for people to discuss issues/ ask questions.

Rachel: The very varied number of contact hours between subjects is definately a point that is arising again and again in conjunction with tuition fee discussions and as a Humanities student I have asked that exact question. For me the answer lies in employability. I want students to know that they are not only going to have a great course but that Southampton will boost their job prospects with internships, the Grad Passport and total support through the job application process. Every student comes to university to boost their employability prospects so that is exactly what I want to do.

Sophie: Tuition fees aren’t fair, we are all paying the same amount but don’t all get the same back! You pick your degree, before you go to uni, knowing that you will get a certain number of contact hours! However it’s important we maintain the quality of the each course so that you get the most from it!

6. We all know a degree from Solent is useless, how do you plan to continue to belittle the ‘students’ over there?

Sasha: Ha if you get anyone actually answering this political timebomb in the way that you want them to I’ll be amazed…

Rachel: You mean the knowledge that they are just pretending to go to university isn’t enough? Of course it’s not my mistake, team up with one of our awesome I.T students get them to hack the Solent mailing list so we can send them a daily ‘You’re so dumb…’ joke?

Oli: I’m biased, but I strongly believe that Southampton University is very close and well on the way to being the best university in the country. From my year in industry, I visited a lot of other universities, spoke to a lot of other students across the country and none could compare to what we have here at Southampton. Therefore, I feel we should focus on our strengths, focus on our university. The academic side, particularly feedback, is where we’re falling down at the moment, but that’s fixable with the right people fighting to make it better. There’s no need to belittle other students, but instead be proud of our university and what we can achieve, what we have that no other university has. There’s no need to compensate when you’re the best.

Sophie: Controversial…I don’t want to get hunted down and killed so I will go with, keeping up our high standards, so we are always that much better!

Mairead: I don’t plan on belittling anyone it’s not my style.

7. Finally, Tariq Manzils or Tandoori Manzils?

Rachel: Ok, I admit it, I’ve never had Manzils, I know it is shocking and I am determined to go there in the very near future, I have heard the one furthest away is better which goes against all my primal instincts when I vacate Jesters so usually end up settling for Chic O Land cheesy chips.

Sophie: I’m more of a Gandhi’s fan!

Sasha: Tariq of course (I think – the one past the “oshit” car garage). Well worth the extra 100 metre walk, even if that that does take about 10 minutes after a Jesters night out. A Tindaloo is dynamite for the mouth, but it feels so right!

Mairead: Tandoori Manzils.

Oli: I’ll be honest – Without having tried either, I don’t think I could pick one…

It’s looking like Sasha’s got this one in the bag and could be spending another year here but he’s closely followed by ECS’s Oli Bills. Oli knows where he stands amongst the other candidates and is taking full advantage of his underdog position. Both Oli and Sasha have some great responses so it’s looking like a two horse race between those guys. The Biology girls (Sophie and Mairead) and Rachel don’t seem to have that drive that the boys radiate.

Voting closes at 6:30pm on Thursday so make sure your vote counts. Vote here.