Student Parliament: Elections, Climate Change and Mental Health

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On the 28th January, the first Student Parliament of 2020 was held. Here is our report of the meeting.


Introduced by Union Chair, Mark Kiley, this Student Parliament meeting consisted of a variety of topics including progress on the 2019/2020 Big Plan, the BDS Policy, climate emergency and the leadership race.

Big Plan Update

Environment

Working on the environment plan is the VP International Jake Tran, VP Community and Welfare Ana-Maria Bichir and Retail Manager Michael Bamford.

They announced a partnership with the Colchester Woodland project which aims to plant 200,000 trees across Colchester which they hope to help achieve. They will also be observing how the SU produces its carbon footprint and find ways of reducing this.

Along with this, the online tracker of the Big Plan shows that the SU has now switched to plastic-free packaging for sandwiches and aims to introduce echo-friendly coffee cups by the end of the academic year.

Mental Health

This subject is covered by VP Student Experience Michael Banahene, VP Community and Welfare Ana-Maria Bichir and SU Advice Manager Sian Lovesy.

The mental health Support Service Flowchart has now gone live. This will ask students a series of questions concerning their own or another person’s mental health and then signpost them to the correct service. This came after a discussion with the Student Wellbeing service about ways of students finding what services they need and what they offer.

They are also trying to gather more information on local services, not just campus options as this also affects Colchester citizens as well as students.

A survey may be introduced to collect more student feedback on campus and local mental health services, though they are looking into new ways of communicating with students without it being just another survey.

They will reach out to charities and services to collaborate with and send a letter to the local MP in order to put more pressure on improving current services offered in Colchester. This will be done in hopes of involving other universities in the East of England in order to form a larger campaign.

Loneliness and stress are two things that can hugely affect students though they are not often talked about. Because of this, the team is aiming to introduce a new service involving 25 fully trained Wellbeing Ambassadors. These ambassadors have had Bystander, Signposting and Mental Health Awareness training. The aim is if students are struggling with loneliness and stress, they can be signposted to the relevant service by these ambassadors as well as having someone to talk to. The ambassadors will also become active in societies and sports events so these students can have more courage to go to these events when someone they recognise is attending.

Transport

Transport is covered by the VP education Laura Robinson, VP Services & Engagement Molly Purcell and the Facilities and Health & Safety Manager Harrison Andrews.

Meetings are being discussed with alternative bus companies to First Bus in order to negotiate an Essex student buss pass for more routes. A meeting will be finally held with First Bus to discuss student feedback on their services. They will also negotiate reinstating the 75 and 75B services, if not then an alternative company who does cover this route will be discussed.

They have also had a meeting about university parking with managers who say they have a long term plan in place but there will be no more parking spaces created on campus. However, they are looking into improving cycle routes and the possibility of introducing a car sharing scheme as a more environmentally friendly alternative to the issues with parking space.

Cost of Living

The Cost of Living is covered by VP International Jake Tran, VP Student Experience Michael Banahene and Sports Development Manager Dominic King.

They are going to have a meeting with Circuit Laundry on improving their services; possible action most likely won’t take place until the next academic year.

Accommodation improvements are also being looked into for the next academic year.

Outdoor equipment is unlikely to be updated due to the current financial situation of university sports ceremonies, but this could potentially be fixed in the next academic year.

The team are also working with Just Play to increase the number of free non-competitive opportunities including Archery Tag.

Food on Campus

This is the only section still labelled as ‘proving challenging’ on the online Big Plan tracker. It’s managed by the VP Services & Engagement Molly Purcell and the Bar and Catering Operations Manager Philippa Todd.

The ‘Find Your Food’ page is finally underway after being delayed due to a lack of staff in the marketing departments. Students and staff will be able to see what SU outlets serve food for dietary requirements, different categories and cuisines, ‘food from home’ for international students and what’s available on the Thursday markets.

The market will also be expanded with extra stores added, though these have not been decided yet.

My Course

The My Course section is being worked on by the VP Education Laura Robinson and the Education Manager Christopher Jakens.

The Paternoster Elevator is finally being fixed. The cars have been taken out of the lifts and the library has launched a new page which will include updates on the elevator’s refurbishment progress.

The sociology department has launched a new system which students can use to report when they have too many deadlines so an automatic deadline extension can be arranged. There are talks of possibly introducing this into other departments. The team are also working with departments to look at how they set their deadlines to see where there can be improvements.

Officer Question Time

This is a twenty-minute time window where Parliament members can quiz sabbatical officers on the Big Plan update and various other issues happening on campus. Here are the topics and issues that were brought up.

What is happening with the Summer Ball?

After the Parliament meeting, it was announced that the Summer Ball would no longer be going forward due to the SU being unable to set their target of 3,500 tickets sold by the 31st January.

Sales were pushed right up until the deadline; however it is no longer going forward, other options will be explored.

This was the first year that the Summer Ball had been set a sales target in such a small space of time; usually tickets would be sold up until April but this year it had to be confirmed with contractors by January.

Mental Health

One of the issues brought up around the introduction of the Service Support Chart was that if a student was really feeling down and didn’t want to leave their accommodation, there are very little services provided without them having to leave their room.

 In a case such as this, Wellbeing Ambassadors will reach out to students to see if they are alone and create links to introduce them to services and events.

The team working on the Mental Health section of the Big Plan are trying to avoid more situations where someone seeking help is just given another leaflet. They want to stop people being signposted from service to service and leaflet to leaflet so they hope that the Service Support Chart will take them directly to the service they need.

It was then brought up that more mental health options for disabled students should be introduced, including a chat bot which will allow students to express their feelings whenever they’re feeling down.

However, the Mental Health team pointed out that they didn’t want to duplicate things when something similar was already available online, but they did agree that more could be done to bring attention to existing services.

Removal of BDS Policy

A possible removal of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Motion was put forward by Individual Representative Matthew McIntee. The policy was introduced after Israel was found to have abused several human rights and it has since been renewed and amended by Parliament over the past few years. However, the question was asked whether it was fair to target one country with this policy when many other countries have also violated human rights. The Student Union is there to support students and help them feel at home, yet the point was that the BDS policy unfairly discriminates Israeli students.

Parliament then discussed having a referendum rather than voting for it to be removed or renewed again – giving power to the rest of the students on campus to decide.

Student Parliament policies last for three years, at the end of this they must either be voted to be removed or voted to be renewed.

At the end, fifteen Parliamentary members voted for a referendum. However, it was later decided that Student Parliament does not have this power and referendums are called either through a student idea or by a petition with 75 or more signatures. The issue will now be discussed further in the next Parliamentary meeting.

Climate Emergency Policy

A letter inviting the University of Essex Vice-Chancellor Anthony Forster to declare a Climate and Ecological Emergency has so far gained 3,000 signatures. The letter points out the University’s admirable efforts to become more echo-friendly over the past few years and should now join the other 7,000 higher and further education institutions who have declared a climate emergency.

The pledge will involve the University making a three-point plan to introduce more changes to become echo-friendly as well as becoming carbon neutral by 2030. It was pointed out that both UK and international students at the University still show a lack of knowledge on their impact on the environment and that the University would also need to work on educating its students on reaching these goals.

The letter also calls for two things to happen if the vice-chancellor were to sign it; to embed environmental education into the curriculum and an Action Plan which will show the University’s steps to achieving its zero carbon emissions by a set date with 2030 being the latest.

Individual Representative, Luisa Surdu, put forward a policy that the SU should sign the letter to show more engagement with helping the environment and also asked sabbatical officers to support the climate emergency.

Several questions were brought up such as the University’s current environmental figures and whether it would be possible to put a motion in place for the SU to declare its own climate emergency.

If the University were to declare an environmental emergency, it would need to work with people within the area and take the steps to meet these targets. This would include banning plastic cutlery used in campus food outlets

It was also suggested that the SU is already working to improve the University’s carbon emissions so there was no need for them to sign the letter.

One Parliamentary Member pointed out that people with disabilities should be taken into consideration as their needs may cause them to have a bigger carbon footprint than others.

The matter was then taken to a vote and 86% of Student Parliament voters decided that the SU should sign the letter.

Student Parliament Elections

The next policy was put forward by Jake Painter, the Postgraduate Students Rep. He said that the best way to strengthen the Student Parliament was to engage as many students as possible but there is a gap in engagement between the Student Parliament elections and the Sabbatical Officer elections.

He proposed two things; a more lively campaign season and a change to election timings. He suggested that people standing for Student Parliament have more money for campaigns to get their messages out and that timing for the Student Parliament elections is moved to the 1st and 2nd weeks of the summer term. The reason for this was so the Sabbatical elections would be finished by the time the Parliament elections came, which would mean the SU wouldn’t have to stretch its budget for too long. The Big Plan would have been decided by this point so there will be a clearer idea of the direction Parliament will go in and a full Parliament would be ready for the next academic year. This would also be before the summer exams fully start so student engagement will be more likely.

He also brought up that the problem with this proposal was that first years would be excluded from the Student Parliament elections; however this would also give them the opportunity to understand the university and the SU before taking up these positions. But in the event of a by-election due to unexpected vacancies, they could run then and they would also be able to run for the sabbatical roles.

It was noted that if this policy were to pass, it would need to go to the trustee board so money can be allocated for it before it can completely go ahead.

The Student Parliament then had two votes; it voted to move the date of the Student Parliament elections but not to re-arrange campaign money.

SCO Paper

The SCO Paper was put forward by Samira Diebre, the Black Officer and it’s a request to make the community officers’ role paid.

Samira pointed out that communities’ officers put a lot of hours each week into their role, they are given eight but she has put in much more and the hard work should be paid.

Communities’ officers have the role of organising events within their community, researching these groups and also building a relationship with them. They receive feedback from their communities and work on these. Being paid would mean more people would be interested in the role and the level of accountability would be raised.

She proposed that communities’ officers first be selected through interviews and then elected by their communities, receive a living wage salary, work ten hours a week during term times and two hours a week during non-term times, host a minimum of three mixers during term, and write an officer report and newsletter send it to their communities and social medias.

Several issues were brought up with this proposal. Including the fact that most employees within the SU who work a similar role are paid through the hours they work rather than be set a certain number of hours a week. Legally, if officers were to be set ten hours then it would be unpaid overtime if they went over this.

Several legal facts were also brought up as if the part-time officers became a paid role, they would have to follow legal guidelines including the guidelines of the SU and have a line manager to report to. The autonomy of their work would be taken away as they would be directed by the organisation.

They would also be in the unique position that, if a vote of no confidence by their communities were to force them out of their role, they would need to be employed elsewhere in the SU. As legally there would not be any ground for them to lose employment if their communities just found them to not be very good at their job, so the SU would need to employ them elsewhere such as the bar.

It was estimated that the change would cost the SU £27,000 a year to fund this. It was also mentioned that a lot of SUs in other universities were appointing their officers and that the NUS recommended that Essex also do this.

The proposal suggests that part-time officers be paid living wage but it was then pointed out that most part-time jobs within the SU are only paid around minimum wage.

However, as the debate progressed someone argued that similar roles were paid and that being an officer was time-consuming work for students who could be otherwise using that time for a paying part-time job.

Parliament was then taken to a vote. It was agreed that the part-time communities’ officers should be paid, and in the second round of votes 52% voted for the role to then be elected and selected to accompany this.

However, due to the budget and legal requirements for this, the proposal will now be taken to the trustee board for ratification and they will then make the final decision.

SU Ideas

The SU Ideas is a series of ideas submitted by students for Parliament to debate and vote on.

Men’s Changing Cubicles

The Student Parliament voted to alter the men’s changing cubicles at the gym so students can have a shower without being seen. Cubicles will have a door with a lock fitted and hooks for clothes. This was put forward in order to make the gym more accessible for students with anxiety that may be comfortable using the changing rooms due to a lack of privacy.

University Merchandise

The Student Parliament voted to increase the amount of University of Essex merchandise available in the Everything Essex store. This would include mugs and a bigger range of key chains and clothing. It was noted that this would come with high costs in new designs as Everything Essex is not allowed to use the official University of Essex logo so must design its own merchandise.

Islamophobia and Racism Awareness

They also voted ‘yes’ on bringing more attention to the growing islamophobia and racism on campus as put forward by one student. There will be a meeting held with the student who put forward the concern as well as the Islamic society to decide how to approach the situation. It was also noted that these should be addressed as separate issues as racism and islamophobia often get confused with each other. The next Student Parliament meeting is on the 25th February.

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