The Leadership Race is on and we have three nominations for the role of SU President this year; Jake Painter, Uzge Saleem and Molly Purcell. Presenter Kafui Okpattah questioned these candidates on their suitability for the role and dug into their manifestos. Here is our summary of the event.
Skills they Have to Ensure the Success of the Big Plan
Uzge responded by saying that she is a persuasive person who has the rigidness to push for the improvements students want made in next year’s Big Plan. She brought up her leadership skills, which are required to run a large organisation such as the SU which represents the 16,000 students on campus and believes her confidence and passion would make her a valuable part of the SU.
Jake claimed he had the most experience within the SU and University out of the three candidates; he has been at Essex for five years studying, working in the SU’s retail department, being a member of Student Parliament for the last two years, being a course representative and helping to run campaigns such as the Leave the NUS campaign a few years ago. “In every facet of University SU life, I’ve been a part of it and that breath of experience means that if anyone can change the SU for the better I can,” he said.
Molly pointed out that she is the current VP Services & Engagement so already has insight into how the SU is run internally. She was one of the people working on the Big Plan this year in Transport and Food on Campus which have made great progress so far. She also mentioned that she was the Women’s Officer in her third year of studies and worked alongside Jake in the SU’s retail department as a supervisor in The Kitchen. “All of these are, I believe, attributes of a good leader and I’m really persuasive and enjoy negotiations with the SU and the University and the wider community,” she said.
Questioning Candidates’ Manifestos
In this section, Kafui grilled the candidates on their manifestos, asking them questions on their goals and backgrounds.
Kafui asked Jake how he planned on delivering his slogan ‘democracy, transparency and accountability’ when the SU is a private business run by directors who have no obligation to be accountable to anyone. Jake responded by pointing out that the SU is actually a registered charity on paper and not actually a business (though he pointed out that it can act like a business at times). “A Students’ Union should represent the students; it shouldn’t act as a private business,” he declared.
Jake used his experience on Student Parliament as an example of how he has already pushed for democracy in the SU through various motions because he has heard the same claims from students throughout his five years at Essex. “The SU doesn’t represent the students, that people feel disenfranchised from the SU, they feel that the SU is a distant institution,” and these were just some of the examples he used and ultimately the reason why he is standing this year. “It shouldn’t act like a business; it should be acting in the best interest of students and have a high degree of social responsibility.”
Kafui then asked Jake about his desire to run for President in order to change the SU and what he thinks is wrong with it to require changing. “If people look at the SU and say ‘right it’s more of a business than a charity’, then there’s something wrong going on there,” he replied.
“I think the way you fix these issues is not by treating the symptoms but you treat the root cause.”
Jake brought up the statistics that out of 16,000 students on campus, only 10-15% vote in the Leadership Race, “if the SU is working fine, if people really believe in the process and the body, then why are so few people participating in the democratic process?” He pointed out that if, throughout his five years at the University, he is still hearing the same complaints about the SU, then the SU needs some kind of new form. “I think the way you fix these issues is not by treating the symptoms but you treat the root cause; you change the structure, you democratise it, you make it more accountable to students, and you empower Student Parliament,” he replied. Jake also suggested that he has demonstrated his power to make these changes by putting through a successful amendment to allow Student Parliament to call referendums in order to give the student body their voice in certain motions.
Kafui then pointed out how Jake seemed to suggest elected officials don’t have much power in how the SU is run and how he will be any different. Jake replied by bringing up the controversy surrounding the rule of no manifestos in last year’s elections and how this lead students to believe that sabbatical officers had no power. He wants to change this perception and show that anything going through Student Parliament that is not a money issue (as these go to the trustee board beforehand) usually becomes SU policy, “let’s try to use this power and grasp it with both hands and then we can make changes in the SU that we want to see.”
The next question was based around Jake’s background and Kafui used this opportunity to bring up Jake’s involvement in the Essex Leaves the NUS campaign. “By not being part of the NUS means that the Student Union isn’t necessarily represented on the national stage and surely that raises some issues when it comes to accountability don’t you think?” he asked. Jake said this wasn’t true as the reason students wanted to leave the NUS in the first place was because it didn’t focus solely on student issues and had voted to abolish prisons rather than considering issues that actually affect students. The Students’ Union paid around £50,000 a year to be a part of the NUS and Jake said the key argument was that this money could be otherwise spent within the SU to benefit students directly.
Similar to Jake, Kafui started by asking Molly about her slogan and what evidence she has that she will actually ‘hit the spot’. “If I want something, I will get it,” Molly declared, stating that she doesn’t intend to ‘faff around with the semantics of things’. “I want to go in and get things done,” she firmly told the presenter.
Kafui then pointed out that despite this, as VP Services and Engagement, Molly was the face of the #SavetheBall campaign but Summer Ball was ultimately cancelled. “That’s one of the things that you didn’t get done, some voters may be discouraged by that,” Kafui pointed out. Molly responded by saying how heartbreaking it was that the Summer Ball was cancelled, but also that as a sabbatical officer she must respect the finances of the Students’ Union as well as the reputation risks. The trustee board unanimously agreed to put the Summer Ball back into the students’ hands by proposing that a certain number of tickets must be bought by the end of January so contractors could be booked. Molly said this was the most financially and reputationally viable option but unfortunately not enough tickets were sold to cover the costs of the Ball so it was cancelled. “I had to put my trustee hat on that time and that was the best possible outcome for students; for it to go ahead if they wanted it to go ahead. That’s why we came to that decision and that’s why I pushed it forward in that way,” she explained.
“If I want something, I will get it.”
Kafui then repeated Jake’s point about the perception of the SU being that elected officials don’t have a significant say and asked Molly what she would say to voters who saw her as just another member of the ‘SU establishment’. Molly said she could understand why some people had that viewpoint but engaging with the student body is important to her. She pointed out that, although the Summer Ball’s outcome wasn’t what many people wanted, it was in the students’ hands. She also pointed out that there are many opportunities for students to become involved in the Students’ Union via sabbatical officer roles, societies, sports, and community officer roles. She admitted that students feeling disenfranchised is currently a work-in-progress for the SU and people can contact her if they feel that the SU has not been making progress on this. “In terms of progress, it’s something that I feel strongly on and if students want something done, you can absolutely do that if you push for things,” she said.
Kafui started his questions for Uzge on how she hopes to achieve the goals she has listed in her manifesto, such as taking a lead nationally on issues affecting the student body at the University of Essex, developing an all-inclusive programme of events, and ensuring Essex has the best fresher’s week. Uzge said her plan is to get into the system to see how things can be done as she isn’t currently part of the Students’ Union like Molly so admitted she doesn’t know how things work internally.
Kafui asked whether it was fair to have these goals in her manifesto if she isn’t sure how she’s going to achieve them, to which Uzge responded that she doesn’t think it’s unfair to want the best fresher’s week when this isn’t an unobtainable goal. “It’s not that hard because as long as I get elected and I work for it, I’m pretty sure I’ll have an answer because there’ll be only two ends to that; either I’ve got it done or I haven’t been able to because of some very logical reason. I’ll only be ashamed if the answer is that I haven’t worked for it, but that won’t be the case. So I can easily tell my voter that this is what I did, this is how I achieved it or this is what I did, but this is the problem,” she explained.
“I can easily tell my voter that this is what I did, this is how I achieved it or this is what I did, but this is the problem.”
Kafui also mentioned that Uzge lists regular feedback from students as a means of achieving her plans but noted how surveys aren’t really that high a level of engagement and what Uzge would be doing to interact with SU members and students to ensure that she gets this feedback. “I currently am a student here and sometimes I have a lot of things in mind that I would like to communicate to the Students’ Union or would like to get done, but I never really can get it through or I don’t know a way to properly get it through,” she replied, bringing up a ‘weekly coin drop’ has an example of the engagement she would use to gather feedback from students.
Questions sent by viewers
Kafui now asked the candidates a question that had been sent to him by a viewer via Instagram (he noted that the University was a different organisation to the Students’ Union so candidates should keep that in mind): “What are the candidates’ stance on diversity at the University and how do you plan on improving it?”
Molly mentioned that she has previously passed a motion through Parliament to change her role from VP Services & Engagement to VP Community & Engagement in order to bring representation to international and liberation communities on campus – using this as an example of how she has already worked to support diversity at Essex.
Jake then said he wasn’t sure how to go about increasing or encouraging diversity when the SU already does a good job of this, so didn’t have a direct answer to the question due to it being so broad. However, he did challenge Molly on her decision to abolish the VP Services & Engagement position as they had both worked in services and the retail department and this was the most important sabbatical role in overlooking these departments. “How can you say you’re full of transparency when you then basically cut out a lot of that accountability over the SU?” he asked her.
Molly said this had been brought up by different sabbatical officers over the year as there were a lot of questions over where exactly the VP Services & Engagement role actually fit within the sabbatical team. She said the SU has a very competent commercial team and the entire sabbatical team are accountable to the commercial activity of the SU, “no matter what kind of different sabbatical roles are in the exec team, there is always going to be that accountability there and I felt that communities on campus weren’t being represented which is therefore why I put that forward to student Parliament.” She also mentioned there would eventually be a student community officer to cover the services element.
Uzge said that, being non-British herself, she knows how to help international students feel more at home by introducing more international options in food and other cultural aspects that they may be missing. She also pointed out that this was part of her manifesto and that making all this available would make Essex more inclusive.
Questions to Ask Each Other
The candidates were given the opportunity to ask each other questions, Molly started off by questioning her opponents on how they would effectively fulfil SU President requirements and responsibilities without previous officer involvement. Jake said his past experiences in the retail department, Student Parliament, campaigns and sports societies has put him in different facets of the SU; SU President wouldn’t be his first time in a leadership role as he has helped run campaigns and societies in the past. He also brought up his cadet training as this brings in leadership experience and managing people. “So I don’t think I’ll be going into the deep end with this, especially considering I’ve been here for five years and I’ve been very involved and an active member of the SU. I think, out of us two who have never been a sab [sabbatical officer] before, I think I’m in a better place to ease into that.” Uzge said she does understand and accept that experience is important but also pointed out that it’s not everything. “As long as you have that urge to learn more and do more, I think you can always do something good and work well,” she said.
Uzge now asked Molly a question: “you have not been very in touch with the student part of the University; you’ve been working in the University but you haven’t been involved actively with the students. How do you feel you are well aware of the problems they face and the day-to-day issues that they go through?” Molly said she did feel like she had been involved in students’ day-to-day lives despite working in services because she was the Women’s Officer in her third year which has made her very clued-in with the communities on campus. “I’m very keen to receive student feedback and do things for students because, at the end of the day, that is what the SU is for,” she said.
Kafui used the last few minutes of the hustings to ask a few final questions. He started with Molly and questioned her statement that she was ‘clued-up’ as there had been a few incidents of bad press at the University over the past two years. Molly replied that she hadn’t missed them and the incident with the Jewish Society not being made valid due to a lack of votes was in fact covered by the previous sabbatical team. However, she feels the feedback received concerning Sub Zero and racial bias in security checks was dealt with sufficiently and everyone worked hard as a team to provide statements and evidence for the investigation.
Kafui then brought up Uzge’s smaller following in comparison to Jake and Molly and asked how she would say she is in touch and has the tools to voice what student concerns are. Uzge pointed out that, as a student herself, most of the issues affecting students also affect her. She also mentioned that she has a large group of social interactions in Milk It, Sub Zero and Top Bar where she will sit with students and talk to them about the issues they face on a daily basis.
Voting for the Leadership Race will begin on the 5th March, see our run down article on what the Leadership Race is and details on who is running.