Last night saw the highly anticipated Big Student Debate in Hendrix Hall, where all candidates running for YUSU (University of York Student’s Union) prepared a one minute manifesto speech and faced questions from the panel and audience. The event was ran by the University of York debating society. Many things became startlingly clear throughout the course of this debate; YUSU is in need of desperate reform and the importance of the student voice should not be undermined. This debate will follow the beginning of another week of campaigning before the results of the elections to be held on Saturday 24th February in Hendrix Hall.
Generally, from all candidates it became clear that YUSU is in desperate need of reform. Indeed, this has been the rhetoric for many years. However it is now becoming clear that is really is breaking apart, YUSU is not listening to students and has largely become a politically elite organisation. Taking one look at the nearly all male panel of candidates. this all became too true. Even candidates running for the Union presidency were adamant that things at YUSU needed to change, in admitting YUSU’s failures openly to their staff so publicly, is certainly significant. The debate also highlighted the issue of student engagement with YUSU politics, 75% of the student body failed to vote in the last YUSU election. RON (Reopen Nominations) led by candidate Oscar Jefferson, was leading the drastic plea for YUSU reform in advocating a complete structural change of the system. Most other candidates were not as radical as this per say, however it can be agreed across the board that change needs to happen soon.
Community and Wellbeing
Steph Hayle and Rowen Ellis were the candidates running for Community and Wellbeing officers. Steph stressed the importance of improving finance, accommodation and stress management for all students. The cost of living and rent is one of the biggest worries for students across the board, Steph wants to propose a rent cap for all students, meaning they can state the maximum rent they are available to pay, before being placed in accommodation they cannot afford. Too often students are forced into financial hardship without choice. Rowen also supported all of Steph’s policies but focused on community, health, activism and liberation within the student body. Steph emphasised the importance of trigger warnings and strongly believed that this should be a requirement for all lecturers. Rowen also proposed to have monthly meetings about the changing costs of living in York, to re-evaluate financial help available to students.
As well as these financial and social policies, the issue of free speech and ‘generation snowflake’ was raised by the panel. Both candidates stressed that this term is highly problematic and does not correlate with current students. Students across the board value freedom of speech in the university campus however, there is a boundary that should not be crossed. Steph claimed that controversy and free speech are important components of university, however, there is a very important line that should not be crossed.
Running for activities officers were three candidates: Jack Rewcroft, Jack Worrall and Finn Judge. Jack Rewcroft strongly supported the importance of societies here on campus and explained how they helped him develop individually. Jack Worrall stated that if elected, he would work on producing an interactive hub on campus to grow societies so they can be more supported and affordable. Finn Judge recognised that opportunity and affordability were two top priorities for students to join societies. Too often students are put off by the monetary cost.
Again, the debate also turned to the issue of free speech. The debate of the activities officers was not so centred on societies but the problems of free speech. Jack Rewcroft claimed that opening up debate is an important measure so that individuals can challenge their own beliefs and aid their own self development. Finn Judge openly admitted that YUSU does not always get things right, it can sometimes be patronising and not promote academic debate – he stated that YUSU should be more liberal. Jack Worrall claimed that the student body prevented controversial speaker, Tommy Robinson from speaking on campus. However, this is untrue. Many of the live tweeters from student media organisations during the debate, pointed out that Tommy Robinson did not come to campus because of student protest, but because the society hosting him did not fill in their paperwork correctly. However, Worrall did claim that more speakers were needed on campus to make, ‘free speech free’ but it is important to recognise when a speaker poses a threat to particular groups on campus.
Two candidates were running for academic officers, Tomas Vieira Silva and James Hare. This debate raised many current criticisms about York University and declining status in league tables. James Hare, like many other candidates, openly admitted that YUSU is not working and does not respect its students. Hare also was a strong advocate of transparency, he proposed to lobby a demand for all departments to publish their course expenditure. It raised the important question over whether students with lower contact hours should pay for students with more. Hare claimed the importance of being assertive as students, in demanding the break down of department costs and where the money is going, as he said, students are now consumers of a very expensive educational service, therefore he stated we should have the right to know where our money is going. Tomas agreed that there were problems with transparency but this policy would never be realistically achievable. He brought up issues within the university assessment system; as it currently stands, no re-sits are available. If a student has a bad day for one exam therefore, it could drastically impact their degree outcome with no opportunity for re assessment.
The issue of the pension strike inevitably came to force. Whilst Hare claimed he supported the strike, he advocated the need for educational compensation. It should be less about the monetary reimbursement but the disruption to education students will be facing. Tomas also claimed he supported the idea of compensation for students.
The candidates running for the sports presidency were Zac Sheppard and Ryan Jago. Both were faced with difficult questions regarding the link between anti-social behaviour and sports societies. Both acknowledged that this occurred within a minority of members of sports society, and stressed that it was not a case for the majority of members. Zac’s manifesto centered on increasing participation, integration and inter college rivalry sports competitions between Heslington East and Heslington West. Ryan also believed improving participation all round was key, and claimed there needed to be more improvements to college sport and not just York Sport. Ryan believed that putting more money into College Sport would be a top priority to improve participation.
Those running for Union Presidency were Hector Macduff, Has’san Suhail, Oscar Jefferson (RON) and James Durcan. This proved the most lively part of the debate, with criticisms of YUSU and student engagement. Hector openly admitted that YUSU needs change and that it does not represent all students. He importantly pointed out the lack of diversity and women even in the candidates running that evening. Due to this lack of diversity, Hector claimed that a lot of the student body believe that YUSU is largely an elite, political class which dissuades most from voting.
Oscar Jefferson, running for RON came out strong on the issue of student engagement. He stated that YUSU does not serve its students, and as a result students think their votes do not count. Lack of voting means that it is impossible to make any improvements. Student engagement is essential, but right now, under YUSU this simply is not working. In encouraging students to vote for RON, Jefferson promoted a radical overhaul of the current YUSU system as it simply is not working as it currently stands. He advocates a second YUSU election as student politics in in a dire state and there is a need to reopen the debate.
James Durcan also believed that YUSU does not engage students, however, like all the other candidates he did not see the need to completely overhaul the system. Duncan was a strong advocate for cutting student costs and improving student finances. He proposed to build more affordable accommodation instead of trapping students in places they could not afford. He also wants to tackle First Bus and make costs cheaper for students having to travel into campus everyday.
Has’san also supported the need for changes in accommodation, the allocation of accommodation should take into account whether a student is capable of paying the required sum. He also proposed a reform of First Bus and the need for more services. As an international student, Has’san recognises the difficulties of increases in fees and the financial strain this can be (as international students pay nearly double than UK students). He proposed to put a freeze on the 2% annual increase in fees.
Overall, the debate made things pretty clear. YUSU in its current state is desperately in need of major changes to support the majority of students at York. Voting for YUSU candidates opens on Monday 19th February (Week 7) and closes on Friday 23rd. Results will be announced on Saturday 24th February. To see each candidates manifesto’s in more detail, follow this link.