Democracy & Education

This year The SOAS Spirit decided to go further in our election coverage. The SOAS Students’ Union elections can be intimidating, whether you’re a candidate or just a regular student voter. Campaigning is intense, with much of candidates’ success being weighted on who has the widest friendship circle or the best ability to produce a fun video, catchy hashtag or flashy poster. With all of this considered, we decided that the best way for students to get to know their Co-President candidates would be through interviews

Candidates running: 

  1. Krish Aurora
  2. Maxine Llydia Thomas-Asante
  3. Sophie Symmons

Candidates manifestos can be found at the bottom of this page.

Our questions:

  1. What are your three greatest priorities for next year?
  2. A lack of transparency has been a major criticism of the SU exec. What will you do to keep students informed and involved in decisions made by your team at all levels?
  3. As the university faces down a financial crisis and large-scale restructuring, what role do you see yourself playing in making sure students’ interests are represented through the process?
  4. What campaigns by your predecessor are you continuing in your term?
  5. If you could add any position to the SU exec, who would it be? 
  6. Why should we choose you over the other candidates running for your position?

Question 1: What are your three greatest priorities for next year? 

Krish

– If we’re serious about decolonising the curriculum and closing the BME attainment gap then we need to work in close solidarity with the BME staff that provides us support and guidance outside and inside the classroom. They are overworked, understaffed, and it only helps our education to get their ideas onto the curriculum and engage in tangible decolonial practice.

-SOAS management is of the illusion that maintaining our standing in marketised league tables is what brings students to this institution. They forget that we actually came here because we were sold a story about inclusivity and diversity. I want to actively make the union a political space that brings SOAS more in line with what we were promised. That means fighting off the privatisation of knowledge production and the marketisation of our education.  

– I am a disabled student and I have to actively perform my pain to be believed. Student reps, advice and wellbeing and tutors have the power and need to work together to exert pressure on lecturers to seek out information and support us when we say we need time, we need space, and we have alternative needs.  

Sophie

WP – Widening Participation Policies

Firstly, the jargon: ‘Widening Participation’ refers to under-represented students – BME students, working class students, disabled students, carers, mothers, commuting students etc… 

BME Policies 

The attainment gap is an embarrassing and harrowing fact of reality – but it shouldn’t be. In SOAS a BME student is 30% less likely to get a first degree that a white student (*2). WHY? We need to work (like LEEDS University) to close this gap. 

Decreased access to education students 

There are so many underrepresented demographics here in SOAS – Disabled students, carers, mothers, commuters – all that could face difficulties in their learning experience.

I believe in free education from the cradle to the grave and I have many ideas as to how to work vigorously towards a more diverse university where everyone feels represented, protected and equal.

*1.https://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2010/sep/28/social-class-university-data#data

*2.https://wonkhe.com/blogs/analysis-universities-shame-black-attainment-gap/)

Maxine

Oh, good question. I don’t know if I can rate them, so in no particular order:

One of my priorities is definitely going to be addressing the issue of how to balance protecting students while maintaining freedom of speech. I want to deliberate with students on the practice of no-platforming to ascertain student opinion on how to engage with controversial speakers. Do we want to prevent them speaking on campus? Do we allow controversial speakers but ensure additional protections for vulnerable students? I want to hold workshops and debates to formulate solid SU policy.

A second priority will be to challenge department heads and management on the evident stripping of courses on Africa from the LEP programme, core modules and modular choices. I want to work out what we can do to reaffirm the ‘A’ in SOAS. This is very important, so that we can ensure students can see themselves in the courses they study.

Finally I would like to propose an alternative process to the UGM to encourage students to engage with the democratic process in a less confrontational way. Hopefully this will make the process more efficient and accessible. This will take a period of research, and perhaps some trialing of different systems.

Question 2: A lack of transparency has been a major criticism of the SU exec. What will you do to keep students informed and involved in decisions made by your team at all levels?

Krish

In December – Jan of this academic year I worked to completely revamp students’ access to mass emailing. My motivation behind this was to lay bare the inertia and silence of the SU in the face of the ongoing structural reforms, but also so that students could use the SU’s own emailing mechanism to create an alternate space if the union isn’t pulling their weight- not just this year, but for years to come. This was an uphill battle and along the way there were constant accusations that this system would be utilized for spam. So far, all of the independent emails that have been sent have been targeting areas in which the SU has failed – an SU that I am a part of. If elected I intend to apply the same public, critical, and passionate attitude towards the union’s functioning. 

Sophie

Transparency is important to me and although the results are important, the attitude  and openness of the SU are just as important – I want students to know I’m open and real – you can talk to me, and I’ll talk to you. There should be nothing said behind closed doors that can’t be shouted form the rooftops and shared with every student. 

I will enforce an open door policy – literally and metaphorically bridging the communication gap and allowing each and every student, politically active or not, to feel welcome through my door.

I will firstly hold online forums, spread through email, social medias, and with physical paper versions in the JCR to ensure that I am enacting on the democratic decisions of the entire student body and not just the politically active.

I will then ensure that the union and management is held accountable to the students on every front for every decision by demanding up to date minutes of every single meetings and ensure they are publicly available and easily accessible. Such as dedicating a notice board in the SU to weekly meeting minutes updates.

I will update with every decision on announcement platforms. 

I will work to making the UGM meetings less hostile to the non-politicised. 

I would encourage more mediations between students and staff around deciding matters – this would be in the form of open platforms, more UGM’s (for everything), working groups and open online forums. 

Maxine

A lot of the policy changes and actions taken by the SU are complex in nature. Sometimes they can be quite technical in that they affect the student experience but not necessarily in an overt way to begin with. It will be important to update students in a way they find interesting and succinct. We also need to encourage more students to use the means of communication that are available. In other words it is a partnership.

I will make an effort to ensure that all decisions and policy made by the SU will be communicated using language that is accessible to students who may not know relevant terminology. Another candidate used the term “jargon buster”. This is not my idea – I do not claim credit – but it is an excellent one. I hope we see that implemented.

One way I could conceive of keeping students informed would be by making good use of the SU website. An online notice board or a monthly update could be very helpful. Also, we could use the SU Twitter or Facebook as mediums for communicating SU progress in a succinct way. Making information accessible should consequently aid transparency and keep students informed and involved.

Question 3: As the university faces down a financial crisis and large-scale restructuring, what role do you see yourself playing in making sure students’ interests are represented through the process? 

Krish

The library sleepovers, accountability forum, and broader mobilisations against restructuring took place despite the SU. A union should be at the fore of disseminating information in an organised manner. Management will throw a lot of information at us and it needs to be synthesised and spread as far and wide as possible. As you might have seen, I’m big on informative emails, but not on spam. All information that is pertinent to the issues I have highlighted above will not be private, will not be privileged, will not be withheld. Unfortunately, most of the restructuring will be decided by the end of this academic year, before the new SU come in. As that is the case it is important that we continue to push back against any changes that cuts resources from the library, welfare services, teaching and learning and other activities and facilities that directly impact students. If elected I will push the School to open student recruitment in line with providing teaching and learning support for students with lower tariffs – the logic of shrinking the institution has proved to be a flawed one and other institutions that have tried this plan of action are in a worse situation.

Sophie

I will make sure that at every decision process there is transparency between the management, union and student body. I will continuously work to ensure we are representing the democratic vote of SOAS by frequently moving between the student body via forums, UGM’s, online polls and notice boards.

Decolonising SOAS needs to be put at the forefront of re-structuring – African module cuts, endangered languages cuts etc… 

Furthermore I have experience with management (working with finance and admin in regards to bursary systems) – I do not shy away from talking to these people (suits in the Senate), I am persistent, confident and will fight any restructuring deemed as failing the student body and the uniqueness of SOAS.

Finally I will make sure we connect with UCU, Unison and NUS to ensure that we keep campaigning agains the cuts withins SOAS and across the nation. (There may be many protests).

Maxine

From a student perspective it has been quite difficult to follow what exactly has been going on with the restructuring. Many students feel the effect of changes in their departments, in terms of the sharing of departmental offices; however, this is only a small part of what the restructuring looks like. I see myself as being a point of communication. Someone who students can ask questions to about what exactly is happening, and also propose ideas to, trusting that they will be taken forward.

I also see my role as listening to the responses of students, and making sure that concerns are taken back to management in meetings. The student voice needs to be a central consideration and a driving force regarding the restructuring. I believe the role of the SU is to ensure that happens.  

Question 4: What campaigns by your predecessor are you continuing in your term?

Krish

My direct predecessor has been active in breaking ties with Hebrew University and instead directing resources towards study abroad programmes that actively support BDS. Following in this line, I want to honour the 2015 referendum in which the student body voted to support BDS, the right to return, and occupied peoples around the world. My predecessors in other positions have taken active steps towards closing the attainment gap. I hope to carry this forward on a structural level and make sure that folx aren’t marked down because of racism, are given the support we need inside and outside the classroom, and that the burden isn’t on students of colour to compensate for institutional racism in an ad-hoc manner. I support decolonising our curriculum but in a way that allows new, previously marginalised actors to be at the forefront of curricular change. In the critique of neoliberal restructuring that I have offered I hope to aid Fractionals for Fair Play and Justice for Workers so that everyone who is involved with our education is supported. SUs that have been successful in the past have tended to be ones where people have worked together across the different roles to support each other. 

Sophie

I will continue to back: 

The nation wide campaign against the Islamophobic agenda: Prevent PREVENT

Union Solidarity with the UCU – I believe the rights of our lecturers are as important as ours, and directly effects the quality of our education. 

Decolonizing the Curriculum – as it has proven to directly help close the attainment gap, plus it’s progressive in the ideologies and authenticity of the experience in SOAS. 

Account for this SOAS – demanding accountability to the SOAS management against claims of sexual harassment & ensuring safe spaces for all genders

Fractional for Fair Play – same as the UCU, we must protect the rights of those on both sides of the education system, and ensure fair contracts, pay and hours to all. 

Maxine

I know that during their term the co-presidents have been carrying out a working group on the role of the Academic Advisor. The aim of this has been to ensure that the pastoral element to the role is not lost entirely, but that the demands on staff are realistic and practical.

From my work with Bridging the Gap I have heard of numerous examples of situations where Academic Advisors have simply not provided the support and care that students have needed in times of difficulty. I want to explore more deeply what training and guidelines we can create for Academic Advisors to ensure that they understand their role as the first point of contact for students when they are dealing with important issues. If they cannot help they need to know where to point students, and support them during this process. I have many ideas for what this might look like, so I would say this is a campaign I would like to continue should I get the role.

Question 5: If you could add any position to the SU exec, who would it be? 

(Please note that candidates were told to have a bit of fun here, and of course, doesn’t reflect their priorities with regards to the new Black officer position or any similar campaigns!)

Krish

Official Exorcist to purge this place of the ghosts of its colonial past and present 

Sophie

I would add an exec that specifically focuses on pushing management to fix all the broken things that break all the time. Such as plug sockets, water fountains, music in the JCR… 

Tech Exec.

But more seriously – a full time ‘Environmental Exec’ officer. We all know why it’s so important. 

Furthermore, I fully support the recent UGM motion that passed to have a Black Officer as either exec, or perhaps better, co-president. 

Maxine

If I could add any position I think it would have to be a Food Champion Officer. This role would entail ensuring there are vegan, vegetarian and halal options to provide for a range of dietary requirements. It would be a key aspect of their role to make sure that the food available on campus is affordable. Most importantly they would also be in charge of taste testing. This would entail adding seasoning where required – just teasing.

In all seriousness though, there are some discussions we ought to have regarding food options on campus. For many eating regularly on campus is not a viable option, due to expense. However we have established our position as firmly against outsourcing. We need to find a way to keep prices cheaper while keeping our ideological integrity.

Question 6: Why should we choose you over the other candidates running for your position?

Krish

I hope that I have managed to be consistent and clear about my politics, but have also shown a willingness to be extremely open to criticism. My passion for these issues, and the policies that I have laid out to solve them address the structural nature and context of the problems. In that regard, I hope I stand out as somehow who is dedicated to creating mechanisms for tangible, long term change that put our theorising into practice. As students we are only one part of this university and as a union I want to build solidarity networks that allow all of us here – fractional staff, lecturers, workers – the ability to provide the best education possible, and create new knowledge through organising. Our struggles are intrinsically linked, and the neoliberal structures that claw away at our modules, insert private interests into our learning, and marginalise our thought, are the same structures that keep others in precarious positions. I hope that in being clear and honest with where I stand that I can create a hospitable environment for all students. 

Sophie

In order to get to SOAS I overcame so many obstacles (as many do) and did the unexpected. I was the first in my family to go to college, the first to go to university, and the first from my college to be accepted to study in SOAS in over 5 years. I moved from an entirely working class environment to London needing every financial help that was available (and some?). 

When I got here, I felt the wrath of class division for London, but also largely in SOAS – and it lit a fire in me. 

This fire meant since my first year I have actually been making REAL change – not just ‘talking and fighting’. 

The ‘SOAS bursary’ WILL be moved so it’s more substantial. The music department DID move their deadlines after two years of campaigning in order to minimise unnecessary stress. I have set up opportunities for SOAS musicians to get paid work and experience outside of University. I won the internship as ‘SOAS Radio’ for Music Editor where I co-founded FREE DJ workshops, and Tiny SOAS Sessions offering free high quality coverage to SOAS Students, I’ve been student rep, and elected ‘Working Class Executive’ officer. I have attended nearly every meeting, I have fed back and worked tirelessly as a mediator between students and the system. 

I’m real, down to earth and genuine. I am not just a talker – I am a listener and a DO-ER. I stand for everyone – but especially disadvantaged people because I get the struggle. It’s real. 

Maxine

All of the candidates running for Democracy and Education have proven their credentials through their active work. I would never say that you shouldn’t vote for anyone else.

That being said, I think you should choose me because of my dedication and commitment. I am a person that puts my whole heart into any project I am a part of, and this role would be no different. I am a team player and care about representing the student body, above any personal politics. I know how to work within a system without alienating those with the power to change things, while also not being swayed by the flowery and sophisticated language of institutions. It is important to work within our framework but to make sure that we are not swayed in what we want to achieve.

If your first vote is already promised I completely understand, please vote me second. However, I know that you wouldn’t regret voting Maxine as your Co-president for Democracy and Education.

Candidate Manifestos:

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Interviews by Jude Omidiran

Post Author: SOAS Spirit

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