By Barty Roberts, BA Politics and International Relations
Bloated, expensive and ineffective, the SOAS Student Union does not need four Co-Presidents for the 5,500 students it represents. Against the backdrop of rising bar and shop prices and rising society and sports team membership costs, the current four-president model costs £95,732 – four London living wage salaries for a 35-hour work week.
“University College London has five paid sabbatical officers to take responsibility for more than 50,000 students. If they were to adopt SOAS’ ratio of president to students they would require 40 Co-Presidents”
University College London has five paid sabbatical officers to take responsibility for more than 50,000 students. If they were to adopt SOAS’ ratio of president to students they would require 40 Co-Presidents. The SOAS system makes little sense financially, and it is yet unclear what each representative is in place to achieve; this is best demonstrated by the incumbent Co-Presidents’ manifestos. Sushant Singh (Welfare and Campaigns), Reem Walid (Democracy and Education) and Jamal Akram (Equality and Liberation) all make reference to making SOAS a “safe space” (or use similar terms) to express religious and political beliefs – but which Co-President’s responsibility actually is it to protect the beliefs of students on campus? The fact that these three have all committed to it shows they don’t know, so how are the student voters supposed to tell? Frankly, the interactions students have with the Students’ Union are not with the Co-Presidents.
They do very little for the day-to-day practice of the SU; it is the backroom staff with clear and defined roles who seem to do the brunt of the work. However, this is not the Co-Presidents’ fault; it is down to their vaguely defined roles. The obvious overlap between each job title is a clear detriment. Co-Presidents should have clearly defined briefs, running parallel to the briefs of their colleagues. Intertwining is inefficient and prevents accountability, students deserve a way to hold those in elected offices to account.
If the system were to be reformed, we should halve the number of Co-Presidents. This would ensure accountability and clarify the roles of the Co-Presidents. It would be best to completely scrap the democracy and education brief, as the Student Rep network has the potential to achieve far more than a single figure can and work on a more productive, localised scale in terms of educational improvement as the reps are actually in the classrooms. Similarly, the Equality and Liberation brief should be merged with the Welfare and Campaigns brief to become the Co-President for Student Support and Equality.
The role of the Co-President for Student Support and Equality would encompass the current student welfare brief, whilst also expanding into supporting students with navigating student finance and accommodation. In fact, one of the most impressive sections of the recent manifestos was Jamal Akram’s appeal to students from low-income backgrounds. This should not be lost, but amplified, as the new role would increase the importance of students having someone to fight for proper financial support and housing. Ultimately, this role would be focused on ensuring students are best placed to achieve their academic potential, as there would be someone in a position to aid in breaking down any barriers to achievement, creating equality of opportunity so that anyone at SOAS, regardless of ethnicity, gender identity, income, disability, or any other factor, can fulfil their potential whilst studying here.
The second Co-Presidential role would be quite similar to the current Activities and Events role, just with more responsibility. Effectively this role becomes Co-President for Union Affairs and will uphold the current responsibilities of supporting sports teams and societies as well as organising and coordinating events in the Union. This Co-President will also assume the Campaigns role, as most campaigns on campus are typically started by one of the many societies. In addition to responsibility for all the Student Union spaces like the Bar, Shop, JCR and the newly developed space that we’re yet to know the full purpose of. By scrapping two of the Co-Presidents, the Student Union would have a surplus of £47,866 that could be redistributed. This could be given to societies, be used to subsidise the bar and shop costs or even provide the two Co-Presidents with a small budget.
The Co-Presidents should also be required to hold weekly surgeries, as all of the current Co-Presidents have expressed a wish to regularly hear from students. Installing a framework that allows them to do so in a fixed slot that then becomes knowable for the students they represent can only be beneficial. I would also suggest for the sake of transparency that Co-Presidents have a public diary so that the student can know how they are spending their time representing us.
Fundamentally, our system needs to change. It does not work, and it costs far too much.