Kent Union President Ruth Wilkinson sat down with InQuire to discuss her time in office, the up-and-coming elections and the many challenges facing the Union this year.
InQuire: Ruth Wilkinson, it has been over 10 months since you were voted by students to become President of Kent Union. How has the experience been so far?
Ruth Wilkinson: I started the role in July and time has literally disappeared! I can’t believe it’s term 2 already. It’s been amazing though, some brilliant events like the Reclaim the Night March and the Movember campaign which raised over £15k for men’s mental health as well as an awesome black history month and disabilities history month as well as all our day to day meeting with the University and lobbying. These events are testament to the work of the officer team!
I: Any thoughts of running for a second term in office?
R: I can’t re-run! Because of the 1994 Education Act, student officers can only do up to two years in office. I was Vice President (Activities) for a year and now President for a year, so it’s goodbye to Kent Union for me in June! It’s absolutely the right thing though as the idea is that it keeps the elected representatives as close to the experience of being a student as possible.
I: Nominations for the leadership elections opened on January 22. What kind of person will students want in a Union President?
R: I think students are looking for someone who is open and transparent, who really considers their views and works hard on the ground. I think they will want someone who connects with them personally and who has exciting ideas for the future of the Union. I don’t think we get it right all the time and it can be so hard to balance all the meetings we are expected to attend alongside keeping up with students.
I: What advice can you give to those people that are thinking of running?
R: It’s a huge commitment. Being an elected officer is a lifestyle choice. It’s most definitely not a 9-5 job. So don’t run if you aren’t ready to throw yourself into the role. My advice would be to talk to as many students as possible, look for areas where serious improvements can be made and prioritise those. But also try to be fun. Think about who you voted for in whatever election you last voted in, was it because of their policy commitments or their personality? I think of people like Sadiq Khan who had an amazing personality with a personal story that moved and connected with thousands of Londoners, and now he’s London Mayor!
I: What do you think are going to be the main issues for this upcoming election?
R: There are so many huge issues playing out in the national press right now that are so relevant to students: freedom of speech, sexual harassment, living costs and Brexit! I hope that some of those issues come up alongside creative ideas about how to respond to them. On a Kent level I think there are issues around study space, value for money for humanities courses, hidden costs in studying and living costs.
I: What has been your favourite moment so far in term?
R: I’ve been working on delivering a project tackling sexual harassment in night clubs and pubs across Canterbury and Medway and my hands-down best moment this term has been being awarded £12,000 by the Police Crime Commissioner to properly deliver training to every single staff member working on a bar or door in the night time economy. That means License holders HAVE to tackle sexual harassment. It’s the first place in the UK that this is happening and I really hope it makes huge strides to stamping out the prevalence of sexual harassment in the night time economy! It’s taken quite a lot of lobbying from myself and my predecessors to get here and I’m so proud of this stand by Kent Union.
I: Can you give an update on what the Union has achieved this academic year so far?
R: There’s loads of stuff I could talk about here and it would fill a newspaper! Some big exciting things have been winning the Zero Tolerance funding to tackle sexual harassment. We’re about to launch in January an exciting Nightline which is a confidential, non-judgemental, student led listening service. For the first time ever we’re running a joint awards with the University in June which will be a huge celebration of student achievement (nominate yourself and others now online). We’re working hard towards the development of a real Students’ Union Building, and the Free printing development is making strides but not ready to release to students yet. Common rooms with kitchen facilities (yes – microwaves) are being lobbied for in schools so that hopefully at some point in the near future you will have a common room near you!
I: From your personal experience, what have you found to have been the biggest challenge that you have faced?
R: The whole experience has been brilliant but I think the biggest challenge is juggling everything, there’s so much to think about and a different crisis arises each day. It’s not just getting on with your manifesto, it’s also sitting in University meetings to help make sure what they’re doing properly represents students, as well as trying to improve and develop what the Union is already doing, as well as dealing with students concerns as they come up!
I:On average in the UK, through tuition fees, students can pay between £130-£190 towards the cost of a union during their degree. Are they getting value for money and if so what do they get?
R: Yes I think so! There’s not only representation support (things like a 24 hour library, the night bus, free academic societies – all achieved through representation), our Jobshop, providing over 5000 roles a year to students, to the the advice centre, who see 1 in 4 students on issues from VISAs, to finances, to housing trouble; and that’s before we even get into the support from staff to societies, volunteering, sports clubs and student media. None of the membership money students pay to be a member of a club or group goes towards the union, it all stays in the hands of the student group.
I: One real issue with unions, according to many, is that many unions have become merely symbolic of student representation, and have little influence on decisions affecting the student body. What are your thoughts on this?
R: I actually think the problem is the other way around, the full time officers are involved with and have influence over decisions affecting the student body. The difficulty is a) engaging students in that discussion and b) communicating how we’re representing students in those discussions. Many of the discussions we have are confidential, others are complicated and we have done huge amounts of background reading to understand the systems that we are discussing. Equally, issues like student fees are sector wide problems that we support the NUS with lobbying on, but have little influence. When we hosted a Q&A with the Vice Chancellor we were hoping to see hundreds of students turn out to voice their opinions and have their thoughts heard. We enthusiastically promoted it, I actually invited so many people on Facebook to the event that I hit the cap and wasn’t allowed to invite any more (desperate I know). Yet only 30 or so students turned up and while the conversation was really good and we explored lots of ways the University could develop, it would have been great to have more engagement. So if anyone has any ideas or ways we could do this better please get in touch!
The article about the event is here: https://kentunion.co.uk/news/article/VC-feedback
I: Back in December, the former University Minister Jo Johnson said that universities could face fines over free speech curbs. Do you agree with this idea? Do you think that Kent has a free speech problem for certain types of groups and people?
R: I believe in free speech and I believe that University is a place to have healthy, intellectual debates. However our campuses are home to over 6000 students, they deserve to feel safe while they are living and studying at Kent, so we draw the line at a speaker who could incite people to commit hate crimes or violence. We also believe strongly that a panel should be balanced, so if one person in the room has strong opinions on one side of the argument, we’d also like to see someone on the panel who has strong opinions on the other side of the argument. In reality, it is incredibly rare that we would ever ask a speaker not to come to campus.
I: One of our reporters came to me and said that he had heard that back in December that the UKIP society organised a pub crawl in celebration of the Crusades. But according to the writer, the Union had put pressure on the society not to partake in the event. Is this true, do you deny this or are you not aware of this? If this is true, are you able to make a comment on this?
R: The UKIP society advertised a ‘Crusaders pub crawl’, in which they invited members to dress as crusaders and encouraged ‘infidels’ to attend. They harked back to and mocked the hundreds of years in which white Christian crusaders brutally massacred Muslims in the east to conquer Jerusalem. Where men were glorified and honoured by how many ‘infidels’ they’d slaughtered. I don’t think that behaviour suggests a welcoming and open group of students who celebrate all cultures and religions. We asked them to cancel the event, making it clear that they were welcome to organise socials that were open and inclusive. The Union’s values are to be bold, supportive and inclusive and we stand by those completely.
I: Another story that had dominated last semester was the question of the pay of university staff. This week, hundreds of students marched through the University of Bath protesting against the retirement arrangements of their vice-chancellor, who reportedly did earn over £400,000 a year. Are you aware of how much senior members of staff are earning here and whether this is an issue?
R: Yes, I am aware how much the Vice Chancellor earns at Kent, she actually announced it publicly on BBC Radio 4’s The Today Programme when it was broadcast from Kent. There clearly is a huge issue at institutions like Bath Spa and Bath and generally across the sector but I think Kent has taken the approach to be as open as possible. I’m looking forward to the OfS having a role in ensuring that senior University staff members are paid reasonable amounts in keeping with their responsibilities.
I: From April, there will be a new, government-created regulator designed to champion the interests of student in higher education, known as the Office for Students (OfS). With the controversy surrounding the resignation of Toby Young, is this body really going to be an effective authority that will put students first?
R: Toby Young’s appointment was a blunder in the face of something that could really put students at the centre of Higher Education. In principle the new OfS could be a positive change for good however I’m disappointed that the NUS hasn’t been offered a place on the Board and that Vice Chancellor pay and Free Speech appear to be the two biggest concerns being considered. Whereas I think the costs of living while a student and access to Higher Education are much more pressing and affect far more students.
I: Most members of the OfS panel are student activists. However, the regulator has angered the National Union of Students by refusing to have any student union representative past or present on its board. Should there be union representatives on that board?
R: The student panel has got students’ union representation but the main board doesn’t, I’m disappointed that the NUS hasn’t been given this place as they represent around 7 million students across the UK.
I: Final question, and it is to do with a BBC interview you did about the amount of debt that students are paying for degrees. There has been a suggestion to have two year degrees with 45 week terms with potential financial benefits. Could you see this as a way forward for further education in the light of student debt, or will two year courses be too constrained and challenging?
R: Since fees have risen from £3k to £9k a year we have seen a significant drop in the numbers of mature students, part time students and students with dependants attending University. There is an argument that two year degrees might give better access to these students and many others, and it means they aren’t paying for a year that doesn’t count towards their end result. I would like to hear more from students about this. I fundamentally believe that the student loan system is broken and that the Government needs to commit to a review of Higher Education funding, Kent Union supports the NUS with lobbying the Universities Minister to move this forward. We need to know what this actually looks like and how it will affect all students, at first glance I think it could massively increase access for students with dependants, mature students and other groups who currently struggle to commit and fund a three year degree.”