Election 2018: VP Education Debate

On Monday 26 January, a packed studio audience inside the Pavillion witnessed the first Kent Union Election debate between vice-presidential candidates for Education.

The debate was broadcasted live on KTV and was moderated by Jake Peach of CSR FM and presented by Noor Issa of KTV.

Watch the full KTV debate from last night here:

The current VP for Education, Stewart Lidbetter, is currently seeking a second term in his current role.

The two other candidates fighting Lidbetter to become the new VP Education are Becky Bailey -a third year History Rep’ and CSR presenter- and third year Music Technology student James Burns, who is also the current President in Medway for students.

Lidbetter began by opening his statement with a list of the many improvements that he and his team has successfully achieved during his tenure, including placing more seats for students in the library, successfully lobbying the university for a new study hub in Turing and establishing lecture captures. He says that he ‘still has more to do’ during what he called his ‘long-term project’.

Mr. Burns set his stool out early in his introduction to the audience by outlining three of his key manifesto policies for this election which included flexible timetabling for all students, online chat groups to support them and incognito marking. Ms. Bailey also outlined why she believes she is the best candidate fit to become the next VP Education.

You can read all the candidates’ full manifestos here: https://kentunion.co.uk/leadership-elections

The first issue raised during the debate was on how to improve school representation in the Union, with Lidbetter admitting that the work he has done to resolve this issue has ‘not been as successful as I would have liked’.

Mr. Burns took his experience of being part of the meetings on whether or not to close the School of Music in Medway by saying that the answer is ‘regular participation’, with Bailey thinking likewise that school representation needed improving in some way.

Another issue brought up was the recent UCU decision to take industrial action over changes in pensions, and how students were being affected by the cancellations of lectures and seminars.

Bailey and her fellow History representatives chaired a committee meeting supporting the lecturers’ strike but also stated that students needed to be aware of what they are missing out on. She said that possible methods for the future could possibly include re-writing exams and reimbursing tuition fees.

Furthermore, Lidbetter said that he can ‘sympathise with the lecturers’ and that ‘students deserve to be compensated, as they are not responsible’.

Burns also sympathises with lecturers and thinks that, as students, ‘we should be pressing our anger against the university’.

Throughout the night’s discussions, Lidbetter was under fire from his two competitors for failing to live up to his campaign promises from last year’s election, with Burns urging the audience, ‘now is the time for fresh leadership’. The incumbent was criticised by Burns and Bailey for not comforting students during the current UCU strikes and for not doing enough to support Postgraduate students during their studies at Kent.

Lidbetter responded saying, ‘we lack staff and we have only had two years to work on this [Digital Rep]. It always bothers me that we cannot easily access this sort of data. However, we do have to filter out any rubbish and cut down steps for us to get the answers we want to move forward with what students want’.

One of the highlights from the debate came on the discussion about digital representatives, in which Lidbetter outlined his vision for improving engagement with students on the platform:

‘Ultimately, I want to pay them’ said Lidbetter. ‘I was doing research and some universities were paying their upper triangle. Doing this at Kent will encourages engagement with that incentive’.

However, Mr Burns clashed and argued with Lidbetter on this plan, questioning how this will improve engagement. He said that ‘appointing student reps and treating it as a job interview, but how is this that representative? Nominated by lecturers perhaps. I don’t think this will work, it is not going to encourage [representation], it’s merely going to create a class gap between the top and lower reps. It’s not creating engagement, you can’t start paying someone when you’re not supervising them’.

Stuart shunted back from this comment by saying that the surveys relating to this issue are in favour of his plan.

The candidates were also questioned by the panel on topics ranging from tuition fees and the post-18 review to universities and work spaces across campus.

Questions were then put to the floor, with one audience member asking about the survey about academic-free Wednesdays and why they had not heard about this survey being talked about or published by the Union.

Lidbetter’s said, ‘I’ve only had one report on it. I mean, the schools are already on board with it. There are restrictions with timetabling. It was on my manifesto last year, but to move everything around is practically challenging and building more spaces is perhaps the best solution to create more flexibility’.

Mr. Burns said that ‘feedback’ and publicity of this survey ‘is needed urgently’, and he believes that this can be done through lecturers and seminar leaders promoting the survey during contact hours.

‘We need to be talking with sports teams’, said Bailey on this issue, ‘I feel like they [schools] should make it more flexible, making no compulsory things on a Wednesday. We need to also focus on societies, and how they drop out because they cannot keep up with the workload’.

Candidates closed the debates with a final statement, repeating why they feel that they are the best person for the role of VP Education. Lidbetter urged voters to ‘trust’ him with a second term, Burns emphasised the need for a fresh face in office and Bailey said that the Union ‘need a louder voice’; as well as calling out the university for more transparency about where tuition fees go and how students should not have to go through being taught longer than 4 hours without a break.

Analysis by George Knight

Although it seemed to be a debate on education policy, the first debate greatly came down to idealism versus reality. With three strong candidates, one of which is the current Vice-President for Education, the debate was filled with both new and established ideas, reviewing thought-provoking questions and challenging the contestants.

One of the most fundamental ideas presented, which appeared in various forms in all contestant arguments, was a flaw being targeted more widely recently regarding Kent Union, namely their lack of communication. This theme was among a plethora of other issues, but this was the one which appeared most clearly.

All three of the candidates offered unique policies for their vice-presidency.

James Burns, who is currently President of Medway Students, offered a clear, if not somewhat idealistic argument. His overarching policy was to fight the ‘bureaucracy’ of the Union and this reflected in his points, most notably in his comments on the University Staff Strikes. He claimed that ‘we should be pressing our anger against the university’ and that this pressure would bring change. It is also reflected in his comments on student experience, focusing primarily on Wednesdays and timetable clashes, Burns claimed that his policy of ‘Wellbeing Wednesdays’ which would allow for less academic obligations during the mid-week would address the issue. He also focused, less clearly, on his other manifesto points such as better navigation for the Union website and anonymous marking.

Although he did make fundamental points, Burns did not address them in-depth. Burns’ arguments were clear and calculated; his ‘fresh ideas’ and focus on feedback could be important for greater Student-to-Union relations in the future. However, his views are somewhat idealistic and vague. Despite pushing for Wednesdays, he acknowledges that the movement has simply ‘potential’ rather than definitive ability. Also, his opposition to the Kent Union body, although useful for obtaining charged student voters, may not be ideal when working with them. Burns is far from an antagonist, but his heavy focus on criticism may damage his ability to represent our educational interests.

The second candidate offers an antithesis to Burns, but also he still maintains his opportunism, if not more fine-tuned by experience. Current VP Stuart Lidbetter, hoping to be re-elected, focused his goals primarily on the expansion of space, transparency and resources all within realistic boundaries. His reserved view comes from his experience working with the Union. On various occasions, such as during the flexible timetabling questions, he often defeated his opposition by claiming that the issue with clashes was greatly practical. Simply due to limitations in space, staff, and the five-day work week, issues such as these persist. He also focused extensively on the expansion and maintenance of education spaces.

Burns cleverly quipped that ‘we’re not builders’ in response, but the significance of these spaces should not be downplayed. Having abundant space, especially when nearing the end of the academic year, it is fundamental to have adequate spaces for students to revise and interact.

Stuart’s view was well-presented and supported, however his somewhat cynical view could hinder progress. Burns’ policy to ‘push’ the Union could have some fruitful results. Without a strong impetus to change, little progress can be made. However, it is still important to realise realistic boundaries. Lidbetter clearly understands the boundaries which can be influenced to make change. He has demonstrated this in Autumn 2017 with more study areas in the library and passing a policy which protects students from losing marks due to strikes.

His work is effective and recent, it applies to change happening now rather than more widely. Even his most refuted argument, namely arguing that student representatives should be paid, was still supported with research from other British universities, basing his argument in evidence.

The third and final candidate offers an emphasis on student interaction and inclusion. Becky Bailey, Kent Union member since her first year and active student representative, based her arguments on support, academic community, diversity and learning plans. Her views were primarily focused on the individual issues with educations, mainly between schools and students. She claimed that her experience chairing a committee meeting prior to the strikes, made her conclude ‘that students need to be aware of what they are missing out on.’

Aside from the Wednesdays controversy, with her opinion being strongly being support of Burns’ flexibility, her views on wider educational policies were rather limited. Her focus remained solely on personal level interaction between students and their schools, with little regard for wider student representation and funding. She mentioned briefly how there should more ‘advertisement’ for the student representatives, as well as an improvement of the feedback system which already exists.

Although her policies were more anecdotal than Burns and Lidbetter, her arguments did address issues faced by individual students and lecturers, which ultimately is the most important part of university.

All candidates address different areas and offer different angles to the Union’s role in education. Although there were moments and issues more finely attuned to each candidate, each question was answered with interesting and thought-provoking policies. The experience and realism of Lidbetter may be useful in creating greater change for next year, but also having a fresh mindset and developing more intricate areas of education, such as Burns and Bailey advocate, could also be critical for growth. One of the most fundamental observations which has sprung from the debate is that communication is the primary issue, not only for students, but also for candidates. These individuals will drive for greater representation in the Union, and are therefore all appropriate choices for student votes.

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