To suggest that this year was tough, and a huge challenge in so many ways, would be a laughable understatement. I don’t think ever before has so many crises of the Higher Education sector converged in such an immediate and simultaneous fashion. Each one of the seemingly unending challenges the sector faced this past twelve months would, in any other year, be considered the defining challenge of that period. Since July 2019, Exeter Students’ Guild and its members (you guys) has faced the conclusion (maybe?) of Brexit; two separate rounds of UCU Industrial Strike Action (with accompanying student occupations); an increase in overt racist activity on campus and online, with nearly ten accompanying open letters calling on the Guild and University to do better (spoiler: we must and we are); and a global pandemic constituting the most serious challenge to modern healthcare in a century…to name just a few.
However, to allow the severity of each challenge to eclipse the success and achievements of the year does a huge disservice to all those students, staff and Guild Officers who have worked tirelessly over the past twelve months to turn each of these term defining threats into progressive opportunities for real change. Each one of these challenges has brought the Exeter University community together in ways none of us would have thought possible and together we have found some of the most sector leading, exciting and progressive solutions to some of the biggest challenges facing Higher Education today. We should all be incredibly proud.
A manifesto for change:
I wrote my manifesto during January 2019 as someone very involved with the Guild, but with friends who religiously kept it at an arms’ length. It was from their experience that I chose to write my manifesto. And, despite everything that has occurred this year I still look upon my manifesto fondly. Although I had to drop some promises, I feel that my success was in followng the heart of the manifesto, which was building Guild trust and relevance back into the student population.
The year started strong with:
- The summer introduction of the pedestrian crossing at the base of forum hill (rather a pillar of my campaign);
- The introduction of a new online platform for selling and buying between students (Exechange.com);
- The inclusion of more bike racks into the project north-park plans (the shiny new building coming to campus as soon as this pandemic disappears for long enough);
- Presenting the reality of the SUSS (Students' Union Superannuation Scheme) pensions scheme, and how it impacts the Guild, to the highest governing body of the University and urged the governors to support the Guild with this challenge;
- Trialling a consent event for students to challenge myths and misconceptions about consent within student communities;
- Presenting the results of the Guild’s first Strike Action opinion poll (filled in by well over 2000 of you!) to the highest governing body of the University;
- Working alongside others in the Guild, Students' Union in Cornwall and the University to get the University to divest from fossil fuel investments – we succeeded!
After a relaxing winter break, I jumped straight back in with:
- The Festival of Cultures event on the Friday of Refreshers’ Week – a food and culture festival showcasing the cultural diversity of our Exeter student community;
- Developing and passing a policy at NUS National Conference (with the help of the Guild’s NUS delegates) detailing a roadmap for creating an equal student experience for International Students at Exeter and nationally;
- Getting the university to set up a group reviewing the provision of student space on campus (including the future of Cornwall House);
- Joining the planning board of a new food court concept for the Forum in which I pushed for greater diversity of food options on campus and consultation with students;
- Getting the University to invest nearly £0.5 million to turn the Terrace food-hall space into a new student study space;
- Overseeing the creation of a Guild group designed to review and completely rethink student democracy and representation;
- Being part of the team that secured a new shuttle bus service between St. Luke’s and Streatham;
- Introducing a new St. Luke’s specific Guild newsletter;
- Overseeing the creation of a new sub-group of the Guild’s Trustee Board looking at our legal governing documents (Memorandums & Articles of Association) and how we can make them the best they can possibly be;
- Working with the NUS and my fellow Officers to champion a review of the Guild’s policies and procedures to ensure they support and safeguard BIPOC staff and Officers.
Then after an entertaining lock-down birthday over Easter I began the final leg of my year in Office. This final leg was spent thinking about the future of the Guild – particularly its finances and how it supports students.
- I negotiated a new and unprecedented (across the sector) funding package from the University which will completely transform the Guild over the next 3 years;
- I also negotiated well over £100,000 in initial support for this transformation from the University;
- Oversaw a new conversation looking to reform society financing to make it more empowering and society responsibility focused;
- When Covid-19 struck I joined the Guild CEO and jointly lead a successful organisational response to the global pandemic (not something I expected I’d be doing this time last year);
- Worked with the Provost of the University to develop the concept of an ‘Anti-Racist Manifesto for Change’ to tackle the inequality of experience and attainment of Black students at Exeter (I think my proudest achievement).
However, there are a few areas that I whish I’d had more time to focus on; principally: St. Luke’s support and representation. While it’s true that St. Luke’s got their first proper freshers' fair, and a new shuttle bus service between both Exeter campuses there’s still a lot more that needs to be done. St. Luke’s is still isolated and often an afterthought and neither of these successes this year have solved this.
The relentless storm:
As mentioned, this year saw an unprecedented number of challenges strike the Higher Education sector like never before. However, there were three that really stood out: Industrial Action; Covid-19 and Racism & Liberation.
In both November-December and February-March, the world of HE was once again rocked by UCU Industrial Action. Having experienced it myself during my second year, I knew that it was imperative that the Guild’s response this time round was measured, decisive and reflective of the student membership’s views.
We began strike planning back in August (we had a feeling that 2018’s round would not be the last) and as soon as strike action was announced we immediately moved to set up regular meetings with University Senior Management and UCU to ensure that students did not become fodder in a conflict between employers and employees. We organised an Industrial Action Q&A with the University VC, Provost and Registrar alongside local representatives from UCU designed to give students an opportunity to question both parties. We signed national open letters and also sent our own to University Senior Management. We also released (during both rounds) a strike action opinion poll aiming to capture a snapshot of student opinions on industrial action. Both polls suggested that students overwhelmingly supported the cause of industrial action (2019: 78%; 2020:85%) but were (understandably) slightly more hesitant when it came to supporting strike action (in 2019 only 37% supported action and 41% in 2020).
The lessons from both rounds were that:
Strikes (as expected) truly do divide student opinion – PGRs and 1st years were almost entirely in support of action and cause, while International and final year students were broadly in support of the cause but tended to oppose action.
Industrial Action forces us to question the value of education, and the value of our educators – are they mechanised service providers, accountable to the same standards as broadband or international flights, or are they guiding lights in our career development? Each possibility falls under the wider question about the monetisation of education – are we paying for a service or an experience?
Writing this in July, it still seems almost unbelievable that the world is still struggling against the spread of this newest global pandemic seven months after it first appeared. As soon as it became clear that coronavirus was approaching Britain, the Guild immediately began putting continuity plans in place. Weekly (and at some points daily) meetings with Guild and University Senior Management were introduced; we supported a University lockdown and pushed hard for the University to view students struggling to study during the pandemic with kindness and exceptionalism. We also launched online campaigns to keep students connected during lock-down through society activity.
Thankfully all our hard work as Officers paid off and we managed to negotiate a sector leading and unprecedented No Detriment Policy and online exams programme for students. We also secured multiple new hardship funds for students to the tune of over £250,000 to start. And we also planned, filmed, edited and released an entire Guild Awards ceremony and Teaching Awards ceremony completely online – each with thousands of views.
Covid-19 has been one of the greatest challenges to face the Higher Education sector in centuries, but you should all sleep easy in the knowledge that while the pandemic is not yet over, you have an incoming Officer team who have been responsible for the sector leading response thus far.
Black Lives do Matter:
Exeter has a less than rosy relationship with racism; perpetrated by both students and the institution (Guild and University). One of my manifesto commitments was to take a harsher line against racism on campus and luckily, I was part of a very like-minded Officer Team on this issue.
Working as an Officer for the year has opened me eyes to the sheer extent of the problem we have. And while that is a statement of ignorance, there’s much that even students don’t see. However, I’m finishing my term feeling much more positive that change is going to come than when I started. It’s true that racism is present in almost every institutional crevice of the organisations that exist on the Exeter campuses, but for me the real change this year has been the recognition from everyone involved that there is a problem and that things must change. Only last week, I saw a presentation lead by the Provost to the governors of the University in which Exeter’s plan for becoming an unapologetic actively anti-racist institution was laid out to strong support.
The challenge now will be maintaining the momentum of this flurry of anti-racist activity and putting money where the mouth is. The challenge will also be recognising that this isn’t a quick and easy fix. Racism, particularly institutional, has been built into Exeter across generations of students and staff and cannot be fixed in one. It will also not be fixed solely through the awarding of sector charter marks, such as the race equality charter – a good student once said that for the very reason Exeter is applying for the charter mark it does not deserve it. This type of award must be a self-critical framework that leads to sustained and real change, rather than a senior management ideology that fails to permeate through to those who it most needs to for it be successful.
I was lucky enough to have been given the opportunity to work with the Provost over the course of the past 12 months on this issue, and it’s positive to see that much of the anti-racist activity we spoke about, which originated in the communities of colour both at Exeter and elsewhere, has now become tangible action driving forward positive change at Exeter.
I have also spent much of this year working with my fellow Officers to draw attention to institutional racism In the Guild. While this is an issue for many Russell Group Students' Unions, that doesn’t mean it’s out of our power to fix it here at Exeter Guild. To simply cry that it’s a sector issues serves only to absolve individuals of the personal responsibility for changing a system that they perpetrate and benefit from. Exeter Guild must be different. The NUS has recently released its own version of a race equality charter but for students' unions and I certainly don’t believe that the Guild is ready to be awarded it right now, but I do believe that the Guild is changing, much like the University. I would like to think that in a decade Exeter (and the Guild) will have become shining lights within the sector on racial equality and will finally provide a truly equal experience for all students.
The Final Week:
I remember coming to the conclusion during my first week in the role, now 54 weeks ago, that success meant people running for this role during election season – since seven people ran for the role, by this measure this year was a success. However, I’m not convinced that this is in fact the best measure of success. I could measure it by looking at the percentage of manifesto points completed, or even through something cringey like having an impact on just one person. I think though, in order to find a measure of success that I’m comfortable with I need to return to why I ran in the first place: the desire to do everything in my power to make the experience of students studying and living at the University of Exeter that bit better. And do I think that I’ve achieved this? Honestly, I think I’ve smashed it.
A final congratulations to everyone who graduated during the year from hell, and to those not yet graduating please try and enjoy your summers as best you can. Thank you to my fellow Officers who inspired me everyday with their passion and dedication to improving the student experience. Thank you also to the staff in the Guild and in the University who without their support none of this would be possible. Finally, thank you to those who looked at my candidacy in that unusually sunny week February in 2019 and thought ‘yes, that’s the one I want to represent me, fight for me and champion me for the next 12 months’.
And now I’ll leave you all with one final piece of advice, which is actually a quote of disputed origin, but I know it from the classic film ‘The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’:
“Everything will be alright in the end, and if it is not alright, then it's not the end”
Guild President 2019/2020