Driven by data; ridden with liberty.
I would first like to apologise for my absence. The University of Bath Students’ Union are currently holding their annual elections for the Officer positions within the SU. As a member of the student Media group, this is one of our busiest times, as we help organise the candidate debates, produce an election special of the student newspaper and challenge the candidates on 1449AM URB. I have written a series of short articles about each candidate’s manifesto and campaign, which were written for social media, and I now wish to share on my blog. Please enjoy!
(All videos: BathCTV)
The candidates have published their manifestos for the University of Bath Students’ Union Officer elections. On the 27th February, one of the first debates will be for the Education Officer position, with the remit of academic matters across the university. There are two candidates for this role: Katie Barnby and Paul Goodstadt.
Ms Barnby’s manifesto is full of glittering generalities, putting her support behind such universal ideas as making “your academic experience here at Bath the best it can be”, and “constructive, timely and user-friendly feedback”. A glittering generality is an appealing – but largely meaningless – phrase backing a highly-valued idea, like saying your political party is for hard-working people, fairer taxes in tough times or supportive of one nation. Glittering generalities coaxes approval without examination, since no candidates want your academic experience to be poor, with unhelpful, late and useless feedback. Vacuity is also present, since Ms Barnby says there are “inconsistencies with the occurrence of open SSLCs throughout the university”, to which the response is: “I would implement a change!” One question immediately arises: what inconsistencies will be resolved by what change?
Ms Barnby wants “personalised timetables”, which certainly existed in my department three years ago. She will also continue with the Academic Representative Conference. However, “fine-tuning” and promoting this conference is labelled as a “top priority”, which seems over-focussed. Stripping the superfluous barnacles from the manifesto, Ms Barnby supports more placement representatives, live alerts for room changes and lecture cancellations, an online calendar for deadlines, and a greater number of recorded lectures.
In the URB interview, Ms Barnby reveals that these inconsistencies are in whether departments are holding open SSLCs – as some departments are seemingly avoiding such meetings. There are already quality regulations surrounding SSLCs, such as QA48, which details that there must be elections for student representatives to SSLCs and there should be at least four SSLCs a year. Ms Barnby says that she should seek a change to the university regulations, but to extol the virtues of open SSLCs, which is what the incumbent Peter Hachfeld is currently doing. Both candidates have sought something like an ‘Academic App’, which the University has already agreed to – in principle. The next obstacle is finding the staff to run it, which would reveal candidate priorities. My paragraphs about this manifesto are rather short, since as said by Peter Mannion MP (The Thick of It): it’s a political meringue.
One of the prominent aspects about Mr Goodstadt’s manifesto is the poor grammar: “students union”, “excel” (the Microsoft program), “panopto” and “why can’t we!” Also, the Students’ Union recently went through a rebranding, noting: “We have also kept the full name of the University in the logo”. The term ‘Bath University’ is a colloquialism that should be expressly avoided.
Timetabling is Mr Goodstadt’s first concern, where he seeks to ensure “no students have exams on the same day and, where possible, on consecutive days”. If the same exam period is kept, then the only way to ensure these constraints are met is to use more of the teaching rooms around campus for exams. This would induce a spiralling cost of invigilation, as each new room would require invigilators, and push students into the very rooms that Mr Goodstadt describes as “sub-standard” just seven lines later in his manifesto.
Mr Goodstadt laments the lack of “high-quality learning space”, and demands more capital investment. The university is pursuing such a programme of £100m, but this takes time to bear fruit. There is no explanation as to what Mr Goodstadt believes should be done in the meantime. Mr Goodstadt wants to suggest “alternative contingency exam days”, but doesn’t state what these alternatives might be. There is a call to make university resources mobile-compatible, when some already exist and the lack of which seems more of an inconvenience than an educational priority, and Mr Goodstadt will push for 100% lecture-recording – in concordance with Ms Barnby.
There needs to be a paddle with ‘How?’ engraved onto it, as Mr Goodstadt – in maintenance of “Constructive Feedback” (which is not a proper noun) – says he will “make feedback easier”, “provide a mechanism for staff to give feedback throughout the year” and “put more pressure on departments”. Whilst it is pleasant that postgraduate (PG) students have actually been mentioned, the ‘policies’ of providing “a better route for reporting problems with PG courses” and ensuring “PG students who also teach receive the correct training and support” are bland and generic as tofu on rice crackers. Indeed, this is another glittering generality, who precisely in favour of academic tutors receiving ‘incorrect’ training and support?
In Mr Goodstadt’s manifesto, he says that the progress on feedback has been “slow”. According to the report for The Future’s Bright, The Future’s Feedback – the major campaign on feedback in 2013 – looked at the marks for feedback questions in the National Student Survey. The average positive response rate was 61% in 2010; 66% in 2011; 70% in 2012 and 75% in 2013. This is not slow progress: the Education Officer must keep up the momentum. During the debates, Mr Goodstadt also said in admonishing terms, “some lecturers think they are here to research rather than teach”. The University of Bath is a research-intensive university. Looking at the vacancy descriptions demonstrates we are geared towards research of an international standard. These vacancies also demand lecturers strive towards excellence in teaching. The crux really is how much time do lecturers allocate to these two important duties. This is the same concern faced by postgraduates who do tutoring, who were mentioned in Mr Goodstadt’s manifesto.
Manifestoes are meant to be the strong foundation from which to build to a substantive campaign. However, these candidates may have to build an inverted pyramid. In my personal opinion, candidates for the Education Officer role should eschew gimmicks. Also, both candidates seem desperate for students to know what good people they are, but intentions matter little – results do. I should finish these notes by saying that, unequivocally; each of the two candidates would make a great Education Officer. Both candidates have shown eagerness to learn much more about their role. However, criticisms are a necessary part of improvement, and I hope that both of the candidates’ campaign teams and friends do not gild their preferred candidate against this essential part of the process.
The two candidates for the Sport Officer position are the incumbent Tom ‘TomTom’ Janicot, and Ben Jessup, who is the current Lacrosse Chair. Sport Officers have the remit of maintaining and developing sports facilities across the university, managing the sports teams and representing students to the Sports Department. As a declaration, this is far from an area of my expertise. The debate between these two candidates occurred yesterday; I shall consider the manifestos of each candidate.
Mr Janicot begins his manifesto by listing the last year’s achievements, such as gaining approval for a 3G pitch, which is one of the SU’s top ten issues for 2014. In the new manifesto, Mr Janicot hopes to induce greater popularity for recreational sport. The main method for achieving this is “by applying to Sport England for funding”, which is somewhat uncertain. When asked what the alternatives were by Media Officer Elliot Campbell, Mr Janicot replied that there could be weekly taster sessions for sports club. However, there are not enough weeks in the academic year to support this for every club. Mr Janicot wants to lead a campaign “to increase the space for students to store equipment”, but the Sports Training Village is not expanding, so the immediate question is: what will decrease in space to accommodate this?
On the matter of the Inter-Semester Break (ISB), Mr Janicot says: “[t]his year, the University made the decision to use the first Saturday of ISB in 2015 as a contingency day”. This is imprecise: it has been a long-standing policy to use this date as an examination contingency day, in the event of adverse weather, but the new 2015 policy will be to prefer this day to delaying the commencement of Semester 2. It is simply the University’s policy to prioritise student academic studies over their sporting pursuits and longer holidays. Furthermore, Mr Janicot proposes the full reversal of this decision, meaning the preservation of the ISB – though it’s not much a ‘break’ if exams still linger – and delays to the second semester.
Mr Janicot also seeks a new kit supplier, though one of the criteria is for the new kit to be “comfortable for chillin’ in Happy Hour”, and the establishment of an Alumni Sports Day. Like Mr Jessup, Mr Janicot wants to make the University a hub for disabled sport, which is an admirable aim. The specifics of how this would be achieved would be welcome. Boldly, Mr Janicot seeks to run on something he has not achieved this year, which are refundable lockers, noting: “I realised this year this is not an issue that will be solved overnight”.
Ben Jessup – asking students to “Believe in Ben” – starts his manifesto with a glittering generality: “I want to make sport at the University accessible and enjoyable for all”. Whilst I appreciate the correct grammar in capitalising ‘University’, I do wonder where this Sport candidate who wants to make sport inaccessible and devoid of fun is, though they may have stood last year. The ‘How?’ paddle is being polished, as Mr Jessup wants to “ensure the right balance” when it comes to facility time, though it is not stated what procedures would be made to ensure this outcome. Mr Jessup says there should be a range of Sport Passes, tailored for individual needs, but this proposal has been floating in the ether since these passes were introduced. It is not mentioned how Mr Jessup will succeed where others have failed.
There was a bun-fight in the debate, as Mr Jessup claimed responsibility for the idea of an unlocked room for kits, which is presumably one of the “cost-effective alternatives” not described in the manifesto. The ‘How?’ paddle is being well-used, as Mr Jessup says he will “encourage and incentivise more Clubs’ involvement in recreational sport”. Crucially, when asked how by the debate moderator, Mr Jessup did not respond with a substantive answer.
Lastly, Mr Jessup says: “my role as Sports Officer is first and foremost to represent you”. It is rather environment-friendly for candidates of all positions to recycle the job descriptions in their manifesto. Faced with a challenger, TomTom has reached his final destination, but it may not be at the University of Bath.
The Activities Officer candidate Freddy ‘Freddo’ Clapson is running unopposed, looking to replace incumbent Scott Burfiend. Despite the absence of other candidates, it is an intriguing election since it has attracted a rare Re-Open Nominations (RON) campaign, called ‘Ron Potato.
Mr Clapson’s manifesto starts with a glittering generality: “I want to bring the societies together, promote student enterprise and work with societies to make sure more students can get involved.” As Simon O’Kane has quipped, there is a relevant test: if even a potato agrees with the statement, it’s probably a glittering generality. Mr Clapson notes “the lack of a physical presence for societies, particularly compared to sport”. This disparity may be due to the funding dearth for societies, when contrasted against sport. Mr Clapson wants to introduce “SU Activities t-shirts for students who join a society”. It is not elaborated how this would be funded. Moreover, there does not appear to be a groundswell of support for this move. If a top ten list of Activities issues were constructed, I doubt matching t-shirts would be on it. Furthermore, societies often showcase how different they are, assisting personal expression, rather than subsumed into uniform appeal. Mr Clapson seeks “regular email updates”, when societies are often included in the general Students’ Union email.
The Activities candidate also says we should “increase exposure” by installing more noticeboards. Firstly, noticeboards are merely one facet of a larger set. Secondly, there are noticeboards and advertising spaces all around the campus, even on the inside of toilet cubicle doors. Details are lacking. Thirdly, Mr Clapson contradicted himself during his cross-examination by Media Officer Elliot Campbell, where Mr Clapson sounded comfortable with the theatre societies being unable to sell tickets on the main University parade. If it were the case that there is a “lack of a physical presence for societies”, then this move should have generated Mr Clapson’s vehement opposition. There is already a Refresh Week for a “second chance to see what societies there are”. The detail of how often these “smaller fairs” would be is missing.
Mr Clapson wants to promote student enterprise, which is an admirable aim, through the creation of a “marketing strategy”. It is surprising Enterprise Bath don’t already have one of their own. Again, expanding JobLink is laudable; whether substantial enlargement is feasible is another matter.
I’m unsure if I’ll support Freddo; I’m more of a Chomp man, myself.
The question remains whether this RON campaign has any merit. Apparently, it was instigated when the candidate said they did not know about Backstage – the major recipient of the budget for societies, which Mr Clapson would be the caretaker of. The campaign contrasts Freddy Clapson with a potato, claiming the potato would make a better Activities Officer. It is quite humorous, saying Mr Clapson “believes he is running a one-horse race”, whilst the potato “is a potato. Cannot run, but can be thrown to knock the horse unconscious”. One of these posts may contravene the rules of Elections Committee, as it deliberating asserts that Mr Clapson has said something he plainly has not. The RON campaign was quick to declare the potato the winner of the Activities debate, after Mr Clapson struggled to give meaningful answers to many of the questions. However, this might simply have been nerves over being cross-examined, rather than a dearth of knowledge.
The Students’ Union does have a comprehensive training programme, which ideally should be used to hone good candidates, rather than mash poor ones up to standard. Mr Clapson has been generous and humorous towards the RON campaign, bringing his own potato around. I can see why being challenged by a potato might leave you with a real chip on your shoulder.
The RON campaign’s potential success might have untold benefits for future years, as it shows the student cohort will rigorously check candidates and encourage deep and broad research for the Officer roles.
Representing students in the wider community, the Community Officer position has always been rather popular. There are three candidates jostling to replace Sally Williamson: Sara Ali, Penelope Bielckus and Tommy Parker.
Sara Ali wants to help “work towards making finding a house out easier”. The ‘How?’ paddle is spared because Ms Ali actually provides a way in which this will be achieved: “asking students to review their agencies and landlords”. This plan was already implemented by former Community Officer Hanna Wade, with the ‘Rate Your Rental’ survey. It is unclear if Ms Ali wishes this survey to be biennial, or was otherwise unaware of previous efforts in this area. Ms Ali would “like to develop a guide for students about the areas they will be living in”, which is certainly original, and would assist the student knowledge of their great city. Ms Ali says that she will be working “with ISA, PGA and the Diversity and Support Groups”, which is in the job description; and developing “a further range of opportunities” for volunteering, without giving examples, and a “fundraising guide”.
The list of current student issues includes the Immigration Bill (which is later not capitalised), the sale of student loans and staff strikes. There appears to be a typographic error, as “Continuing campaigning about these issues…” should be on the next line. Given the effects of this Bill on rental lets for international students are presently unknown, Ms Ali agrees to “work alongside the Student Services Centre, ISA and letting agencies on how we could make the process smoother”. The manifesto finishes with the issue of food, through “increasing the options available to vegetarians, vegans and those with specific religious requirements”. There are two methods given for achieving this: in present outlets or establishing a new shop or café. The second one of these is actually already part of planned construction – the new accommodation will also include a restaurant. Ms Ali also seeks to improve the quality of food and drink by “evaluating current practices”. As far as I’m aware, a full review of what the current practices are with regards to food quality has not been undertaken – so this is important before acting.
Penelope Bielckus begins her manifesto by highlighting her love of tea. The first sentence on policy reads: “Living off campus is but isn’t without its problems”, which either is missing a word or has too many. Ms Bielckus makes an incredibly bold claim: “No more buses driving past full when you’re trying to get to a 09:15.” SU Officers can certainly endeavour to ameliorate the difficulties with buses, but there are always going to be trade-offs, and there are always going to be intractable problems with trying to get thousands of people to one campus with buses alone. It’s an unachievable promise. Housing is the next item, where Ms Bielckus vacuously writes: “Finding your first house for second year is a challenge. Once you have a house, the issues don’t end there.” In response to these vague ‘issues’, Ms Bielckus says: “I will set up an annual Housing Fair for students to receive advice and to meet landlords and letting agencies.” The University of Bath’s Housing Forum fulfils many of these functions, so why was this absent? Moreover, what will a Housing Fair do differently?
Ms Bielckus then moves onto food, stating: “I also like cheap food, and I’m sure students everywhere would agree. This is why I dislike Fresh’s monopoly on campus and want to make a change.” Firstly, here are multiple places to get food on campus, not just Fresh, so a monopoly would appear to be the wrong word. Secondly, Fresh’s prices do not seem disproportionate for a typical convenience store. The proposals to correct this are a farmers’ market and extended opening hours; both of which have been recently pursued but rejected by the university. Moreover, Fresh is now large enough for Sunday trading laws to apply. Whilst I agree with Ms Bielckus on mental health, she says “I will improve integration for mature, postgraduate and international students”, without ever saying how. The University of Bath already has an on-campus medical centre, so I struggle to see how Ms Bielckus will “work for improved availability of medical appointments”, and I do wonder where the “on-campus pharmacy” will go. I must also reject the common suggestion that Ms Bielckus’s status as a first-year undergraduate makes her unsuitable for this role: it is the nature of representation that people will represent others on issues they themselves have not experienced. Ms Bielckus has shown serious determination for this role.
Tommy ‘the Tank Engine’ Parker highlights he is “heavily involved with the Students’ Union” in his manifesto. Mr Parker promises to continue work on the opposition to the student loan book sale, and wants to establish a Diversity and Support Group fair, though this may duplicate the work done by general Fresher and Refresh fairs. Whilst I recognise Mr Parker’s point about consent-centred campaigns, it seems ill-advised to place a sexual assault next to a pop song, which implicitly suggests they sit in the same category: “Since the recent sexual assault in Bath and ‘Blurred Lines’…”
On volunteering, what the “stronger links with media” are remains opaque. Mr Parker wants to create a “toolkit to encourage more student-led charity fundraising”, similar to Sally Williamson’s campaign toolkits. Mr Parker’s proclamation to “Guarantee fresher accommodation” is imprecise: such a guarantee already exists; it has not been met, which is the scandal. The ‘How?’ paddle gets some effortless use, as Mr Parker promises to “Facilitate and improve the process of finding housemates”, “encourage students to participate in the Student Community Project [sic]” and “to remove barriers of participation for International and Postgraduate students”, without explaining how these aims would be achieved. Mr Parker also says he wants to “organise cross collaboration of cultural societies with other cultural groups”, without eliciting the nature of this collaboration.
Mr Parker’s campaign mixes cultural references, since ‘choo-choo-choose’ comes from an episode of The Simpsons. There is an error in the name of a prominent organisation: the SCP acronym stands for Student Community Partnership, not “Student Community Project”.
The debate itself was somewhat shocking, as candidates often found elaborate methods of not answering the stated question. Based upon the manifestos, the expectation was that either Mr Parker or Ms Ali would dominate the debate. In absolute terms, Mr Parker was most effective, but it was Ms Bielkcus, often relating the problematic kernel of each question to her own experiences, that did relatively well. There is no easy train to victory for the Community Role.
Students’ Union President Ellie Hynes will not be seeking re-election, so there are three potential successors: Kat Agg, Pete Griffiths and Jordan Kenny. As a declaration, I have worked with Ms Agg in the Media group, and I served under Mr Kenny on the Elections Committee last year (which is a proper noun, Jordan). I met Mr Griffiths at the PGA Cuppa Coffee last week, and he was pleasant and thoughtful about the role.
Kat Agg’s manifesto takes the unusual step of tackling three issues in depth, rather than a scattershot of proposals. Ms Agg promises to “work with timetabling to free up some of the smaller rooms for lunch”, so students can enjoy their lunch. This cannot be done ad-hoc, as the guidelines stipulate that “No food or drink in teaching rooms unless agreed in advance with the Central Timetabling Office.” This cannibalisation of teaching space is inventive, since these rooms may be unused. Striving towards “more benches and bins” is also plausible.
There is a joke about Bathwick Hill – which seems out of place in an otherwise serious manifesto – and says about abolishing the hill: “Obviously, this is not a feasible.” This either has one word too many or too few. The concept of “prepaid travel card only buses” seems to ignore residents and tourists, who also use buses. Travel cards would have to available all over the city. Ticket machines might be plausible.
The University of Bath’s Computer Services (BUCS) have direct control of what computers are utilised, so Ms Agg cannot say: “I will introduce more Hot Desks with Ethernet ports and power sockets, and upgrade Sun-Rays to workstation PCs.” Sun-Rays often taken up less space than full workstation PCs, making them fit well against walls and so on. These computers can be used for short and long stints of internet browsing. More Hot Desks might be useful.
Ms Agg also seeks to “work with various eateries to improve” the range of food available, “find the solution” to problems with cash machines and working with BUCS to “improve [Eduroam] access around campus”. Ms Agg has some novel ideas, though there are many parts of the Presidential remit that are untouched in this manifesto. Interested students can email the candidate with the provided address: email@example.com.
Pete Griffiths begins his manifesto by stating his role is “not about my ideas but about us working together”. Mr Griffiths says he will “ensure that the University plans for increased student intake RESPONSIBLY”. Whilst the broken accommodation guarantee is shocking, the SU can only the University on its intake – it can never “ensure”. An “ACCURATE live updates app” would suffer from the dearth of time and resources as an ‘Academic App’, so which one would Mr Griffiths prioritise? The ‘How?’ paddles get some early use, as Mr Griffiths wants to develop “a more RELIABLE U10 service” and “more FREQUENT 20A/C route services”. The 20A/C services generally lose money, and so are supported by council subventions and company cross-subsidies. It is difficult to perceive how they could be made more frequent. Mr Griffiths notes: “The SU offers an incredible amount but this can make finding what you need difficult”. The ‘word of mouth’ idea is not a new proposal, and is actually part of the SU’s latest Three Year Plan: “Students’ Union communications should reflect this diversity and word of mouth is the most effective way of engaging students”. Getting the paddle ready, Mr Griffiths states on accommodation: “I will fight for FAIR rent prices” – how? – “FASTER response times from landlords and agencies” – how? – “more EFFECTIVE support in finding accommodation” – how?. The ‘Rate Your Rental’ survey found that 28% of respondents were not “happy with your experience of private rented accommodation in Bath”. The evidence report for Bath and North East Somerset’s consultation on Additional HMO Licensing found that 17.9% of respondents were either ‘fairly dissatisfied’ or ‘very dissatisfied’ with their home. The SU President has no deific powers over rents in Bath, and shouldn’t pretend to.
It is already the job of “personal tutors” to give “QUALITY feedback” on problem sheets. There is another pledge for lecture recording without explaining how staff concerns will be placated. On assessments, Mr Griffiths says: “Are exams always still RELEVANT? Can group work be made FAIRER?” These are actually good questions, and the University is exploring a greater variety of assessments, particularly as the number of students here are difficult to fit into a two-week formal exam period. Lastly, Mr Griffiths wants to work towards more storage space. However, space on campus is rather limited, and there are so demands for space, whether these are teaching, social and so on. The manifesto finishes on a good sound-bite: “To lead is to serve.” The formatting made this manifesto DIFFICULT TO READ, and Mr Griffiths make multiple promises he just cannot keep.
Jordan Kenny starts his manifesto with a glittering generality: “I promise to make YOUR time here the best possible.” Mr Kenny then says he will “ensure social space remains non-commercial, and look to push for social areas in plans for new buildings”. The SU President can, of course, influence University decisions in these matters, but they can never “ensure”. On buses, Mr Kenny states: “First improved their frequency, but Wessex continues to let YOU down.” I’ve been at the University a while, and I recall how Wessex were encouraged to provide a campus service, and treated like a blue-painted saviour when they did. It is unsurprising that a cheaper service is less frequent and less reliable. However, the SU should not single out one company in its promises. The SU has already published an apology from Wessex, so it is rather unclear what will Mr Kenny will do above and beyond Ms Hynes’ efforts. Mr Kenny then says: “I will look at options for a cash machine at the bus stop”. The most feasible option is the one the students may not want: portable cash machines that charge for withdrawals, though their appearance has been condemned by Bath residents.
Mr Kenny asks: “Why don’t we have a Christmas market with ice skating, film showings, comedy nights and cultural events on our campus?” Planning permission and internal considerations would likely stifle a Christmas market, particularly if it has an ice rink. We do already have film showings, comedy nights and cultural events on the campus, including One Bath, but these are not Christmas-themed. Mr Kenny then promises to “increase water access across campus and ensure healthy, diverse food is available”. This is an important issue, but the question of how the SU President will ensure a good food selection is problematic.
There is no explanation as to how the pledges to improve careers advice and volunteer recognition will be achieved. Mr Kenny states: “PGT, PGR and international students face unique problem, are often overlooked.” It is pleasant to be mentioned, and the work of the ISA and PGA should be highlighted. Mr Kenny then promises – and even provides a method of achievement – to “ensure the extra 500 UG and 200 PG students living on campus get the [Freshers’ Week] they require”. These are actually problems that the SU President can ensure to resolve.
On placements, Mr Kenny pledges: “I want to create a community of students, who can find one another, look for housing and socialise worldwide.” This is rather ambitious, and will depend on the efficacy of the SU website. As the Presidential candidate Mr Griffiths demonstrates, some students go far across the globe for their placements, so how this will be achieved should be detailed.
Surprisingly, Mr Kenny is the only candidate to mention the National Union of Students. However, the NUS merely endorsed the existing campaign against the student loan book sale. Lastly, Mr Kenny says: “A one-size-fits-all email isn’t enough; I will take time to make sure the information sent to you is relevant to YOUR needs and interests.” A dedicated Communications Officer could not provide such reforms, so it is somewhat astonishing that Mr Kenny promises to. The Computing Services are already going to make some improvements to Webmail in September 2014, so this should have been mentioned. Despite the large amount of time that the SU President spends on academic matters, these are completely absent from Mr Kenny’s manifesto.
Each Presidential candidate will take the SU in a completely different direction, so it is time for students to choose what path they would prefer.