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Sunday, July 3, 2022

Cherwell Town Hall: Meet the SU Presidential Candidates

Don’t have time to comb through multiple manifestos or six different op-eds? The Cherwell News team spoke to all the candidates for the Presidency of the Oxford University Student Union so you can compare them all in one go and make an informed decision.

Michael-Akolade Ayodeji

Image Credit: Cyril Malik

Combining the Union and Student Union presidencies is an ambitious endeavour. 

Michael-Akolade Ayodeji clearly is no ordinary student. An adolescence characterised by irregular access to formal education and encounters with the care system, his path to Oxford was an unlikely one. The same drive that allowed him to work ten-to-four night shifts while undertaking his A-levels, he tells Cherwell, is the drive that he thinks makes him the candidate suited to represent Oxford students.

‘I live for being busy. That’s why I do photography, American football, the SU, the Union. I have to do things’

Of course, this ambition comes at a price. Having rusticated during second year while caring for his stepfather during the pandemic and planning another rustication this year for the Union presidency, the SU presidency would probably entail an exceptional third rustication. Even as Michael-Akolade is open about the hurdles he has faced, he emphasizes the change he has managed to achieve. From introducing Ask for Angela at the Union to working to increase access, Michael-Akolade wants to make clear that he isn’t just a status quo manager; he wants to improve it.

 In conversation, he is the first to admit that this campaign has been, by his standards, low profile.  Personal difficulties complicated the launch, and his manifesto lacks some of the attention-grabbing policies of his competition. But, there is never any doubt as to whether he should be running: 

“For me personally, not going to lie to you, it is my experience, my struggles with Oxford that have left me passionate…about changing things”

Otto Barrow

Image Credit: Otto Barrow

Otto Barrow is no stranger to student governance. From serving as the Oxford NUS delegate in 2021 to acting as Chair of Council, he has experienced a range of roles and responsibilities. Through these, he has seen the good, the bad, and the ugly of Oxford administration, and he believes that he is ready to face down the SU rodeo.

In his manifesto, Otto vows to ‘protecc’, ‘attacc’, and even ‘fight bacc’ as SU president. His primary aim is to ‘protecc’ students from sexual harassment, but he also wants to defend Oxford’s environment by halting University investments into polluting companies and encouraging colleges to create net-zero schemes. He wants to ‘attacc’ the lack of awareness about exam arrangements by spreading information about concessions, and to end the ban on trashing. 

However, Otto’s quest to ‘fight bacc’ against the “frankly stupid” ban on clapping has been met with frustration by the current SU. DisCam said they were “saddened to see the so-called ‘clapping ban’ once again being misrepresented, this time by a candidate for President in the SU Election”. In response, Otto told Cherwell: “The wider issue here is that meetings and other events don’t meaningfully cater to people who have anxieties or are non-hearing, so having such a policy is dangerous as it allows the SU to pretend to be inclusive when it doesn’t do anything substantial to include these groups within its decision-making processes. I respect all the work that the Disability Campaign does.”

Otto Barrow believes that he has the experience, competence, and the policies students need, as well as the passion to make them happen.

Richard Mifsud

Image Credit: Richard Mifsud

Why do we need a Student Union president at all? This is the question Richard Mifsud, a  medicine student at Worcester, asks in his manifesto. For two years, he has run the ‘empty chair’ campaign with his team of stuffed animals: Thespy Bear, Dr Chicken, and Depressed Moose. The campaign aims to highlight the ineffectuality of the SU and seeks to reinvest the £21,000 spent on the president’s salary elsewhere. Last year, he won 500 votes, coming only 400 behind the eventual winner.

Richard is very familiar with the inner workings of universities; he completed his undergraduate degree, masters, and DPhil at Cambridge before coming to Oxford to take graduate-entry medicine, which he will complete this year. Outside of his SU campaign, he hosts CamFolk, a weekly folk music show on Cambridge’s student-run radio station, after having his application for Oxide (the Oxford equivalent) rejected three times.

He believes that “All of the roles that SUs have which make them very popular and useful are currently done by JCRs and MCRs very well; all that’s left in Oxford SU is people that are career politicians or have particular axes to grind. This is why the Oxford and Cambridge SUs always have the same problems with low turnout and low interest.

“The role of the SU should then be supporting the JCRs and the MCRs, and catching that very small number of students that fall through the gaps of the college and university support systems.”

Enrico Pelganta

Image Credit: Enrico Pelganta

With his perfectly parted hair, reserved manner and penchant for smart outfits, you would be forgiven for thinking Enrico was already a politician. However, his melodic Italian accent and dry wit add colour to this ambitious man otherwise clad in shades of navy or grey. After all, lack of vision is not something Enrico can be accused of. His campaign is based on fundamentally redefining the Student Union’s culture in order to reconnect with the student body. 

Taking aim at what he describes as politically divisive “virtue signalling” and waste, Enrico wants to adopt a cost-benefit approach towards SU policy in order to restore trust in the organisation, as well as increase its relevance to current students. He highlights the Class Act Campaign and the SU’s ban on clapping as well-meaning policies adopted due to political fashions rather than practicality.

Speaking on the Class Act Campaign, he stated, “I was left wondering how a term card including a pub trip and a Gregg’s picnic (two lovely activities in their right, obviously) would do much to improve the long-term prospects of disadvantaged students.” 

This organisational shake up would be extended across the SU to tackle the sense of superiority over JCR’s and MCR’s which Enrico believes pervades its bureaucracy. 

He believes that stronger ties with both is key to increasing student engagement, providing the SU with a greater connection to everyday concerns. Further reform of the SU’s decision-making process is also required in Enrico’s eyes, in order to end the waste of time and resources on a “needless Bureaucratic machine”.

Marcin Pisanski

Image Credit: Marcin Pisanski

Marcin Pisanski is a finalist studying law at St Annes and came to Oxford from a state school in Poland. In his manifesto, Marcin describes himself as having two years of experience with the SU, being committed to student representation, and ready to lead the change. During his time at Oxford Marcin has served as Chair of the Student Council, EiC of The Tab Oxford, and President of the Bar and French Societies. When Marcin sat down with Cherwell, two of his priorities became clear throughout the interview: involving students, specifically JCRs and MCRs, in SU matters, and freeing up funds by replacing highly paid full-time positions at the SU with student volunteers or part-time employees. 

As for the latter proposition, when asked about the potential risk of over-working this may present, Marcin assured Cherwell that he would never consider paying anyone below the Oxford living wage, and likened the roles to those currently occupied by students in other student organisations and societies. Some positions would still be retained by non-student staff members, but maybe not salaried at the current rate of £100k: “paying someone less than £100k is not paying them that much lower in terms of what the role entails and what kinds of responsibilities they have. I think just paying people normally at the market level is just enough.” If Marcin is elected, a referendum on the issue of disassociation with the NUS is also on the cards.

Kelsey Trevett

Image Credit: Kelsey Trevett

The University has long come under fire from critics, with activists alleging that the university fails to look after the welfare of its marginalized communities and eschews its duties to society and the environment. Kelsey Trevett (they/them) has spent their college years at the forefront of these debates, organizing rent strikes and LGBTQ+ representation movements in and around the university. Now, Kelsey Trevett wants to trade the picket line for the SU presidency.

The co-chair of the Young Greens of England Wales, Trevett is eager to turn critique into action, and advocate for the communities they feel the university leaves behind. “It is important that working class students, disabled students, and LGBTQ+ students are listened to, and there are tangible steps I believe we can take to let that happen,” they told Cherwell.

Trevett recognizes that the SU is inherently constrained by the university’s bureaucracy, but they believe that there is a role for the SU president to be a platform for change, especially for marginalized groups. “We can let the SU be a space where groups can bring about proposals, and create the organizing pressure to ensure those proposals are acted upon,” said Trevett.

“On issues such as sexual harassment or discrimination, it is important that we bring college policies in line and let the voices of those most effected be heard at the SU,” they added.

Trevett hopes to use their experience organizing protests and building coalitions to make the SU a more open and inclusive space. “The next step is to bring Sabbatical officers into the JCR or MCR meetings, to make sure there is really active engagement, and to take proactive steps to help students feel they are being heard,” said Trevett.

Who are you in one sentence?

Michael-Akolade Ayodeji: “I’m an “artivist” – I use poetry, art, visual performance to tell real stories from underappreciated perspectives with the hope to help inspire change.”

Otto Barrow: “Competent: I know what it takes to get through the university bureaucracy, and I can deliver with a light touch.”

Richard Mifsud: “I am an empty chair!”

Enrico Pelganta: “An overworked student who should probably revise its(sic) coursework instead of writing this.”

Marcin Pisanski: “I’m Marcin, I am a lawyer at St Anne’s, and I’m running to be SU President.”

Kelsey Trevett: “An activist committed to fighting for the rights of students, in a university that does not care about us, who is prepared to stand up for each and every student.”

Why, according to you, should students care about the SU?

Michael-Akolade Ayodeji: “Students should care about the SU because major issues that affect our day to day student experience require coordinated and systematic university-wide change. The SU, through access to key decision-makers and stakeholders, is in a strong position to help facilitate this.”

Otto Barrow: “There are some issues that are bigger than individual colleges, such as sexual harassment, decarbonising Oxford, and how the university runs exams. You need a student union to coordinate all of these different things. My vision of the SU is for it to be a bottom-up institution: rather than saying ‘this is what we want to implement’, I want to have an SU that listens to JCRs and MCRs and focuses on the issues that they want us to focus on.”

Richard Mifsud: “Well, that’s a great question. They should care because they’re spending a huge amount of money. Just imagine what we could use that money for other things. I’ve been running this empty chair campaign for three years, and I still don’t have a clue what any of the previous three years’ presidents have done.”

Enrico Pelganta: “They shouldn’t. That’s what SU officers have gotten wrong repeatedly for years. The Collegiate JCR/MCR system means that apart from a legal requirement, the SU has little scope of existence by natural right. There is, however, I believe, scope to make possible for students to care about the SU.”

Marcin Pisanski: “The SU has more power than most students realise. There are some issues where the colleges are simply not enough. For example, if you think about night safety or if you think about returning to Oxford after the pandemic, those are not issues where individual JCRs or individual MCRs could have an impact, so there’s a lot more going on behind the closed doors than people realise.”

Kelsey Trevett: “The SU is a place where people can really be involved, put forward important proposals, and let their voice be heard. The SU can stand up for students who are left behind by the university and remind the university of who it is failing.”

If you were elected president, what is the first thing that you’d change?

Michael-Akolade Ayodeji: The first thing I’d change is the lack of proactiveness in engaging with and supporting JCR and MCR communities and leadership. An SU that students feel apathy towards has no mandate and thus limited ability actually influence the university, regaining student trust and engagement is #1 on my agenda.

Otto Barrow: My first priority would be to ensure that anti-sexual harassment policy is harmonised across colleges, in consultation with It Happens Here and the OSARCC (Oxfordshire Sexual abuse and rape crisis centre). This would involve, among other things, ensuring that all college bar staff are trained in “Ask for Angela”  and that anti-spiking cups are made available at bops and other events, along with producing material to help victims navigate the bureaucracies.

Enrico Pelganta: “I would order the commission of a general review report of the decision-making process behind the organisational and bureaucratic machine of the SU. I believe that the way the SU has been run for years is the principal reason behind of its demise: it is impossible to restore trust in the institution if the SU cannot handle change.”

Marcin Pisanski: “The first thing I would change is to make sure that the SU is actually communicating with the student body. I would attend as many JCR and MCR meetings as I physically could fit into my calendar. I would make sure to not just communicate with students from all backgrounds, colleges, courses, and departments, but also to make sure that I am representing them at a University level.”

Kelsey Trevett: ​​“So much! I think the first thing I would like to change, and work on, is to make our internal bodies more trans-inclusive and less queerphobic generally. We have an issue where in many institutions, trans and nonbinary students and LGBTQ+ students do not feel included, do not feel comfortable, and do not feel safe. It’s important as an SU we stand up for those students, and make the SU a place that is safe for them.”

How do you plan to work with the University administration to advocate for student interests?

Michael-Akolade Ayodeji: I have vast experience in a number of approaches which I’ll employ when appropriate. From advocating on behalf of vulnerable groups as I have done with Mind to negotiating win-win outcomes as I have done with my college to providing and if need be, taking it to the street with activism as I have done protesting against discrimination and immigration-related issues

Otto Barrow: “The big challenge that a lot of people find when they’re trying to enact change is that they don’t understand how the university works – it’s a very arcane, bureaucratic structure. I am aware of how these University structures work. I would try to make as many petitions as possible to demonstrate to the university which issues students really care about, for example with my policy about trashing.”

Enrico Pelganta: “To maximise the impact of the SU, I plan to draft with the aid of fellow elected officers a memorandum of understanding with the University for a new course of partnership which will better consider the needs and interests of the whole student community. This is especially significant in relation to the way there is a need to advocate for more uniform treatment of students across different faculties, especially in terms of examinations.”

Marcin Pisanski: “The important thing is experience. It takes a new president up to a few months to get up to speed with everything that’s going on with the way the University operates. I’ve already served on one committee with the Pro-Vice Chancellor of education. I’ve already been the chair of the student council and a student trustee, so I understand how those relationships work.”

Kelsey Trevett: “There are real tangible steps we can take in terms of representation. Part of my manifesto includes the return of lecture capture and accommodation policies, so that working-class students or disabled students are listened to. We will help communities have a direct voice in our work, and let them be the ones that decide what their needs are. I’ll use the presidency to communicate those needs and promote representation in a way that is tangible and meaningful, not just tokenistic.”

Students at different colleges can have vastly different experiences when asking for support such as hardship funds or action against sexual harassment. What can the SU do to make these outcomes more equitable?

Michael-Akolade Ayodeji: “Firstly by empowering and providing more support to campaigns such as Class Act and IHH as they’re composed of students who understand and are incredibly committed to tackling these issues. Secondly, we need a universal approach to solving these issues which requires cutting bureaucracy and dealing with the disparity in support and process between colleges.”

Otto Barrow: “Obviously there are some colleges with more effective systems than others. I want to provide the basis for colleges to learn from one another in terms of their approaches. The fundamental principle of my campaign is to take these ideas from the bottom up and share them in a decentralised way.”

Richard Mifsud: “We have a wonderful collegiate university with every college having fantastic ideas of their own. There’s not enough money to support these ideas and most are done by people in their spare time,  leading to an uneven experience. I think that the £21000 from the budget could go towards supporting colleges that are less well off. The SU could also promote communication between separate JCRs and MCRs – it would be nice for Oxford SU to realise they are the servant to the JCRs and MCRs and not the leading master.”

Enrico Pelganta: “Centralisation is not necessarily the solution to this, as the college system exists for a reason. I do believe, however, that it is necessary for whoever wins the SU presidency to work with the University administration to push for a system demanding uniform standards for access and quality of service across colleges.”

Marcin Pisanski: “If we manage to not continue spending 500k pounds on non-student staff salaries, then the SU would have much more money to either launch some kind of a central hardship fund run by the SU as many universities in the UK are already doing, or we would be able to spend that money on supporting students, for example, suing their colleges in terms of cases of abuse.”

Kelsey Trevett: “With hardship funds, we can try our best to create a central point for advertising how colleges make those funds available, and work to close disparities for those who are applying. We should also ensure that every college provides as much as it can.

“It is difficult to get colleges to work together on issues like sexual harassment. The policies are so inconsistent. We should ensure that our goal is to make sure student welfare comes first, bring college policies in line, and protect victims.”

How would you get students engaged and interested in the SU?

Michael-Akolade Ayodeji: “ By being accessible,  better at communicating achievements and project progress, engaging with and listening to common room reps so we’re aware of unique issues facing different students and by building trust through maintaining a track record of reliability.”

Otto Barrow: “I aim to move events away from the Student Union building and try to run events in as many different colleges as possible. Most colleges are some distance from the SU building, and many don’t know where it is, so I think that creating events across the university will help to serve the students and represent them more effectively. I also want to get rid of policies that make the SU appear completely inaccessible and which don’t actually have any effect on the issues they’re trying to address – like the ‘ban on clapping’.”

Enrico Pelganta: “I am a strong believer in stronger partnerships and coordination with JCRs/MCRs to increase engagement and interest across different demographics. It is also necessary to build stronger ties with Universities Societies of all kind, so that we can have a comprehensive picture of the student community and its needs.”

Richard Mifsud: “I am hosting the SU empty chair photo competition! If you send a photo of one  to [email protected], a picture of an empty chair will win a £2 box of Celebrations.”

Marcin Pisanski: “It’s a two-way communication. We can’t have students being engaged with the student union without the student union being engaged with students. As I mentioned before I would make sure to go to all the JCR and MCR meetings, I would invite society leaders and JCR leaders and MCR leaders from different backgrounds to different SU committees.”

Kelsey Trevett: “I understand that there is a lot of apathy. I think that this needs to be approached so students feel involved, feel engaged, and feel they have a voice in the SU. Every year, candidates say they want to engage more students, and be more proactive about engaging students, but it is important to go to JCRs, go to MCRs, really engage them, and tell them what the SU is doing. It should be about making students feel like they can really feed into the work of the SU. We should hear the voices of all students, and let people feel able to shape and be involved in processes.”

Which song can you not get enough of right now?

Michael-Akolade Ayodeji:” ‘For Troubled Boys’ by KOTA the Friend”

Otto Barrow: “I recently watched Hot Fuzz, so it’s “The Village Green Preservation Society” by the Kinks”

Richard Mifsud: “Do I know any songs about chairs? There’s ‘The Empty Chair’ by Sting, but I’ve never heard of it, there’s ‘Empty Chairs and Empty Tables’ from Les Miserables. I suppose you could do Live Aid, because it’s a chairity.”

Richard Mifsud: “Do I know any songs about chairs? There’s ‘The Empty Chair’ by Sting, but I’ve never heard of it, there’s ‘Empty Chairs and Empty Tables’ from Les Miserables. I suppose you could do Live Aid, because it’s a chairity.”

Enrico Pelganta:Live Wire by the AC/DC.”

Marcin Pisanski: “Hopefully by Thursday it’s going to be we are the champions, but we’ll see about that.”

Kelsey Trevett: “Just because I listened to it this morning, it’s 22 by Taylor Swift.”

Plush or Bridge?

Michael-Akolade Ayodeji: “I’m not a clubbing guy really”

Otto Barrow: “It depends on the day of the week, so I will have to pass on that one.”

Richard Mifsud: “Neither – I am going to be wandering around aimlessly looking at all the empty benches, going ‘WOW, there’s another!’. I will be very depressed if I see a drunk person sitting in one.”

Enrico Pelganta: “Bridge Thursdays has a special significance for me.”

Marcin Pisanski: “I love the old plush, I’m not the greatest fan of the new one, but I think still Plush.”

Kelsey Trevett: “Definitely Plush.”

Port & Policy or Beer & Bickering?

Michael-Akolade Ayodeji:  Laughs. “This will get me in trouble…Don’t really go to either ….. Beer and Bickering”

Otto Barrow: “Port and Policy is more fun as a performance, but Beer and Bickering is more towards where I lean in my actual views on things. I think it’s like the Cavaliers/Roundheads debate.”

Richard Mifsud: “What the hell is Beer and Bickering? [I explain that it is a tamer and less ‘controversial’ P&P]. Thespy Bear likes the dramatic, so he will go to Port and Policy.  Depressed Moose, my treasurer, is going to go to Beer and Bickering because he feels like all he can do is bicker.”

Enrico Pelganta: “Would you prefer to be hanged or shot? I am joking, although I have been starting to appreciate the latter more in recent times after being an assiduous frequenter of the former.”

Marcin Pisanski: “If elected I’m probably going to be going to both to make sure that I’m listening to students from different backgrounds, so I’m just going to say both.”

Kelsey Trevett: “Neither, but if I had to pick one, probably Beer & Bickering.”

Najar’s or Hassan’s?

Michael-Akolade Ayodeji: “Ahmed’s all the way”

Otto Barrow: “Najar’s”

Richard Mifsud: You think I have time to eat in my pursuit of empty chairs?”

Enrico Pelganta: “As I used to be vegetarian in the past, so I would probably go for Najar’s.”

Marcin Pisanski: “Hassan’s! (without hesitation).”

Kelsey Trevett: “Hassan’s, because I live right by it!”

Voting for the 2021 SU Elections is now open! Follow this link to cast your vote.

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