After a hectic week within uea(su) largely focussed on Union Council’s decision to stop the SU selling beef, campaigns and democracy officer Sophie Atherton and I sat down to discuss what she’s been getting up to in her second year within the role. We met in a bookable room in Union House, away from the hustle and bustle of the Hive.
I wanted to talk about the elephant, or rather cow, in the room. “So Union Council happened last week,” she tells me. “We had a motion called ‘We have beef with beef’. Our environment officer proposed that motion and I seconded it in support. I have sustainability within my remit, so I thought it was appropriate, and I agree with the sentiments of it. Fundamentally what it proposes is that uea(su) outlets remove the sale of beef and we lobby the university to do the same. The university doesn’t have to do what we say. It would be amazing if they do look at this because beef is one of the most unsustainable meats. If you’re going to eat meat – eat chicken or pork – it’s more sustainable than beef.”
Atherton says, “UEA declared their climate and biodiversity emergency earlier this year. So, I think this is just sort of a thing that’s going to keep on coming.”
Although there are 17,000 students at UEA, only 90 voted on the motion, which passed by just 1%.
Atherton tells me, “When you look at those 90 representatives, we do represent the student body. I think anybody who wasn’t happy with the decision-making process, I tell them go and fill out our democracy survey that’s currently going on or get involved in the discussion of our review, because if you don’t like our decision making – that’s why that review is taking place.”
We turn our discussion to the upcoming general election on 12th December. Atherton explains she’s been working with the city council to encourage students to register to vote.
“I do work with our marketing team to get some stuff put together for doing a slow push – we knew a general election was coming in the current political climate.”
She adds, “The plan is to have more voter registration drives, which I’m hoping to do in collaboration with the political student societies on campus. The hustings will take place before the deadline to register. So hopefully that will be another drive for people to come and get involved in the discussion that’s being had about the decision we all have to make on the 12th. And don’t forget to register to vote whilst you’re here.”
Interestingly, Atherton states, “It’s probably worth noting the university has a legal requirement to encourage students to register to vote. First year students and student’s living on campus typically get automatically registered. And that’s the result of a data sharing agreement that the university has got set out. I believe it’s in the works to make that happen for second and third years and there are more discussions with the university and the city council to [make] that happen.”
Atherton says the reason students should vote is to “get to have their voice.”
“If we can get students and young people 18 to 24 to vote, then they’ll have conversations with friends. I think it’ll make such a huge difference,” she adds.
Atherton moves the conversation to Brexit. “If we look at the Brexit referendum the younger electorate voted more to remain and the older electorate voted more to leave. Obviously it was a close result. If we can encourage 18 year olds from day one when they turn 18 [to vote]… I think hopefully we can see some really positive changes in electoral engagement.”
But Atherton’s job doesn’t only revolve around student and national politics. In her manifesto she said she wanted to increase SU transparency. I ask her whether she’d succeeded.
“I’d say yes and no. I think there’s always more we can do. Something I’ve been really keen on is having more Instagram stories about what us as officers are up to. I always do a blog on what happens at the last union council, so I’m linking in my officer update for that so the wider student population can see that.”
Atherton talk to me about her attempt to engage students. “I sent out emails to the heads of each school saying, ‘this the work I’m doing, if you can promote that to your students, that would be really great’. I think I can do so much and I want students to come and talk to me. I want to hear their opinions on how we can change things positively.”
In addition to engaging the wider student community, Atherton reveals, “Something I was really keen to do in my manifesto and I think I did list it, is I want office hours. “Unfortunately, this isn’t something I’ve been able to achieve yet. I’m wanting to get banners saying this is your democracy officers and all five full time offices will eventually have these. I think it would be good to set up hubs in the Hive – key places students will be so that students can come and talk to us. I’m always at the end of an email […] I’m more than happy to be approached.”
Atherton recently attended a student accommodation roundtable. Atherton seems set on claiming an inaccuracy in a tweet by universities minister Chris Skidmore.
“I was one of two student representatives that were in the room, which differs to Chris Skidmore’s tweet saying that there was four – there was two of us.”
Atherton tells me about UEA and student purpose-built accommodation, “Obviously you’ve probably seen Crown Court go up and Crown Place and the second tower wasn’t ready in time.” Atherton explains, “So a discussion on actually having them [Crown Court and Crown Place] built in time came up and we talked about codes and regulations and whether they can be tightened, and different students informed.” Atherton divulges that some students had to be informed that their student accommodation wouldn’t be ready in time for their arrival. Atherton explains, “we allowed them to come out of that [student accommodation] contract and move elsewhere if they want to.”
When discussing accommodation rent pricing further, Atherton outlines, “I think the prices range from between 600 pounds and a thousand pounds a month in Crown Place, which is quite expensive, I mean, I know I wouldn’t be able to afford it.”
Another important point of discussion within the interview was the link between accommodation and student wellbeing. “We spoke a little bit about wellbeing and I raised the point, ‘why should the maximum student loan for the highest accommodation?’ ‘Is it because they haven’t attended university before and it’s a safety mechanism?’ That’s a piece of work I would like the university to do. I have raised it with various individuals to work towards because I think that’s a key bit of information in improving Wolfson and Orwell – which are lower ranked accommodations.”
Atherton remarks, “The discussions I’ve had with university staff from a student’s union perspective, people never agree with increasing accommodation.” Atherton states, “According to the uni poll survey that went live last year and we’re in the bottom third [for pricing], but I still have students telling me the accommodation is too expensive. So I think it’s balancing that.”
Atherton confirmed her stance, saying “I would never say increase rents. I fought on a manifesto way back in March saying I want fair rents for students.”
I wonder whether accommodation pricing is particularly bad at UEA or whether it is a nationwide problem?”
Atherton tells me, “It is a nationwide problem. I know there is a nationwide scheme that the welfare officers worked quite passionately on called: ‘cut the rent’ and ‘rent strike’”. Atherton outlines, “So I think it is a national problem and I think it needs to be addressed in a wide scale, which is why Chris Skidmore, I think, had that roundtable. It was something on the cards before he got an interest because the Department for Education were setting up an accommodation advisory group, which I’d been invited along to feed into the response to the Augar review – whether the Augar review will be implemented – we don’t know, but I don’t think accommodation is going to be stopped talking about soon.”
Atherton wants the university to be have a more “transparent approach” to accomodation prices.
“I think it’s all well and good saying it’s going back into the university, so it’s benefiting students. But I think there needs to be a transparent approach to it.”
She adds, “I think that transparency does need to be done so that students can understand where that money is going. Because surplus needs to be done sometimes for maintenance, for security and for the wardens that look after the accommodation.”
We end our interview talking about her role and how she may have changed the way she conducts it. Atherton says, “I think this role is really rewarding. It’s really difficult at times. And I think we’re all human, we support students and are doing everything we possibly can. I’d say if someone’s passionate about changing things definitely consider going for an officer role, whether that be a part time, or a full-time position. I definitely see the benefits of it even through the highs and lows of the role.”