The same old spiel is seen in SU president elections year after year. Candidates looking to play it safe cover blanket mental health support and lecture recordings, with those pushing the boat out stretching to promises of therapy dogs and petting zoos – the real vote-winners.
Differentiation is only found in how far candidates are willing to go, and how much embarrassment they can endure, in shamelessly promoting themselves for a week.
This year, however, the pandemic has turned safety-net policies on their head and created an entirely new environment for our SU and the role of its President. Candidates, therefore, have been left stranded without any clue what their opposition might be promising. The result is three wildly different candidates, each pitching an entirely unique take on what they will do with the role.
First up, Annie Willingham, this year’s Education Officer. True to form as the incumbent candidate, Annie’s manifesto features the word “lobby” six times alongside several promises to get other groups to do a lot of work. That said, Annie’s proven experience and knowledge of the SU, University and higher education sector are unmatched in this race, a critical factor more than ever given the financial challenges seen across the board.
This experience shone through in my interview with Annie, as it does her broader campaign, with much of her objectives being grounded in realism and rationality. That is not to say a few wacky suggestions didn’t make it through the net. Given the current state of the University, developing a functioning, secure and valuable app, that captures everything Annie hopes, isn’t far from impossible. It would take well over a year of development, cost a moderate fortune, and require a violently fragmented institution, that can’t agree on its acronyms, to work together effectively. Further, considering campus’ vegan takeaway lasted less than eighteen months, a zero-waste store sounds a lot like another moon shot. However, you can listen to Annie justify these plans in our interview above.
Perhaps the most surprising thing on Annie’s manifesto was her eagerness to push the University’s senior management team towards greater transparency. This isn’t something we’ve seen a great deal of from the current officer team, with their approach prioritising relationships with these leaders. Arguing to the contrary, they’d point to Q&As and videos from the top team, although there were very few difficult questions asked or answered and were never reinforced with follow ups. Of course, Annie is only one part of this team, but to radically improve transparency would require a substantial pivot from her current team’s approach.
Previous SU leaders have achieved greater transparency through working closely with student media, yet as with the other candidates, an approach to working with media was not included in Annie’s manifesto. In our interview, she backtracked on a statement demonstrating an intention to police media if they are about to “cause reputational harm” to the SU, but did continue to say her priority would be to ensure the group’s “professionalism”, which we’ll try not to take personally.
Our next candidate, Rachelle Wabissa, took the decision to run after identifying a lack of diversity amongst previous presidents, which they say has had a damaging effect on the decisions made. In their words: “the reason why I didn’t feel like some of the policies didn’t suit people like me, is because people like me have never been in the room – so I decided to run.”
While themes of representation are found in Rachelle’s manifesto, their campaign is limited in scope and focussed on three narrow issues. The omission of themes central to the role of president could be critical. The financial challenges currently facing the SU are vast and will dominate the president’s time next year, but Rachelle’s campaign is yet to show any awareness of these challenges, or to propose any solutions. When questioned on their approach to solving the shortfall, Rachelle wouldn’t commit to cutting any areas specifically, and suggested that savings could be made without compromising any of the SU’s operations.
A focus on no-detriment measures may be appreciated by many students, particularly when Rachelle promises greater transparency following a year of slow decisions and arguably poor communication. However, when Bath’s competing institutions, particularly within the Russell Group, are taking a ruthless, unwavering approach to such policies, to commit to no-detriment measures in the long term could feel like the value of our degrees might take a hit. When asked about this, Rachelle convincingly put forward that removing the need for evidence would simply remove an inconvenience for people trying to enjoy student life and would do little harm to our job prospects. Following this interview, we did some further research and higher education experts are debating the case, with some arguing that such measures have already exacerbated issues with grade inflation, a problem that the sector had begun to curb before the pandemic.
The third candidate, Kamakshi Khandelwal, is a Master’s student and chartered accountant who has only been at Bath for this academic year, but believes she can “bring people together and get stuff done”. Throughout our interview and her campaign, Kamakshi emphasised the soft skills she has developed across her many degrees and roles. She plays it safe with many of her priorities, but lacks ambition in areas where others don’t.
Eager to get staff to start putting the hours, Kamakshi wants more commitments from academic staff to help students out. Absent from other manifestos, Kamakshi seeks to resolve the long-standing problem of commitment-phobic personal tutors and supervisors in certain departments, who have contractual obligations to engage with their tutees on a termly basis. While it is another recurring theme in elections, the issue has been absent from SU priorities this year, with the current team focussing on thanking said staff instead, somewhat forgetting what the first initial of SU stands for. Previous officers have tried to make a change here, and to no avail, so it will not be an easy challenge. Kamakshi’s plans do, however, get even more bold. She says staff should be working outside of regular hours to be at the beck and call of students, which certainly seems like a stretch and may even break a few employment laws, but you can listen to her explanation on our interview above.
In this interview, Kamakshi and I covered some of the big issues facing the SU and higher education, where we discovered some of her interesting views and beliefs. Kamakshi is a big believer in freedom of speech, going as far as supporting the government’s new “free speech champion” which was branded as controversial and unnecessary by other candidates and a broad range of higher education experts and commentators.
There is only one thing that can be assured in this race, and that is that no one will know which way it is going to go until the results are released. While this article has been critical, in accordance with our function as student media, each candidate has been immensely brave in putting themselves forward and being open to such criticism; for this, we have the utmost respect for them. They have each put forward a unique offering for us to consider, with its own merits and shortcomings.
This year, the differences are more significant than perhaps ever before, so please do take the time to consider each candidate, evaluate what the SU needs most at this pressing time, and vote when polls open on Tuesday.