From OUSU to Number 10

News

Stefan Baskerville arrives at his office 15 minutes late, soggy from the downpour, and in a less than welcoming mood after nearly three hours in a University committee.

After he decides his office is too messy for the photographer, and draws special attention to the state of his furniture, we decide to migrate to a nearby coffee shop to dissect his year as OUSU President.

Baskerville has no problem delivering an extended list of this year’s successes in the students’ union – of which, he points out, there have been many.

Highlights have included his visit to Westminster – at which the two local MPs at the time pledged to vote against tuition fee rises in the next Parliament – the changes to OUSU’s funding model, which mean it will now be financed by a block grant from the University rather than affiliation fees from JCRs, and the University-wide teaching review conducted this term.

He is keen to emphasise that the achievements of the year are not just those projects which have been completed – he is also pleased with the progress made towards turning the SU into an independent charity.

He explains: “I suppose if you were to take one highlight in the year, it would be not just the changing of the funding model, but also the development of the organisation as we move towards becoming a charity independent of the University.” He hopes this process will be completed within the next six weeks.

Asked for his regrets, Baskerville takes his time in answering, and when he does displays an awkward air of caution typical among student politicians.

His reaction to questions he does not want to answer is a long way off the sleek avoidance of the Campbell/Mandelson clan: “I think on most of the big decisions this year, I have got them right… I think I could have been bolder and more forthright in raising issues that we wanted to see changes in the University.”

Without money troubles plaguing the organisation, Baskerville hopes that his successors as President will have more time to concentrate on other aspects of the job.

“I think there will inevitably be more time for sabbaticals next year to concentrate on working with common room officers and with and for students, because they won’t have to spend as much time thinking about generating income through commercial activity.”

The President’s role is not, however, the only position which looks like it will undergo a transformation in the near future – discussions over the removal of the VP for Charities and Communities, and its replacement with a ‘Campaigns and Democracy’ role, have revealed pockets of passionate opposition and support to the change.

The change would be, Baskerville believes, for the best: “I think it’s a good idea… There are lots of reasons, I think, to have that job. One is that I think there is a real knowledge gap right now, between what students perceive their SU as being, and what it really is.”

His own sabbatical team have been united on many issues, he says. While there have been disagreements, there have been few arguments. But Baskerville admits that he is not afraid to pull rank when decisions need to be taken.

“Yes it’s very important to consult with colleagues, and get a broad range of opinion, but if you can’t reach consensus then the decision has to fall to somebody, and if you’re doing the job of President, then it falls to you to make the choice. I don’t think that has happened that many times this year, but it is not something that makes me feel uncomfortable,” he explains.

Jonny Medland, VP for Access and Academic Affairs, and Baskerville’s housemate as well as colleague, has been an “incredible support” over the year.

He describes their relationship as “a very, very productive friendship”, and points out, “[Medland] does have an extraordinary capacity to consume large amounts of information.”

Relationships with the central University have also been amicable, and Baskerville is quick to praise the work of Andrew Hamilton, Oxford’s Vice-Chancellor.

This is more than can be said, however, about his feelings towards the student press, which Baskerville believes has sometimes exhibited a “total disregard for the truth.”

Student journalists are, he argues, often more interested in a story than an accurate representation of events. “I think a lot of student journalists don’t know what they are talking about. I think at times this year there have been seriously misleading articles in the student press,” he said.

OUSU itself has some way to go as an institution, judging by Baskerville’s analysis of the situation. The premises, for a start, are widely considered inadequate, as he explains.

“We absolutely need to move out of Thomas Hull House. It is in a bad state, it is inefficient, both in terms of the use of the space, and in terms of energy. It is expensive comparatively to what we could get elsewhere, and it was an improvement on the previous premises because it has a lift, but it is by no means accessible to disabled students. I don’t view it as acceptable that a students union is housed in a building that is not accessible to all.”

His ambitions for the future are, he says, not set in stone. We won’t see him in Number 10 in the near future – though it certainly isn’t a long-term impossibility.

While he admits he has considered the top job in politics, he wonders whether he would be put to better use elsewhere: “I was once dead set on that as the goal, of being PM, but I think now I view it as one of a range of possibilities… I do now wonder whether or not the best way to effect change is just by becoming Prime Minister.”