“We Should Get Better At Engaging Students”

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David Barclay looks like he wouldn’t hurt a fly. After a week talking to Highly Important Publications about motions of no confidence and answering endless questions about AC Grayling’s £18k-a-year-isn’t-that-a-lot New College of the Humanities, I feel a bit mean interrogating the poor bloke for an, erm, Slightly Less Important publication.

But still, you’ve got to take what comes-atcha from a student journo as President of Oxford University Student Union – even accusations of pointlessness, “anorak-wearing-ness”, and “uninspiring” policy – which were some of the responses when I asked students to summarise OUSU.

“I would obviously disagree that we are uninspiring and distant,” Barclay says of OUSU, which he will be leaving at the end of term after a year in office. “I think we’ve done lots of really big things this year…we’ve transported 400 students to national demos…In terms of the really big impact we had on the fee waivers and the no confidence campaign in the run up to the congregation debate at the end of this year.”

Barclay’s term has been a rocky year for Higher Education by most standards. Fees have nearly trebled at three-quarters of universities. International students will find it harder to work or study beyond their first degree because of visa reform. Private colleges are higher on the government’s agenda. Barclay is adamant that the student union has achieved: “The University wanted to bring in A* AA across all subjects, and we stopped them. They wanted to cut the overall amount spent on bursaries – we stopped them. The no confidence stuff was pushed by us and wouldn’t have happened without us.”

Yet despite generations of presidents pushing OUSU’s importance, does it still remain in a quandary? The collegiate system – to use a ghastly phrase favoured by admissions staff from Oxford spire to Cambridge cobble – provides us with nice cushy welfare teams, E&E ’till it’s coming out of your ears and a way to protest if your accommodation bill goes up by double figures. In other words, all the stuff provided by student unions at other universities.

Barclay is quick and definite in his obviously well-rehearsed argument: “Whereas other student unions are involved daily in things like the price of beer, the cost of accommodation, student discipline issues – those are the things that in Oxford get dealt with at college level, and they should do.”

More adamantly, he puts forward the case for a network outside the sometimes stifling college atmosphere: “I think the idea that OUSU is duplicating services you can get elsewhere – I just don’t see it, I think it’s a myth. The student advice service, for example, has dealt with hundreds of cases this year – students that are about to get kicked out of university, students that have mental health problems, students that have financial issues…Common rooms are frankly not equipped to deal with that severity of issue. For bigger problems colleges are an actively difficult place – if you’ve got a problem with your tutor, or another common room committee member, for example, the last thing you want is to try to or be forced to resolve that within the college community.”

But still…if there are students out there who, when posed with the OUSU acronym, reply, “Who?”, isn’t there a problem? In his election year, only 16 percent of students voted. Barclay acknowledges there is work to be done in telling students what he and the sabbatical officers at 2 Worcester Street actually do all day: “I think what we do is objectively beneficial to students…I just think that we should get better at engaging with students, telling them what we’re doing.”

Barclay explains that a new “student communications offer” has just been appointed. So does that mean more PR? “I don’t think OUSU has any need for spin in terms of what we’re doing. It’s not that we need to put on some kind of face, I just think that we should get better at engaging with students, telling them what we’re doing.”

In fact he’s not particularly worried about OUSU’s image – even if that does mean it’s anorak-wearing. “I understand there are people who have a certain image of OUSU…I think it’s a place where people often have really strong values, and want to put those into action, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.”

I get the feeling Barclay isn’t massively worried if there are still students who say “Who?”, or think of OUSU as a nice bunch of overgrown undergrads: “I’m not a person who cares about the image of OUSU for its own sake. If students don’t know that it’s us, that’s not a problem for me, um, if we help students get a better deal on their rent and the students don’t find out it was us who did it, again, that’s not a problem.”

Barclay admits it’s been a “massively stressful” year. Negotiating with the Deputy PM (and, presumably, students’ changing views of him), organising a complete office move, drawing up commercial contracts, making sure the piddly coffers balance in some shape or form… “At the start of year we lost our general manager within about a week – erm, and then for various reasons there wasn’t quite the support from the University as we had in the past… So it was basically me in charge, and last year’s team did a fantastic job but there was still lots to be done…I think we’ve come a long way from that. OUSU has held its own financially too, which has been rare in OUSU history.”

Where next for Barclay? “I’m getting married!” And then a year in China with his fiancée, teaching English, is where, although “we’re still waiting to hear to see if the Chinese government will let me in, but, hopefully they’ve not Googled me ’cos I’m not sure they’d be particularly pleased.”

Ahhh, and that wedding. A not-so-secret passion for Hello! wedding splashes means I’m dying to hear all the plans: “Um. Well, most of the big things are now organised, it’s just the stressful little things…um also the stag do to survive – although I think my brother’s organising it and he’s quite disorganised and so I’m hoping he won’t come up with anything too horrific.”

And after that? Barclay is not too sure. He’s not heading for the dispatch box just yet: “I just don’t have that much time for people who go straight into the Westminster bubble…I mean what do you have to contribute if you go from Oxbridge straight to Westminster? At no point have you interacted with the real world.”

That might be the case – although an extra year in Oxford might not be considered “real” either. Whichever way, Dreamy Dave and his dimples might convince even some of the least union-friendly that OUSU can pack a punch.