Let slip the hacks of OUSU!

On 13 November, voting will open for OUSU President, Vice-Presidents and other representatives. This year has two candidates for the top position – Tom Rutland, finalist in PPE at Jesus, and Izzy Westbury, in her 4th year at Oxford, studying physiological sciences at Hertford.

Following results showing that OUSU is the least popular student union in the country, with only 39% of finalists happy with the service it provides,  both candidates are stressing the need for  greater communication of OUSU’s activities, and more interaction with the student body as a whole.

To achieve this, both candidates want to increase OUSU funding, from the current £400,000 annually, to something nearer the £1.8 million average of other Russell Group universities.

Rutland proposes to do this, in part by lobbying the university, but also by increased commercial ventures on OUSU’s part. However Westbury, recognising that the lobbying for increased funding is a long term initiative, suggests prioritising OUSU’s agenda to allocate the budget more efficiently.

Both Westbury and Rutland have a variety of experience in the sphere of university politics. Westbury held the presidency of the Oxford Union until last year, overseeing a budget of £950,000 and 15 full-time staff. For this, she was lauded by the Telegraph as ‘the most engaging President that the Oxford Union has had in years’. Westbury was was also the marketing director for the RAG ball last year. She believes that her experience as Union President, dealing with the national press, as well the Charitable Commission and other public bodies, will assist her performance as OUSU president. In addition, she is the Vice-President of the England cricket ‘A’ team, a Hockey Blue, has written several articles for the Cherwell, and serves as student ambassador for a number of charities.

Rutland’s experience is more specifically political. He is currently finishing his term as Jesus JCR president, during which he has pushed through a renovation of the college bar, limited rent rises, introduced academic feedback sessions, and most recently, brought in a bursary for students undertaking low-paid or unpaid internships during holidays. As an OUSU NUS delegate, Rutland addressed a 1000-strong NUS conference last year,  supporting plans to lobby the government for higher maintenance loans for students studying in more expensive areas, such as Oxford and London- a motion which was later passed. In association with OUSU, Rutland has also successfully lobbied MPs Andrew Smith and Nicola Blackwood, members for Oxford East and Oxford West and Abingdon respectively, to oppose reduction in government funding for humanities subjects.

Greater communication with the student body is a main priority for both candidates. One of Rutland’s proposals is to introduce weekly drop-in sessions at the OUSU offices with sabbatical officers for students who want particular issues raised. He wants to facilitate greater interaction with JCR and MCR meetings, both to explain OUSU’s work to students, and receive feedback from them.

Westbury also has greater communication as a priority, promising have a bigger OUSU presence at JCR and MCR meetings, and to introduce an annual Common Room Conference, to improve cross common room co-operation. Capitalising on the importance and accessibility of social networking to Oxford students, she plans to launch more sustained online OUSU campaigns, and to form the weekly email to all students on more engaging lines.

Whilst the two candidates are both highly committed to better communication on OUSU’s part, there is a great disparity in their online presence. Rutland’s campaign, ‘Tom4OUSU’ boasts a slick website with details of all associated candidates, whereas Westbury’s counterpart on the OUSU website is only a PDF outlining her main policies. Whilst Westbury’s team does have some online publicity, including a Twitter profile and Facebook page, the difference can be felt in their social networking followings – the ‘Tom4OUSU’ group on Facebook has 1,585 members, whereas ‘TeamWestbury’ has only 108 ‘likes’ at the time of writing.

Appealing to the graduate vote, both candidates want improved access to funding and loans for postgraduate students. Westbury proposes to do this by lobbying for larger donations from the Oxford Thinking campaign, which currently donates only 4% of its £1.3 billion fundraising pot to graduate funding. Rutland has a similar policy, but would like OUSU to undertake additional campaigns on a national scale, to persuade the government to extend the student loan system to include postgraduates.

Westbury is also proposing to improve teaching opportunities for MPhil and DPhil students, both to gain academic skills, and to supplement their income. Additionally, she wants fairer appointment of postgrads to lectureships and junior research fellowships, which she currently sees as an instance of “who you know, not what you know”, and an online, centralised website for information on postgraduate studies.

Access more generally has been identified by both candidates as a problem area. Westbury plans to counteract this by supporting the TeachFirst scheme, which not only provides jobs for Oxford graduates, but increases enrolment from less privileged backgrounds. She is also proposing a scheme asking each college to build a relationship with a struggling state school.

She suggests the college can have direct discussions with teachers and headteachers to try and boost applications. Although she supports the fee waiver for poorer students, Westbury believes that the most effective way to improve access will not be through national lobbying, but with direct communication with schools, pupils and teachers.

Similarly, Rutland plans to get each college to appoint an Oxford teacher ambassador in every school in their allocated region, and to have an annual meeting with these representatives. He is also committed to defending the fee waiver for students from poorer households. On a smaller scale, Rutland wants to lower living costs for students across the board, including organising student discounts, and campaigning for lower live-out student rents across the city.

In response to student demand for better services, following the new tripling of tuition fees, both candidates have promised to campaign for improved academic facilities. For Rutland, this involves increasing library opening hours across weekends, recording all lectures and making them available online, and implementing more academic feedback sessions across all departments.

Westbury wants to place greater responsibility on the Joint Consultative Committee (JCC) role, which represents undergraduates’ concerns to their department, and wants to reform collegiate student feedback sessions.

Rutland is emphasising student involvement at every level, and he hopes his two fresher candidates, Anya Metzer and Aled Jones, will help to interest more junior members of the university in OUSU activities. In Westbury’s case, although she also has two freshers on her team, the focus is on experience – one third of TeamWestbury’s positions have grads running for them.

Westbury cites her vice-president for welfare and equal opportunities, Caroline George, and her vice-president for academic affairs, Rachel Pickering, as some of the strongest members of her team. This is on account of their dedication to communication with the student body, and their experience –George was welfare rep at Merton, and Pickering was Hertford JCR president.