Image Description: White text “The Oxford Union Presidential Candidates” on a dark blue background with a photo of Adam and a photo of Geneva.
In the run-up to the Union elections tomorrow, Profile Editor Isaac Healey sat down with both candidates for President, Adam Roble and Geneva Roy, to find out their thoughts about, and vision for, the Oxford Union. Geneva is a third-year PPE student at Brasenose and is the current Treasurer. Adam, meanwhile, is a second-year HisPol student at Teddy Hall and is currently Secretary of the Union. I put the same questions to both candidates to see how they compare on significant issues.
What have you done that qualifies you to be president?
Geneva: I think are two broad streams, in terms of my experience. The first one is that I have a good amount of experience in terms of Union events. I’ve organised more events than the other candidate, I’ve helped arrange more events, facilitated more events, worked more vac days, helped raise more money, secured more floor prizes and Treasurer’s Treats. What I feel I’ve done is a broad array of aspects of Union events and Union activities that you do when you’re on the committee, and I think that I’ve had enough experience in terms of working on these, contributing to them and participating in them such that I understand how the union operate and I understand what the union can do at its highlight and I understand why the union isn’t there in terms of what it can provide the members, but I have also seen how it is possible to provide that.
The second Stream of qualification I have is my commitment to the debating side of the union. At the core I believe the Union is the debating society and what it was, I believe, initially set up for. I think I’m committed to debating and the competitive side of debating which is something that is unique in terms of the candidates.
I’ve overseen competitive debating for about a year now and I’m also the coach of the beginners and advanced squads, I’ve worked with them in terms of training and competitions and getting to know the debaters. I’ve also been a convenor of tournaments, I’ve organised workshops for the Said Business School, and I’ve also delivered on a pledge I made in terms of women’s debating outreach, and women’s and non-binary workshops in terms of training those individuals as an access initiative. This means that I have the qualifications in terms of the events side of the Union and in terms of the debating side of the Union. My big focus is bringing the debating back up to a key priority of the Union which I personally believe it’s not at the moment. Debaters and the way in which they train and compete need to become a bigger focus for the Union as a whole.
Adam: I’ve done lots of things, like my experience in teaching state school debating and having devoted more hours and more time to it than any other candidate. A second thing is how committed I am to access in various ways; from the point of view of race, I was the cultural society access ambassador through which I was the host of an offer holders’ open day. I have championed lots of important issues like access for membership fees.
The current President gave evidence that I had been banging on about a tiered access membership in every single meeting… This is a win-win: it not only helps the Union’s financial stability but also even more people will get membership who otherwise wouldn’t have. My own personal life experience of being Somali as well has taught me a lot of life lessons. As well as having coached debating in Rwanda and China on a charity programme which is really valuable and significant. But above all else, because I’m passionate about it and I care about it.
What’s the worst thing about the union?
Geneva: Personally I believe the worst part of the union is that there are obvious deficiencies in how the structure is operated. I think there are quite comprehensive ways that you could fix those and you could make the Union personally better, there is an unwillingness to do so because it comes at the detriment of the individuals who are involved, and I personally think that the Union has a lot of issues, that it’s incredibly exclusionary, it’s incredibly isolated it caters to a very select group of individuals and that is a horrific problem and one of the worst parts about it. The reason that that is such a crucial problem is that people are unwilling to fix it on the inside. This is one of the main things that my campaign, and the campaign that I have been a part of, is dedicated to fixing in order to fix the outcomes you have to fix the inside issues first.
[When you say people are unwilling to fix it, do you mean students or staff?] There are some comprehensive policies that can be implemented to fix it but individuals on committees are unwilling to do that because it comes at the detriment of their own forward advancement.
Adam: The worst thing about the Union is the image it has and how non inclusive it is to people. I could give you an answer about how there aren’t enough STEM speakers or how there need to be even more debating workshops which I have pledged already, in particular for graduate students. The crux of it, though, is the idea that people have of the Union in their own minds given recent events but also historically what the Union has stood up for, or more infamously not stood up for at all. So it’s the perception of the Union that is inherently linked to many problems within it.
What will you do for debating in the union?
Geneva: There are three key things I want to improve:
— Provide a debating stipend – a grant at the beginning of each term or year which will enable us to send more people to competitions and more novices, hold more internal events and more internal workshops so we enhance everyone in debating rather than having to direct resources to the top end.
— Provide An SBS debating programme, there is a large number of graduate debaters, clearly those who come from the Business School who are interested in getting involved in debating and hone their skills but who are systematically locked out because of the way the structure operates and the way we organise and run events and workshops. An SBS program would slot into their MBA and enable them to see progression across the term, across the year, which will bring them in more into the Union and more into debating, so they get much more out of it than within the structure that is primarily designed for undergraduates.
— Open up paper speeches — which are a big part of the union and people see them as incredibly prestigious — to non-committee people, let people audition and take part. People who put a lot of time into debating can get one of the coolest things that people do at the Union and it would mean a lot for members to be able to do that.
Adam: The Create team has pledged graduate debate workshops. I have personal experience as the Debating Sponsorship Officer for the Debate Selections Committee. Funding for debating is really important because if we have more funding then we can send even more people to competitions amongst other fun things like investing money in socials for debating.
There’s also more we can do with regards to state school debate outreach, I hosted a schools debating workshop and I judged beginners debating this term and so I recognise development is really important. This means investing time in people; not just people at the top level who have been doing it for years and come to Oxford in the knowledge that they’ll go straight into advanced squads. More, the people who are unsure who like me start off wanting confidence and to build up skills.
What is the balance to be struck between protecting the interests of members and the union as an institution and improving access in the union, how do you intend to do that?
Geneva: Provision for this is threefold. The first step is to address the politicisation of the Union way in which it operates. The way I intend to do that is firstly ban ‘hack’ messages and the ability for individuals to directly message people to come out and vote for them. I personally believe this creates an incredibly negative perception of the Union: people associate it quite negatively and are on willing to engage with it because of this. I also think it doesn’t necessarily mean the best candidates are elected but the candidates that message the most people and play the system best get elected. The second thing I want to do is to prevent people running for President in the term in which they hold office. That is to say, in the term in which you’re Librarian or Treasurer or Secretary you can’t run directly for President, you must wait your turn to do it when you leave. The reason for this is because I believe that in the terms you hold office it enables you greater control over the committee and greater of an ability to divide the committee and politicise it, such that it can I longer do its effective role.
The outcome of these is quite clear: the Union doesn’t become so student politics-focused or focussed on the individual, but it addresses the issues. Individuals have a tendency to focus on themselves in the union at the expense of pushing policies that need to be focussed on. The key thing is addressing the root causes of the Union: hack messages, exclusion, division rather than the symptoms. I don’t believe in putting bandaids to bullet holes: flowery policies that sound good but don’t address the key issues.
In terms of addressing involvement in the Union, I think the first step is having a membership fee audit. What this looks like is bringing external people in and looking at how possible it is to reduce the membership fee, and I believe that it is, and looking at the ways in which you can do that in an effective manner that the Union can continue as an institution but is not exclusionary because of the price required to access it. The second thing is the debating side that I talked about before bringing in novices. Additionally, there are key access involvement things you can address, enabling all access members who apply to committee a guaranteed interview. I believe what happens is a lot of access get turned away or believe that they will get turned away so they don’t apply in the first place, do you get a committee that is heavily dominated by individuals who went to incredibly wealthy schools or have strong backgrounds and don’t have the backgrounds that we want to be involved.
Finally, I want to address the state school outreach programme and go beyond the slide show we send by sending individuals to schools that they can relate to who have situations parallel to their own. I think this would be beneficial to encouraging individuals coming to Oxford to know that the Union is a place for them and a place they can get involved with. I think we should address the involvement aspect in terms of making the Union far more inclusive and far less exclusionary. It has become a place heavily for insiders and the outsiders are pushed away and I think it’s incredibly important to return the union to what it was meant for. A place for everyone rather than just those in the know or those from privileged backgrounds.
Step three is event reform but I think this is something that is impossible to do unless you are fixing politicisation and have people willing to make hard decisions and people involved to make that difference. Event reforms looks like: improving the racial diversity ratio of speakers that we address, it’s about having audition paper speeches, an SBS debating programme, a happy hour in the bar. All these things make the Union a place for everyone and these can only be achieved if you solve the root problems first.
Adam: When we look at making the Union more accessible people shouldn’t see it as at odds with the interests of members. I myself wouldn’t be disgruntled if membership fees were reduced because it would be beneficial to the people after me. Obviously, I might be annoyed that it didn’t happen sooner and in that case, people should ask questions about why it didn’t, especially people who have been on committee for many terms longer.
We haven’t pledged an audit into the possibility of reduced membership fees, as other campaigns have, we have just pledged reduced membership fees because it’s something that’s feasible, that we can do, and that I have already taken tangible steps to do. With the tiered access membership, I have already put together numerical proposals that I will get passed through committee. I have already had the debates, asked the questions, and got the advice I need. This is something I want to do and I care about and there shouldn’t be a trade-off between the interests of members and improving access. We need to think not just about ourselves but also future Oxonians.
What is the one thing that you would most like to see through if you are elected?
Geneva: I’d ban hack messages. It makes it more about politicisation, how many people you message. It means you don’t get people looking at things like manifestoes, looking at qualifications, looking at pledges, or experience. If you ban hack messages you change the focus of an election onto the people. These also deter the people that I think are so good for the Union to get involved because they personally don’t believe they have the ability to send hack messages, know enough people, and reach out to people. It also makes the union something that people don’t want to associate with because they associate it with a mass irritation and annoyance and student politics at its core. If you get rid of them you solve this problem of politicisation and focus elections on what it should be. The become more open, and more people connect with them.
Adam: I don’t have a most important pledge because a lot of pledges are key and significant. But here are a few. One is a comprehensive independent equality audit which is something that has been kicked around as a football a lot. It is good and something we ought to do in order to get tangible steps from an external body. To improve the perception like we were talking about earlier, we need to take a step outside of ourselves to change the negative perception by the Union doing better.
Another thing I haven’t mentioned is the idea of modernisation, If you lose your membership card it costs £5 to replace. This is annoying… so I have pledged a digital membership card which is a QR code on your phone that means you will never have to worry about losing your membership card. We have also pledged a graduate, undergraduate mentorship programme. This is really important to a lot of postgraduates, who have a lot of life experience but wish to tap into the social side of Oxford and get to know people. Whereas a lot of undergraduates have not had experience in the working world. Also, I have pledged an alumni reunion ball to allow people to stay connected to the Union once they have left.
What’s something you wish you could have pledged but were unable to?
Geneva: No, I believe my team very comprehensive review of the pledges, we addressed them as a big team and we made things that are important. We have a very concrete set of pledges that we are all incredibly proud of. Having said that, I think the Union goes through stages and I hope as it moves through the stages that we want it to go through, there will be certain reforms that need to happen that will become clear at a later stage. My set of pledges is the first group of stepping stones, but in the future there will be things that need to be done dependant on the future that the Union walks into.
Adam: That’s a tricky one! It would have been nice to pledge tiered access membership but I thought it would be disingenuous because I am already working on it. So, instead, I pledged reduced membership for all groups rather than just the particular group I’m working on. I wish I had pledged that but I am already doing it and “there are real steps to implementation,” in the words of the president.
Is there a problem with racism in the union?
Geneva: I think the Union is systematically exclusionary to a group of individuals and I think individuals who come from minority backgrounds and individuals and those who do not have white skin tone are one of those groups that are systematically affected. I don’t think they are the only group but they are one, if not the, most affected group. This is not to say that Union can’t fix that, but that it needs to take a hard look in the mirror and recognise that it is predominantly for a group of individuals who are predominantly white and come from private school backgrounds and high socio-economic backgrounds who have connections, and I think that means the Union does systematically have an issue with race. It is not the only issue it has but it is probably the most important.
Adam: Being Somali, East African, and black in a context where I believe there aren’t many black people on the Union Committee has had an impact on me. So I have two points on this: firstly, something I have done and secondly, where I hope we’ll be in the future. On the first point, I organised the first-ever black history month debate which I spent a lot of the summer working on and confirmed four of six speakers. The day before the debate it was not going to happen, and within the space of 24 hours, I managed to make it go from not happening to happening.
This is something I am very passionate about and I think that it’s shocking that the Union has never had a black history month debate before, I shouldn’t have to say first-ever and I hope it will continue to exist for a while longer. In terms of what can be done: I believe representation is really important in so far as people’s impressions of a place end up a certain way if everyone thinks the same things politically or everyone looks the same then it has an impact. The things I have done I believe are important anywhere from confirming David Cameron, to helping arrange the British Empire debate back in Hilary.
We should have more panel discussions about racial equality. We need to educate people who don’t know and understand these issues, change their minds, and help to inform them. Secondly and really crucially, it’s about making people who are directly affected by these issues, like myself being black, feel more included in a space like the Union which has historically and more recently been exclusionary.
Can the union change from the inside?
Geneva: 100% but it requires two things. It needs the right people on the inside, people we are willing to sacrifice their own advancement and their own success, for the better of the Union. Secondly, it requires a buy-in the from outside, with people voting in individuals that are going to make those changes and coming to events that are focused on bettering the access and building up specific issues like race and trying to address those. It requires buy-in from members who are willing to come to those events and educate themselves and learn. There is still a heavy onus on the inside to do those first steps.
Adam: I believe that you can and I have hope in the Union in many senses not just in it as it is now but what it can be. You need enough people who have their hearts in the right places, who haven’t just done the typical thing of climbing the greasy pole who care about it significantly and want to change it. I have hope that the Union is a place that can be inclusive and can be for everyone, which is why our campaign slogan is ‘create a Union of possibilities’.
Ultimately, in a world in which we all have misgivings about the Union I strongly believe that we should try and foster an environment which is as inclusive as possible but where we don’t forsake the place as a whole. We get fantastic speakers like David Cameron agreeing to come this term and phenomenal stories from many people. It can be a platform which doesn’t just host the big names but also those who have truly valuable insights and to provide a platform for disadvantaged groups.
What have you done to make a difference to the union that a regular member would recognise?
Geneva: Probably my contribution to debating the most. That is because, in my capacity, I have dedicated a significant amount of time to debating and done my best to advance that. A lot of individuals would see that I have contributed to everyone across the board from novices to experienced debaters. Particularly I have worked to try and build a community for individuals who I believe are quite vulnerable in debating be it females or ESL. I’ve tried to encourage all individuals to get heavily involved and I haven’t just focussed on the best debaters, but also the newest, and those who I believe can give the most to debating.
Adam: I passed a rules change on wellbeing and mental health that means we have posters on the notice board and in the toilets that have numbers people can call. If it has made the slightest difference to one person then I am happy and that is the kind of place the Union should be, inclusive.
A second example, championing the creation of a means-tested presidential hardship fund. Under the current system, presidents are required to rusticate and I recognise as an access member that people are often unable to draw on student finance without being a sitting student. It is shocking that this doesn’t exist already given the implications on so many presidents before.
I confirmed a student speaker for ‘the comedy podcast’ which I organised over summer and it is quite rare to have students on Union panels alongside speakers like Shazia Mirza and Sam B.
Fourthly, confirming David Cameron.
What is the most important issue facing Oxford students at the moment?
Geneva: The pandemic has heightened this, and that is finding your place at Oxford. When you come to Oxford you hit the ground running and you’re forced to keep running and keep going on that treadmill, and it can be very hard to stop and figure out what it is you want from Oxford or who you are. The pandemic has restricted individuals in experiencing the things they normally would, going to societies they want to attend, having face to face learning, or going to the library at a random time. I think this restricts individuals in finding out who they are and what they want over the course of Oxford from their degree, particularly at a time when they are so restricted in what they can do.
Adam: For current students, wellbeing considering covid and everything else that has gone on. It is really important that students look after themselves and don’t let themselves burn out. People need to look after themselves and also have fun. The Union for its part can be a social hub and have cool things going where people can come and have fun where it isn’t just about debating which can help people’s wellbeing.
Members who have registered to vote will receive their ballot and voting instructions tomorrow. Manifestos for all candidates can be found **HERE**
Images courtesy of Adam and Geneva