In the run-up to the Oxford Student Union elections, OxStu have taken the opportunity to interview each of the candidates running for the presidency.
Here, we speak to Marcin Pisanski about his campaign to lead the SU.
Background: Marcin is finalist reading law at St. Annes. He is originally from Poland and attended a state school in the North East of the country.
What would be your priority as SU President?: I guess I’d say I had three main priorities. The first one is focused on mental health, I think that’s a specific issue that many students are struggling with now. I know I did, especially during the pandemic and I think I would want to co-operate with the counselling service and also have more inter-collegiate welfare events. Aside from mental health, I was hoping to campaign to the university leadership about Covid-19 mitigation for the next year. I believe that a lot of studies were disrupted and that damage cannot be undone. So whether someone is going to just start as a Fresher or is going into the final year of their DPhil – I think everyone’s education has been disrupted. I would love to have a new policy ready by the beginning of Michaelmas so people don’t have to wait until almost the start of their exams, as I have had to this term. The third thing is representation. I think that the problem the SU has now is that it asks students to elect leaders once a year and then most people assume that nothing happens. I think it would be great to have a ‘continuous loop’ of feedback. I don’t think the SU Presidents or the Vice Presidents should just sit on committees without actually asking students what they want them to do.
One of the big criticisms of the SU President is that it is a ‘pointless role’ that is of no benefit to SU members, hence why there is an ‘empty chair’ candidate running. How would respond to this?
While I can understand why people have this position, it’s not a view that I personally share. I’ve been involved in the SU since I was a fresher and I have seen how much work the Sabbs (Sabbatical Officers) are doing. I think the problem is the SU is seen by students as an organisation that is not doing anything besides organising its own elections! I think that this is a problem that is specific to Oxford and Cambridge because you have JCRs and MCRs and students don’t see the SU doing anything that’s actually close to them. I think the role of SU President and the roles of the Vice Presidents do matter and that’s why I would want to be in contact with students all the time throughout the year and not just during the election. I want to be accessible to JCR, MCR and student society presidents as well as other students and make sure that they can be confident that the SU is doing the work they want it to do.
One factor behind disinterest in SU elections that we have heard is a perception of a lack of transparency and accountability. With this in mind, do you have any regrets from your time at Oxford that you would like to take this opportunity to declare or apologise for?
I do have some regrets about some of the initiatives and societies I have been involved in. I was trying to reform some of the most notorious organisations from the inside and looking at it from my current perspective, I think it’s better to just focus on working either for the SU or for other student societies, knowing that there are something things that can’t be reformed, or that it’s better to just promote initiatives that don’t really need reform in the first place. I’d like to make sure I’m not actively supporting people and institutions that are just resistant to change and do not represent Oxford students.
The Cambridge Student Union recently voted to support the demands of the Rent Strike. Some have called on the Oxford SU to do the same. What is your position on this?
I think that it’s a bit more problematic at Oxford and Cambridge than it is at other universities. While in principle, I do support the demands that the rent strikes across the country have, I’m worried that it could damage the students who are already most vulnerable. For example, we have many students from one college who are not paying rent and supporting the strike, while at another college, there may be students who may be unaware of what is happening. Those students, especially if they are from more disadvantaged backgrounds might end up being punished by the university or their college and I wouldn’t want that to happen. I think at Oxford and Cambridge specifically, people who are already suffering the most from the pandemic will also be the most vulnerable to the uni if the rent strike doesn’t work out and those who are already well off will be fine either way and I think that’s just really unfair.
As a Union, the work of the SU is unavoidably political. In light of this, how seriously should students consider your personal politics when deciding whether or not to give you their vote?
I think one of the big problems with student politics is that way too many things are overly politicised. I do not believe that every issue people have at Oxford needs to be party political. Obviously, if someone was supporting a ‘radical’ party, that could be a concern, but generally we shouldn’t be talking about party politics when we are just talking about the Student Union. Students deserve better and we should just focus on the things that they actually care about. We’d all agree we need better mental health support, we need more support for graduates and international students and we need to restructure the SU as a whole to make it more transparent. I don’t believe any of those issues are part political.
Oxford SU actions are often of interest to the national press, and it has been a point of ridicule or criticism in the past. What’s your opinion of this and how would you deal with it?
This goes back to the issue of transparency. I remember the ‘Clapping’ motion that was passed by the student council, that was characterised in completely the wrong way by the press. There’s a funny story about it actually, I was at the student council that passed this motion. I was one of the people voting in favour of it. It was obviously meant to support student welfare and improve accessibility at student council. The following day though, I got a call from my parents who live in Poland. They don’t know any English and they don’t have any contact with Oxford but they had actually heard about it on Polish TV! I think that’s a good example of how far the news can actually go out of Oxford SU. I think if we increase the transparency and make sure students understand what’s happening and we don’t just have a student council that’s attended by 10 – 20 people who don’t really represent anyone, we can make sure these decisions are truly representative. This will make everyone aware of what is happening and means we won’t have the problem of misinformation.
This will be a year’s role and involve a lot of work. Why have you decided to go for the role?
I’ve been in different roles on the SU since my first year. I think after seeing it from the inside and seeing how it is not living up to its full potential, I decided I have the skills and I have the experience to do something about it. After talking with many friends who have no involvement in the SU and are largely unaware of what it does, I decided that I have the experience and I have the skills to make sure I leave my mark. I love Oxford and I would love to spend another year here, especially after the vaccination programme has finished it would be great to have one semi-normal year here.
If you’re elected, what would you like your legacy to look like this time next year?
One of the ways I’d measure my legacy would be by looking at voter turnout at next year’s leadership election. If I was successful in getting students involved with the SU and seeing its work, students will in turn be more involved and would want to both run in greater numbers and also vote at higher levels. At the same time, I think we have a huge discrepancy in terms of student engagement between undergraduate and graduate students. I think it would be good to get grad students to see more of the SU and help them to get more involved with its different initiatives.
In a sentence, why should students at Oxford put you 1st on their ballots?
I’m the most experienced candidate and I will make sure that everyone is represented.