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 Pierce Jones about his campaign to lead the SU.
Background: Pierce is finalist reading history at Brasenose. He attended a state school before coming to Oxford, and is a former president of the Brasenose JCR. Pierce identifies as gay.
The SU President has a tough job in standing up to the university over difficult issues, something that has been especially important this year. How would you meet this challenge?
I’m quite experienced already with managing the interests of adults who probably don’t really want to listen to what I have to say! I had to do this all the time as the JCR president, especially over some of the most divisive issues. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests, for example, we proposed a number of important reforms for ethnic minority students in our college with dedicated welfare resources and change the racial awareness training that was given to academics. I found what was really important in being able to successfully push for these reforms was trying to understand the perspective of the university officers and framing everything in a way in which they could see how it would benefit them. When we were working on Covid mitigation, for example, I was able to argue that giving students flexibility would ensure a better and more productive dialogue between students and the college. It’s important we recognise that university officials aren’t always at odds with us. If we see where they are coming from we can use whatever is motivating them to bring them round to our way of thinking. I think that’s very achievable.
What achievement are you most proud of from your time at Oxford so far?
I think being JCR president during the pandemic is something that I am immensely proud of. Nobody signed up for the year we had to go through and we had to completely adapt the processes of the JCR, on top of doing our degrees and making sure people were healthy, both mentally and physically. Being able to lead the JCR through that process, with college officials remarking at the end of my year that I was one of most effective JCR presidents they’d seen in a long time, that’s what I am most proud of. In terms of specific achievements, I was really proud of the work we managed to do for diversity. We managed to get the college to consider overhauling the way in which racial awareness training is provided to academics. They also agreed to investigate establishing a dedicated member of staff specifically for LGBTQ+ and ethnic minority welfare. I think we’ve advanced a long-needed conversation regarding how the college treats ethnic minority students, especially black students. We also introduced the first-ever trans rep at Brasenose and I think we did a lot to make the common room more inclusive and welcoming for transgender students, which I’m also really proud of.
What would you say has been the greatest success of the incumbent president?
Nikita (Ma, the current president of the SU) and the whole Sabb team have had a really rough ride this year. I think the work they’re done on the fair outcomes for students campaign has been really great. They have managed to get the university to agree to some quite important reforms like re-scaling, which had been causing finalists (especially at Brasenose), a lot of anxiety due to the uncertainty. I think this work was really important. Nikita told me one of the things she was most proud of was her work in the ‘BAME leadership conference’ and I think she’s been really great at addressing some of the issues that Oxford has for ethnic minority students.
How would you seek to build on these successes if you were elected President?
Whatever reforms ultimately come into place this year regarding exams and mental health mitigation (such as the work of the mental health taskforce), it’s so important that we don’t forget about them next year. So many of the students who are currently studying now will sit their exams next year and even if the pandemic finishes by the end of the year, it’s impact will be felt for years. I think it’s really important that the SU doesn’t hold back on applying pressure on the university to make sure future exams do have mitigating measures in place. We also can’t forget about supporting students’ mental health and we must continue the mental health task force going forward. I would really want to build on the work the Sabbs have already done in making sure that everyone feels that they are cared for and listened to and that the pandemic doesn’t define their university existence.
As I am sure you’ll admit, the SU certainly isn’t perfect. How would you seek to reform the SU to deliver the changes that students want to see?
I don’t think the SU has fully found its place within the ecosystem of Oxford yet. I think the SU can serve 2 main purposes: its role in the university context, on committees representing student interests, and utilising its resources to give all of the other representatives of students in the university the tool-kits they need to really lobby for change in their local context. That would mean providing dedicated training for JCR committees, making sure presidents are trained to deal with rent negotiations, to submit a paper to college committees, that treasurers know how to write a budget report, that secretaries know how to type minutes. My experience in Brasenose JCR was that colleges could sometimes exploit the lack of knowledge that students had in these institutions to limit the amount of change that they could really implement. I think the SU could be so useful here in using all the money and resources it has to make sure that students all around the university have the tool-kit they need to thrive in their roles and not just get by.
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 rent in Oxford is too high at the moment and I think that the university has been a bit exploitative in, for example, charging international students rent who are quarantining when it’s out of their control. Some colleges have also been really poor at providing rebates for students who aren’t in their accommodation. This is without mentioning those students who live out and have landlords who have been quite vindictive and not very understanding. I think that a rent strike is a really positive step for making sure that the university listens, but obviously I’d prefer more institutional methods. As someone who led a JCR, I’ve never really found strikes to be as effective as getting people who can really make the decisions into a room and talking to them about our concerns. So many of these problems are at a college level rather than at a university level, since colleges control most of the accommodation, so I’m not sure a university-wide rent strike would be the most effective way to lobby for change. I think what would be more useful is making sure JCR and MCR presidents are properly trained, informed and equipped to go into the room with their bursars and demand that they listen to the concerns of students regarding rent.
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 that personal politics are important. Some of the issues that I care most intensely about, for example, LGBT rights, are inherently political issues. Whilst there’s certainly a welfare aspect to this, when there are significant political factions in the world which still deny basic human rights of minority groups, I think it’s important that whoever leads the SU understands fully the importance of those rights and those communities. They need to be willing to stand up for these rights and the communities they represent, as I did whilst I was JCR president at Brasenose. I think that politics is definitely important that student unions also play a role in the NUS (National Union of Students) as well, which is a very political institution, lobbying for student rights.
How do you conceptualise the role of the SU?
I think the SU should sit, not necessarily above JCRs and MCRs but should function as the string that connects them all. At the same time, it also sits in university committees and acts as a JCR president or MCR president does but on a wider scale. As I’ve said, it’s two primary functions are sitting in university committees, lobbying for students on a university level rather than a college level and also making sure that JCRs and MCRs are communicating with each other and have all of the resources they need. This involves welfare support and advice, as well as support over the key work that they do. Without this guidance, a new student otherwise has to learn on the job once being appointed, which limits their ability to achieve change. I think the SU could be a safety net for a lot of student societies and common rooms, connecting them all and making the Oxford community stronger.
This will be a year’s role and involve a lot of work. Why have you decided to go for the role?
I really enjoyed the work I did as JCR president at Brasenose. I really felt like it was important that I could see the material impacts of my actions on the lives of students around me. It was the best feeling in the world when students would come up to me and tell me that they really appreciated what I had been able to do for them. I could be someone who was really looking out for them, which I feel is so important. Ever since my time as JCR president, I’ve known I wanted to one day make a future in community-based work. I want to be able to look out for people and speak up for them and I thought the SU was perfect for that. I want to give back to a community that has been so important to me.
In a sentence, why should students at Oxford put you 1st on their ballots?
I am the only person who has the experience necessary to come forward and come clean, recognising the problems that the SU has and who knows exactly the way that we reconnect the SU with the heart of the student body.