Kadhim - Let’s start by talking about the third phase of the Beit Redevelopment. What’s the vision?
Ashley - Our aim is to create an atmosphere where people feel like they’ve got a high quality product but not extortionate prices. We want to have a venue that’s for students but that’s also really good quality.
K - You’ve been asking for student input into the redevelopment. How has that been?
A - I’ve found that people just doodle or draw jacuzzis on the plans; we haven’t had a lot of positive input. If students want to have input then they should give proper ideas, otherwise we’ll do what we think is right, and if that turns out to be wrong, well we’ve given students a chance.
K - Don’t you think that if the union actively went out, face-to-face to get student input, it would work better?
A - We did actually go around the JCR with the plans for the redevelopment showing them to students. We got some good ideas but most people, like I said, just messed about. The feedback hasn’t been as good as we’d hoped but if students don’t submit ideas then there’s no way we can take it into account. We’re still working on the plans so there’s still a lot of space for student’s ideas and comments to be worked into it. We also have a working group of around 10 students which has provided good feedback so it hasn’t all been bad.
K - Do you think that the problems with say, dBs, are a bit overblown?
A - The bar service capacity, even with the mobile bar, is terrible. With the re-development, the bar will be twice as big so on busy nights there won’t be a problem with getting drinks. In terms of getting students into dBs, it’s been much busier this year on Wednesdays and Fridays since we’ve tweaked the music lineup. Once you’ve got completely pissed, you just want cheesy music and to dance around. So we’ve given them that and it’s been a lot busier in dBs.
K - A large part of the renovation of dBs involves turning it into a high quality live music venue, but what’s the point when like you say, it’s drunken cheesy music that’s pulling people in?
A - One of the key things that came out of the Trading Survey 18 months ago was that students wanted to see more live music. And we also want students to be proud to come over here and say “Well, actually we’ve got a really good Union”. Which means, on Sports Night, then we cater to the situation but on say, a Friday, we can put on some good live bands.
K - Well this year a “Freshers Festival” was held, with live acts. It wasn’t a wild success you might say. You’re aiming to have more live music, but does that sit well with the failure of the “Freshers Festival?”
A - The problem with the Freshers Festival was that it was a week after a heavy freshers week. We should have lumped it in with Fresher’s Week, included it with the marketing for that and dropped the price, then it would have worked a bit better. And there’s a difference between doing a live gig on a Friday night and doing a whole weekend of music.
K - One of your manifesto points has been to have more student input into the planning of Union events. What have you done so far to achieve that?
A - At Southampton university, their executive committee (which is made up of students) receives the term planner in advance and can say we want this to change or we want to tweak this. So we’re going to bring that method in. But what I’ve wanted to do, which is the best way to ensure that students are getting what they want, is to get clubs to hold events at the Union and support them doing that.
K - How’s that worked out? A - Not as well as I hoped if I’m honest, mainly because I’ve been running around doing so much other stuff. What I’ve found is that I’ve got less than a day a week, if that, to work on my manifesto points, and the rest of my time is spent trying to stop the Union crashing down around me.
K - So you’ve found that the demands of your job day-to-day mean that it’s quite hard to reach out to students?
A - Yes, much more difficult than I imagined. During Freshers Week we connected well with a lot of students. I must have spoken to hundreds of students that week. But then term starts and everything kicks off. You’ve got to help individual students with problems and there are committees to go to; you find that you’re running around all the time. After the initial burst in Fresher’s week it’s been more difficult.
K - Let’s talk about the changes in da- Vinci’s. What’s happening there?
A - We’re going to change the design of the kitchens because we don’t need them in their current state. The Tower Rooms has damaged our lunchtime trade. The idea is to have a grill kitchen like the Prince Regent, which doesn’t take up a lot of space, but they can still cook a lot. But we’re still discussing what that lunchtime trade will be, and actually that would be quite a good thing for students to have input in. I think we still need to keep some form of lunchtime food at the union, but it’s whether we stick with hot food or just a sandwich bar.
K - The catering is quite a financial burden on the Union right?
A - Lunchtime catering was losing us around £80,000 a year, we’ve made some changes which reduced this to around £40,000 a year but it’s getting better still. If we were making a profit, then we’d keep it in its present state but with a new venue it’s a good time to think about what students want.
K - Why do you think that students would rather eat at say, the Library Cafe, than the Union?
A - I think it has something to do with the location, and what we are capable of serving. The kitchens are so old and knackered we cannot produce something of the same quality as say, the Tower Rooms. When I was a fresher there would be a massive queue in dBs for baguettes at lunchtime, but then the JCR started offering baguettes and people didn’t come over anymore, so our location is a disadvantage.
K - Let’s talk about food in the evening. When you campaigned you wanted to re-introduce table service. Why hasn’t that happened?
A - The problem with table service is that people move around and then the bar-staff waste loads of time looking for them, and then your food gets cold. On busy nights we can’t spare the staff to do table service. We’re discussing, with the re-development, to introduce hand held buzzers which will tell you when you can collect your food.
K - Why isn’t it coming in this year?
A - I didn’t expect the refurbishment to happen this year, we were told that we wouldn’t get any money from the College, but we put together a good business plan and reduced the scope of what we’re doing to the point where we can afford it. So now it makes more sense for a lot of the stuff that I wanted to do this year to be included with the refurbishment.
K - Another thing that you promised in your manifesto was to have “secret shoppers” to report on the quality of service in the Union. Is that happening?
A - It’s starting this term. I haven’t selected the secret shoppers yet. Basically you’d go to the Union, get a meal, fill in a form about it and we’d refund you so you get a free meal. Anyone who’s interested, give me an email. We actually did it over the summer, with the barbecue that we had outside and we identified some problems which were fixed. I wanted to start it straight away at the beginning of term but I found that there was no need because even as President at times I was getting poor service. We’ve got to the point where I think the service standards have come up, so now maybe I’m too close to it and so hopefully the secret shoppers will help to iron out any problems that I’m unaware of.
K - In terms of motivating student staff, what can you actually do to, say, speed up bar service?
A - What I want to do is hold on to experienced bar staff, which you can only do by offering them money. We’re trying to put in a training program. What the Union does quite badly is that we throw people in at the deep end and then people complain that they can’t pour a pint properly, well what can we expect when we don’t train them properly. That said, we do have some excellent bar-staff who could be part of that training process.
K - When is that going to come into action?
A - We’re trying to get an intern from College because we don’t have the staff resources to do it ourselves. If that happens, then we’ll have someone starting in March to build this training package for about six months. There is training at the bars already, which needs refinement also. The problem is that we didn’t do this in October so we didn’t train all the new staff as we would have liked. So it’s behind where it should be. We also want to review pay-scales so that student staff that progress through the training and stay on longer will see an increase in their wages. K - At the moment, the bar-staff get paid near enough minimum wage. Do you think that acts as a disincentive to really care about the job?
A - Yes. But it’s not as simple as that, because we have to structure it to be fair. It’s great to give people extra pay if they’re experienced, but how do you define if they’re experienced? There’s the basic pay when you first start and that wouldn’t go up because there’s quite a high turnover, and you don’t want to invest resources if staff aren’t going to stick around. Hopefully this will start coming in around March.
K - The price of drinks usually increases every couple of years, is this going to happen next year?
A - It will go up this summer, probably by about 10p. We managed to avoid putting the prices up last summer because we had a deal with a new supplier, but as result of that it has to go up this summer. Obviously there’s another issue with the wider crackdown on cheap drinks. If the government decides to introduce minimum drinks pricing then our prices could go up, but then prices could go up everywhere.
K - In your manifesto you promised to do more deals on spirits. But that hasn’t happened.
A - Nope. We did some deals at the beginning of the year, but part of the problem is that alcohol license holders are being told, in no uncertain terms, not to encourage excessive drinking. If we introduce, for example “double up for 10p”, as a new promotion, then there’d be issues with the licensing people. I would like to see some deals on spirits, but squaring it with licensing authorities is a problem.
K - Do you think that students should care about what goes on at the Union?
A - It depends on what’s going on. For example, there’s a motion coming to Council this month asking for a referendum on a smoke-free campus. Now if students think that’s a good idea, or a bad idea, then they should come and have their views heard. If people want things changed, then they should come to Council.
K - Will a smoking ban have a positive impact at imperial?
A - It will definitely cause problems in some areas. For example, if you’re in the bar, you’ll have to go all the way out to Prince Consort Road, which is quite inconvenient.
K - Do you agree with the principle of a smoking ban?
A - Students are adults and if they want to smoke, that’s their choice. I’d be in favor of more rigorous controls to stop people smoking by doors, but not a complete ban. Of course, policing that sort of thing is a right pain.
K - The RCSU and CGCU Autumn Balls attracted a lot of controversy last term. Did they spend too much money on their events?
A - They lost money, so you’d say yes they spent too much money, but it’s not as black and white as that. The FUs have two main roles. One is welfare for their students, which is the most important thing that they should be doing and they should be spending time on that. If you get people involved and comfortable about talking to the FU by throwing parties, then great. The other role is to foster a community spirit with the FU, which is the reason for the parties, but I’m not sure that you want to be spending extortionate amounts of money on that sort of stuff.
K - The CGCU President last term, Kirsty Patterson, responded to criticism about the amount of money spent on the CGCU’s Masquerade Ball by referencing Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘If’. Do you think that was an appropriate way to explain to engineering students why money was spent in the way that it was?
A - No, basically. I’m fairly laid back and if people think that I’ve screwed something up, I should talk to them and explain why things have or haven’t been done, which is why I’m doing this interview. I think that you have to do that because people have voted for you.
K - Also, the CGCU’s Welfare Officer, Alice Rowlands criticised the amount of support that you provided to the CGCU in an article in felix. Do you feel that her criticism was fair?
A - The problem with the CGCU was that nothing was written down. I told them that we’ll support it and we’ll find an act for it. The Union Entertainment team offered them a number of acts that they could choose and they went for an expensive one. That’s their choice. Our role was not, and was never going to be, to run their event for them and give them the profit. The situation was that we’d support them in their event and on the Friday before I was with the President of Guilds getting things prepared for the Ball. The support was there, they just had to ask for it, not just sitting there and whingeing. They should have come and said ‘this is going wrong, what can you do?’
K - Regarding the Freshers Festival, Dan Fowler, the organiser said they didn’t get enough Union support either.
A - That was our fault like I talked about before, and they did get less support than Guilds did. But we learned a lot from that and I wouldn’t say the Guilds didn’t receive enough support. When I asked them to really lay out what they expected from us, and what we didn’t give them, they didn’t respond. I can’t do anything about that if they’re not going to tell me what they expected.
K - What is your main aim for the rest of your time as President?
A - Getting the re-development done properly. Even if I do nothing else, I want to make sure that we get that right, because we don’t get the opportunity to spend that kind of money very often.
K - The elections for next years sabbatical will be starting soon. What do you think next year’s President should be focused on?
A - There are probably two things, firstly pushing Phase 3 of the re-development through smoothly. But also making students aware of the representation network and the changes that have been put in place. Students fill out surveys and then wonder what’s been done but for example, we have a new Dean of Teaching and Learning to deal with student’s issues. The university created a whole new position specifically for that and the challenge I think is to ensure that students know about and are able to take advantage of these changes.