It is Welcome Week, and the Union offices are humming with a combination of activity and mild panic. Several thousand new students are about to descend on Imperial, and the offices have become the nerve centre of the operation to acclimatise them to university life. Located across two floors of Beit Hall, which designed by Aston Webb at the turn of the 20th Century, the offices are awash with branded hoodies, Freshers’ Fair maps, and harried employees.
It is here where the vast majority of decisions regarding student representation are made; while the Union itself does not have direct control over College finances or policy, it acts as a group that is able to exert pressure on the decision-making process. It would be misleading to describe the space wedged between Metric and the top-floor gym as Imperial’s ‘corridors of power’; perhaps the ‘Student Activities Centre of moderate change’ would be more apt.
As all freshers are told when they first come to this university, when you arrive at Imperial, you automatically become a member of Imperial College Union. The resulting entity, like all unions, attempts to unite a sprawling mass into a common group, drawing links of solidarity between students, into what they hope is a strong network; however, the fact remains that the Union needs to represent the interests of over 15,000 students, whose views, outlooks, and opinions may be radically divergent. It’s not a particularly enviable task.
As with any large organisation, there is a complex structure. Union Council are the policy-making body of students, but on top of this there are also management groups, constituent unions, and endless committees, all jostling for the attention of the students at Imperial. It could perhaps best be described as ‘intricate’, although a less kind word may be ‘labyrinthine’.
And this is before we add in the sabbatical officers – students who take a year out of their studies, or extend the period of time between their degree finishing and entry to the ‘real world’. For the past decade or so, there have been seven: five officer trustees – President and Deputy President (Welfare/Clubs and Societies/Finances and Services/Education) – and two other sabbatical roles – Imperial College School of Medicine Student Union (ICSMSU) President, and yours truly, the Felix Editor. What do they all get up to? Let’s find out.
It is the President’s role, it could be argued, to distill the amorphous cloud of thoughts and opinions generated by thousands of students into a single, unified presence. This year that task falls to Alex ‘Chippy’ Compton, a medical student whose unusual name arose from an early enthusiasm for chipmunks.
For some people, the President is little more than a figurehead, or a speechwriter: someone who can be a public presence, but who is unable, or unwilling, to facilitate much change. Chippy argues, however, that a lot of the work she does is behind the scenes, and the perceived lack of activity is the result of students mainly only seeing her outward-facing responsibilities: sitting on committees, making welcome speeches, presenting awards. For her, the power of the job is as a facilitator: “I see my job as supporting the Deputy Presidents in their work,” she says, “so I’m working with them on a lot of their different projects.”
For the other sabbatical officers, entering into their role can be a short, sharp shock, but this isn’t Chippy’s first time at the rodeo: a little over 14 months ago, she was stepping into the shoes of her first sabbatical role – ICSMSU President. “I have more experience in knowing what to expect”, she explains, with her previous role giving her a better understanding of how the Union works as a whole.
But while many sabbatical officers quickly acclimatise to the structures and regulations of the Union, Chippy feels that it can definitely be made more accessible: “I think that Union Council and its subcommittees aren’t particularly accessible. Council is quite archaic, and we don’t have that many ordinary members…even just the language we use, talking about putting forward ‘motions’.” She trails off, but the implication is clear: the Union still has a lot of work to do when it comes to encouraging student participation.
One area where students could become more involved is the various boards across College – the Provost’s Board, for example, which determines the academic direction of Imperial. “Where we can get students into College committees and boards, that’s great,” Chippy says, before outlining the difficulties: timings of meeting, having to go through papers beforehand, the fact that decisions will often be made “outside the meeting”. Taking a year out, she explains, will allow the Officer Trustees to consult students on changes, and then ensure that “it’s their voice that’s being heard” at College level.
One issue that has deeply affected a number of students over the last couple of years, and has generated no shortage of debate, has been the level of support on offer from the College for mental health problems. From complaints about the waiting time of the counselling service, to the pressure that course workload can place on undergraduates, it is clear why some students have said that there need to be a change to the status quo.
While he won’t be the one in charge when it comes to increasing the counselling budget, Fintan O’Connor, as Deputy President (Welfare), can play a hugely important role in advocating on behalf of the students in all aspects of wellbeing. The youngest sabbatical officer, he has just finished the first two years of a chemical engineering degree, during which he spent time as CGCU’s Welfare Officer.
The best way to describe Fintan’s responses to my questions would probably be ‘considered’; before he replies, there is usually a pause of a few seconds, as if he’s actively formulating a measured response, before he launches into a lengthy answer. The only time this doesn’t happen is when I press him on how he will ensure the College provides enough support, particularly given concerns from some students that they will begin to outsource their counselling: “the College absolutely needs its own counselling service. Unequivocally.” he answers promptly, “it’s not up for debate.”
It’s an issue that Chippy also touches on, with a manifesto promise to provide counselling triage appointments within ten days. “It can be difficult for students,” she says, “because you don’t want to wait for a triage appointment and be told you’re not appropriate for counselling, but that being said they are trained professionals.”
Given the number of changes occurring at the Union, with the introduction of the Wellbeing Representative Network, it’s unsurprising that Fintan describes this point in time as ‘critical’. As well as overseeing the introduction of the new Network, he wants to overhaul the personal tutor system, which he has described as “a lucky dip”, citing a “lack of uniformity in the support available.”
There are also plans to tackle sexual violence on campus, with active bystander training – which helps people challenge problematic behaviour – and sexual violence liaison officers on the horizon. I ask him why there is this emphasis on sexual violence, and – as always – Fintan chooses his words incredibly carefully: “When you see the extent to which so few cases actually get resolved fully, through, for example, the police, it’s just not good enough. I remember quite early on in my university experience when this dawned on me. It really shocked me, and I felt we had a duty to better.”
The issue of welfare on-campus is an emotive one, and one that impacts nearly every person at Imperial. As Fintan says, “everybody at Imperial will know people who struggle with mental health, sexual violence, representation, identity… all these issues come under DPW, and in that way I think there is nobody who isn’t touched by my role.”
It’s a similar situation to that faced by Nick Burstow, this year’s Deputy President (Education), who ran on a platform largely consisting of improvements to the communication between students and College. As DPE, Nick is responsible for representing the academic interests of Imperial students, and – in the words of the Union themselves – acts as the “primary advocate and custodian in improving and maximising the academic experience received by Imperial College students.” You could think of him as a human SOLE-machine, if you want, although I am sure he would disagree.
I feel it is fitting to think of Nick as the yang to Fintan’s yin. Not only do their roles complement each other, focussing on two separate but completely related aspects of the student experience, but their personalities can also mirror one another: while Fintan is considered and deliberate in all the answers he gives, Nick replies with more rapid, off-the-cuff remarks.
While he peppers his replies with buzzwords like “students-as-partners” and “closing the feedback loop”, his vision for the university is relatively simple: he wants to introduce more student-led change into the curriculum, build up relationships between students and faculty, and ensure that decisions made are communicated effectively. He’s also spoken about improving the postgraduate experience: “postgraduates are not treated the same as undergraduates, and one reason that always comes up is Wednesday afternoons” – which many postgraduates do not have off – “I think one big focus for this year is to make sure that we have more Wednesday afternoons free for taught postgraduate students.”
Nick and I spend a little while discussing the results of the National Student Survey (NSS), which was released this year, and revealed a mixed bag at Imperial: while certain departments, such as Geology, scored highly, a number did particularly poorly, with Physics coming at the bottom of the rankings. A number of issues were raised, with dissatisfaction about feedback leading the pack. “I think one way we tackle that is with data,” Nick explains, outlining his plan of a College-wide audit of first year undergraduate feedback, seeing who has been getting it in late; “my hope is that in the future, when those first years move up to second year, we’ll be able to move it up to a faculty level.”
However, the survey highlighted slightly more esoteric issues, namely the lack of a “community of staff and students”, which can be interpreted in a couple of ways: either the students aren’t forming their own networks, which seems unlikely, or there is a divide between students and staff members. Speaking to students, and from my own personal experience, it seems the latter is far more plausible. “It’s sad they feel that way,” Nick says, “I think one of the biggest things we take out of university is not just what we learn, but who we meet, and the experiences we have.” Part of his solution to address the issue is a shift in teaching, moving towards small group-based teaching, which he argues will generate “a better community spirit”, but he accepts that it’s likely to be a long-term shift, rather than a easy target.
There’s a running joke among the sabbatical officers about how often Matt Blackett will refer to the fact that he spent a year at the Business School. But perhaps this experience is for the best, since – as Deputy President (Finances & Services) – he is responsible for the finances of the Union. He sits at the top of a chain of fiscal command that takes in everything from claiming the money back for those Freshers’ Fair celebrations, to paying for a tour to China.
When I meet Matt, however, he has other things on his mind: “I’m drowning in sponsorship contracts,” he says, referring to the sheets of paper across his desk, “I didn’t put this in my manifesto, but I want to make them a lot easier next year”.
One goals that he did put in his manifesto, however, was to increase external income to the Union – “sponsorship, investment, external companies using our facilities.” The result, theoretically, is that students will need to pay less for things like food and drink, and clubs would have more money. But decisions that make good financial sense might not always translate well to students; a couple of weeks after speaking to Matt he is fielding complaints over the change of the house lager in the Union bars from Stella 4% to Bud Light. While he claims that the change will generate more money for the Union, some students feel that introduction of Bud Light is a bridge too far.
One way Matt is planning on earning back some brownie points is with the introduction of pre-poured pints, a stalwart of the demands students make on the Union. I’m among the uninitiated, so Matt explains it to me: “You’ve got the bar, and then you’ve got a bit behind, with people just pouring pints. It speeds up the amount of serving you can do…one person just doing constant pouring of pints, constant serving”. You can see the elation in his eyes as he envisions pints upon pints of lager being sold, and pictures the long-awaited dream of an ACC night without queues.
In a large number of cases, those who take on the sabbatical roles do so because they have been frustrated by problems they faced in the past. “I experienced a lot of these issues myself,” says Tom Bacarese-Hamilton, Deputy President (Clubs & Societies), of his plans to reconfigure training, “the clubs training was relevant but boring, a lot of stuff that was in the training guide. It was too simple, I wanted a bit more.”
In his officer trustee role, Tom is the one who ensures that the clubs are running as they should be – all 370 of them (including Felix – membership is free, please join!). Like several other sabbatical officers, he viewed his degree as an inconvenience, one that was getting in the way of his Union roles: “I got frustrated that I couldn’t get all the little things I wanted to do into motion because I was doing a degree”, he laughs.
Tom ran with that oldest of political techniques: an acronym. The T was for ‘Training’, which he wants to develop further, incorporating ‘masterclasses’ that teach students skills beyond those they need to ensure their club remains in the black.The M was for ‘Management’ - room bookings, minibus use etc. – like most students running clubs, the issue of the room booking system weight heavy on his mind.
One of his most interesting plans for the year is a ‘sponsorship review’ - a look-back through all the information about sponsorships from the last few years, which should generate a standard baseline of how much students should be asking from companies and charities when they get sponsored. The hope is that this can shift some of the financial burden off the Union, since clubs will be able to get their own sponsorship easier than usual.
The O, in a somewhat tenuous link, was about ‘openness’: “Imperial produces financial reports, or end of year reports, which you almost need a degree to understand,” he says, “I’d love to be able to get them in a way that students can understand. It’s about getting students involved in the processes, and understanding how the decisions are made.” Knowledge is power, right?
Out of the four constituent unions that undergraduates are part of, ICSMSU is notable, not only for being the youngest – it was established in 1997 – but also for being the only one whose president takes a sabbatical year. One thing that struck me at the ICSMSU hustings, where candidates are grilled, was Rhys – who is this year’s ICSMSU President – saying “I’d like to think I’m not an angry person”. After speaking to him in his office in South Kensington’s SAF building, this seems to be something of an understatement. The first descriptor that comes to mind when thinking of Rhys is ‘affable’: warm and welcoming, our conversation is frequently punctuated by the sound of his laughter.
The medic president role can be liberating, but in some ways it can be an isolating one. Chippy explains that the autonomy comes at a price: “you don’t really have much help, so ultimately if things go wrong they fall on you.” The multifaceted nature of the role means that the manifesto pledges are wide ranging, from alumni relations to fresher events.
One of the most interesting and ambitious aims on Rhys’ manifesto was to introduce more student choice in the modules available. Currently, due to the scope of knowledge required, the vast majority of medical teaching is spent on mandatory subjects, and there is little choice in what you learn. However, it’s a big task; while the faculty agree in principal that it’s a good idea, the logistics are harder to work out. “I think more realistically we’re looking to put it in the curriculum review, so we’ll have to wait a couple of years for things to properly take effect,” he explains
Finances are also an important aspect to student life, particularly among the medic community. A survey in 2015 found that 86% of fifth and final year medical students were worried about finances, and only 3% were able to cover their costs with the support available. “I think we have a duty of care towards our students,” says Rhys, “and it’s a question of where the money is going to come from.”
Currently, the answer is to be found in the areas of support already available, and seeing whether they can be increased. “Hopefully a year is going to be enough to resolve those issues,” he says, “but I know that a lot of the SU agree that there’s a lot of work to be done.”
There’s also the issue of ICSMSU itself, which some student would say is too inward-looking and insular. In the student elections Rhys’ competitor called the system ‘broken’, and Rhys himself highlighted the issue of people not running in the student elections: whereas half a decade ago every position on the slate would be hotly contested, this year nearly half the ICSMSU executive ran unopposed.
“I think we still have some ways to go in terms of communication,” he says, “a lot of people, when you explain what you’re doing they think it’s really good, but it ends up being about whether you know the SU or not. I want to try and make the wider population feel included within the umbrella of ICSM; that should galvanise people into running for the positions”. Fingers crossed.
For those who are perhaps a bit too deeply involved with Union goings on, the two highlights of the year are Welcome Week, when the new sabbatical officers guide new students through Imperial life, and the Leadership Elections, where they watch as their replacements are chosen from among a pool of fresh-faced applicants, with big dreams and hopes for the future. Barely one election cycle finishes before the other begins – plans have already begun to be put into motion for next year’s elections.
With this in mind, it’s interesting to contrast two of the sabbatical officers’ experiences last year: for Fintan, the race was tightly contested, with five candidates running; for Chippy, the same number of candidates put their names forward, but since none of the others supplied a manifesto, she essentially had a clear path to victory.
“I’d really like to know why that happened,” Chippy says of the elections. “I’d spent a good month building up a campaign, and hear of a couple of people who were considering running, but then when the manifesto deadline passed, it was a bit like ‘oh’.” While she never goes so far as to say students didn’t have a choice, it’s clear that she understands why some might feel that way: “I think that some students just didn’t bother to vote, because they felt they didn’t have a choice.”
Talking about what the Union can do to change things next year, it is clear that she doesn’t want a repeat of the past competition: she mentions the fast turnaround in last year’s elections, and argues that the Union could do a better job at explaining what support is available to candidates. “One of my big things is I’d like to see a more diverse pool of candidates this year.” she explains. With a sabbatical team that are mainly white men, it’s likely things can only get more diverse next year…
One question I ask all the sabbatical officers is whether they see their role as a political one. It generates a divisive response. While all emphasise that they’re representatives of the student voice, they differ on whether that makes them political. Imperial, as a whole, is quite an apolitical university, a feature that extends to the Union - while other Unions might be organising rent strikes and making their freshers’ fairs secular, ICU tends to take a more gradual approach to politics.
While most of the sabbatical officers deny they’re hugely political, Chippy points out that while the Union does not affiliate to any political party, it does make stances on certain issues. In the past few years they’ve come out against Prevent, in support of the junior doctors, and even voted to divest Union investments from fossil fuel companies. In many ways there’s a sense of pragmatism about their relationships to politics, an ethos echoed by Matt, who denies being overtly political: “I just like to get on with it.”
One thing that becomes apparent over my conversations with the sabbatical officers is just how much they need to prioritise long-term planning over short-term action. Chippy explains that a lot of the role is “making sure that the groundwork is good for the future”, and restructuring the Union, rather than delivering on quick wins. She gives the example of student part-time jobs: they could expand the number of jobs, but that would mean the hours would need to be cut, something she describes as a “hollow victory”. Tom similarly explains what it was like to come into the role: “I thought it would be very much on the first day I come in, here are my manifesto points, I can do one a week. But whilst they are still all very achievable things, they are going to be slow burners.”
While this may be true, there are issues with how the Union communicates this fact with students. For the average student, who’s going from lab project to the library and back again, each hour that the Union spends gathering data and writing up strategy can seem like an hour where the opportunity to create tangible change is lost.
It’s a fine balance to achieve, and a difficult one. In an article published anonymously in Felix last year, one writer argued that “students who meet the criteria that qualify them as a strong sabbatical candidate are being thrown into the pressure cooker environment of the Union”, who were accused of leaving the sabbs “high and dry when it comes to receiving any kind of support through the process.”
Sometimes it can be tempting to forget that the people inhabiting the sabbatical roles are students, and that – once their tenure this year is finished – the vast majority will return to their regular academic life. It is much easier, instead, to see them as mere transparent entities, whose purpose it is to refract and focus the views of students, as flat and benign as the Union Building screens from which their images gently wave. Indeed, for many students, this will be the closest they will get to a sabbatical officer – they will remain on the other side of the screen.
While the student body, and by extension Felix itself, does need to continue to hold them to account, it is important to remember that the sabbatical officer’s lives don’t begin and end with their positions. They have existences beyond the Union offices, which stretch beyond the Imperial sphere. Just like you and me.
Illustrations by Amy Mather and Nate Macabuag