"I hate this place. It's much too confusing and I always get lost."
For this week's candidate profile, I've taken presidential candidate Ashley Brown to the Victoria and Albert Museum, thinking that it would be a relaxing calm break from the College environment.
"They need better signage. I want to be able to come in and find what I need straight away. No faffing, no fuss." A mantra I soon found he applies to more than just galleries and museums.
I first ask how he would like to project himself. It takes a while for him to stop regurgitating his manifesto and tell me how he wants other people to see him.
"I'm old-ish, but not out of touch. I have lots of undergraduate friends, mainly because I am so involved in the clubs and societies in college. A number of student issues haven't changed in the last 7 years or so." I press further for more introspective material. "I don't know myself - does anyone know themselves? I'm very forward with my opinions. But I always make sure that I collect as much information as possible from people before forming these opinions. I try to be diplomatic."
I want an admission of a fault.
"I'm a perfectionist." (The clichéd answer that ruined the clichéd question!)
"I forget to thank people. I neglect to show appreciation to all the people that help me. I'm always racing around being busy, and I should go and say thanks". A lack of social skills perhaps? "You could have said that about me a couple of years I go, I used to be like that. I've picked up the best ways to deal with people though - running clubs teaches you that kind of thing. I've never been shy though; it's hard to be shy when you're so involved!"
After years of vehemently denying that he would run for a Sabbatical position, even declaring that he "can't wait to get out of here [Imperial]", Ashley has had a severe change of heart.
"I didn't think I could change anything, I thought Imperial is the way it is. But things are different this year with the addition of a new team member through the Education and Welfare Sabbatical split. Before the President was always in meetings, like Jenny this year has been chasing up the availability of drinking water around campus. These kinds of issues can now be left to the Welfare Sabbatical officer. I intend to spend more time on services."
I remind him that there already is a Sabbatical officer to focus on services, namely the Deputy President Finance and Services.
"Yes but that officer is mainly focused on finances and helping clubs. I'd love to have a Sabb dedicated to just running the services, as there is too much work for one officer, but I don't think there's enough work or money for two."
Previously a tense two horse race, Afonso Campos has withdrawn from the Presidential election, leaving Ashley to fend off RON (Re-Open Nominations).
"It's absolutely awful, I don't like it. I'd rather be contested. I don't want to be RON-d of course. I guess I see it as the students making the choice between what I am saying in my manifesto or something else. I am saying I will focus on improving the services and entertainment offered by the union and leave the Education and Welfare Sabbatical officers to focus on their relative issues. If students want their union experience to change, they should vote for me."
Too old to be relevant? Ashley is a student in the Department of Computing and has been for seven years, as both an undergraduate and a postgraduate. This means that he started university, when many of the freshers this year were starting secondary school.
"There's two ways to look at this. First that I'm too old and not relevant to students. But over half of the students at Imperial are postgraduate students so I am in fact similar to many of the students the union is meant to represent. I have also completed my undergraduate degree at Imperial so am aware of the issues faced by undergraduates. It's ridiculous to say that just because I am seven years older I can't represent you. In fact I see it as an advantage despite me perhaps having less in common with younger students, as I'll be more on an equal footing with academics in the college."
I ask for three examples of issues that affect him now as a student to prove that he is relevant and in touch with the student body:
- "The inconsistent payment schedule from the College Finance office. It affects bar staff, stewards, undergraduates and postgraduates being paid for lab work. It needs to be sorted out, people need that money in time for rent and bills and other expenditure."
- "The rubbish food in the bars. I want good drinking food, that is edible and value for money. There's students going to the Queen's Arms for lunch, we should be attracting them to the union."
- "A lack of office space. With the building work, we keep being shifted to smaller offices that are becoming more cramped."
"I'm well placed to change these issues. I've already co-operated in improving student issues. I collected evidence in the case of changing the writing-up status of PhDs. I also fought for better coursework feedback as an undergraduate year rep."
Ashley's main focus is on services, but I wonder how he will actually implement these idealistic improvements whilst maintaining a feasible business structure.
"The bars have been profitable before, one year they made £100,000 in profit. That's how much they lost last year, mainly due to the building work. Obviously a balance has to be attained. It's been done before so it's achievable. We need to get students in there with drinks deals and better events which apply to more of our student population. Why should we pay double for a double? The price of a single includes the mark-up for the service that comes with it, it doesn't take double the time to serve a double, students shouldn't have to pay the mark up twice!"
I can't help but feel I hear the same promises every year. Whilst what Ashley says provides a glimmer of hope, I want to know how the situation may change with his efforts.
"Usually what happens is that the Sabbatical officer is told that the problems are ?Operational issues that can't be changed'. But I do want to change them. It depends whether you think the Sabbatical officers should have a say in how the union services are run. I think they should."
"I want to look at getting rid of the door charges on Wednesdays and Fridays. Just because there is an event in dBs that you have to pay to get into you shouldn't have to pay to have a drink in our union. The £1 charge on Wednesdays is partly there to cover the free cloakroom so that we don't have lots of sports bags lying around, but charges like that can be recouped by providing two 50p drinks vouchers. You get your money back and the bar also makes sales."
I've often been asked by students why they should vote and how voting will directly affect them.
"If I get voted in they'll see a marked and consistent improvement in the bar. It won't be like a lottery anymore where you won't know what you'll be getting on that day." Yeah, but everyone says that. "Yeah but everyone else also says nine or ten other things. Essentially my manifesto is exactly what I want to do. The union is undergoing major refurbishment at the moment. I want to decide on the most effective use of dBs before it's too late and expensive to change it. There's going to be lots of disruption and it's going to take hard work to make sure that the union experience doesn't get worse. I don't hold any illusions, it's going to be difficult, but that's another reason why I ran in the election, I'm looking forward to the challenge. I believe I am driven and focused enough to actually make these changes happen."
I asked Ashley why the welfare points seem to take a back seat to improving services. Surely welfare and education are why we are here and are therefore more important?
"That's what the President's job is? I'm not going to run saying that I'll do what the President is meant to do! I've always been fighting for students so that side seems to come second nature to me."
I mention the farce that was the last night of the winter term at the union.
"It was far far too expensive. I've talked to lots of people and they say that the main reason they did not go was because of the price. I would say £7 is reasonable but you also have to provide the value for that. It's a better business plan to get more people in for cheaper as then we will make it up in drinks sales."
I also want to know he plans to achieve "greater student involvement" from the notoriously apathetic Imperial student collective.
"I want to see more live music nights. We have a lot of passionate music clubs who are put off from hosting nights in the union because they feel that an 'us versus the union' sentiment prevails. dBs has an extremely good sound system, yet clubs are forced to drag in their equipment and use that. There's the fear that they might break them but I'd treat the sound system like the union treats minibuses. If your club breaks it, your club must pay for it!"
I accuse Ashley of being too friendly with College, and perhaps a bit on their side as well.
"Ask the College Staff: I'm sure they have something to say on that! There's a difference between being chummy and soft. I am not soft. Instead of walking in and simply making demands, I am already aware of what College wants from us and am well placed to make negotiations and compromises based on my familiarity with both parties."
Another well-worn manifesto point is that of aiming "to sort out problems with club finances".
"The changes are already in motion and I'd maintain that. The main problem is the amount of time clubs have to discuss their finance issues. Problems increased around the time of restructuring and clubs found they had less time to discuss their finances. I want to change the relationship between the finance office and the union so that it is more focused on our practical needs rather than their bureaucratic needs."
I've spent a while talking to Ashley yet I don't think he has said anything that's really made an impact.
"Well let's go back to the beginning: why I am running for President. I went to the bar one day and everything went wrong; the food was awful, it took much too long to get served and then I got a short measure. I got pissed off and thought 'I want this to change. I know how to fix it and I will'. The next day I listened to club officers complain about their finance issues. I want to implement consistency of service within the bar and facilitate our clubs so that they can function with as much ease as possible. I am focused on these issues and that's what I really want to see changed."
I ask how he'll improve evening entertainment when he doesn't usually attend them. Do you ever dance in dBs?
"I have done when drunk, it doesn't happen often though. Have you ever seen a DoC student dance? Not that I'm saying all DoC students can't dance, just most. Actually that's something else I'd like to see happening at the union, comedy nights."DoC students can leave their comments about this tenuous connection below.
Voting in the Sabbatical Elections is now open online at imperialcollegeunion.org/vote. Voting closes at 23:59 on Tuesday 17th March.