Mustafa Arif is a bit of a show-off. From his penchant for dressing up in City and Guilds regalia, to his abject refusal (until very recently) to acquire a mobile phone to the golfing umbrella he carries around reminiscent of a wizard?s staff, he exudes an air of self-importance. One can?t help but wonder if standing for President was a move designed to promote and complement this self-built image. He tells me that his motivation for the post is a genuine desire to do good for the Union ?I?ve spent 4 years here, I?ve thoroughly enjoyed my time and I relish the opportunity to give something back to the place?. As the interview progresses it becomes apparent that he really does care about students and believes in the Students? Union?s ability to make their lives better saying ?I?m here to serve students? and that the Union may help students though what it does ?to represent students to the College on matters that affect them, to be concerned about their welfare and to facilitate student activities? however it seems highly probable that the high profile nature of the role, the brief opportunity to play the ringleader in this circus, appealed to his psyche and played a part, albeit perhaps subconsciously, in the decision.
So what does Mr Arif intend bring to Union during his term in office? One place to start might be his election manifesto and his infamous pledge to attempt to provide both a ?Starbucks style? caf? and better catering, including chips, in Beit. He says that one of his core aims for the year will be to put in place a long term (of order 5 years) plan to develop social space in College. It?s a bold initiative and one that would only succeed with support from the College, however he seems to think this will be forthcoming and cites talk of plans social space on the walkway and in the library. However he was keen to stress that such catering outlets need not necessarily be located within Beit or even run by the Union ?It?s not simply a case of what trading outlets the Union?s providing it?s more a case of what?s available on campus for students.? He added ?We will be conducting a space review of Beit to identify the usage of the area. We?ve got to actually balance that now with some of the new developments coming across in College such as the new Faculty building?. Certainly the face of College is changing weekly at the moment and it would seem likely that these changes would include the development of catering facilities. What role the Union will play in these developments is unclear at the moment, but it is evident that Mr Arif is keen for the Union to play a key role in the decision making process.
The achievement of these goals will rely heavily on maintaining good relations with College. Our new President has a tendency to be argumentative and at times provocative (another product of his attention seeking nature) and whilst the benefits of this is that he is likely to provide a strong voice when standing up for what he believes to be the students? best interests, there is a danger that he could take this too far and hammer home pedantic arguments on points of principle thus rendering future arguments less effectual. It is also possible he could antagonise College staff to the detriment of the Union?s working relationship with College however he doesn?t believe he will have difficulties working with College stressing ?There is no contradiction between constructive criticism and working with College administration. It?s a paradox that every Union President has to face because you have to work with College administration but at the same time you are the senior student representative and where students are unhappy or disagree with what College is doing it?s your job to represent that?. He is of course correct in this latter statement, and this is arguably the single greatest challenge for any Union President. It will be interesting to see over the next year whether he manages to strike a good balance.
If external relations carry this tricky paradox at least internal relations within the Union should, in theory at least, be simpler. In practice however relationships such as those between the central Union and its constituent Faculty Unions has not always been a smooth one. Mr Arif seemed relatively relaxed about this though, saying ?It is a 2 way thing, the Faculty Unions are part of ICU and we need to recognise that and recognise that they are an integral part of us but also they need to recognise they?re part of the Union.? adding simply ?If you actually talk to them and involve Faculty Union Presidents in general decision making it kinda helps?. Of course, ICU stretches not just outside of South Kensington but outside of the M25. Distant territory for a lifelong Londoner such as Mustafa Arif who freely admits that he knows little about Wye or Silwood in terms of what their student needs are. ?Dealing with the outlying campuses is something I don?t think we?ve ever done really well? he tells me but perhaps during the course of the monthly visits he has promised to make to these campuses he will learn something. Perhaps he will even be persuaded to part with his umbrella for a pair of wellies and a Barbour jacket.
It emerges that this year will be his first experience of living away from home for any significant length of time. It will be interesting to see if he will have any difficulties coping with this additional stress on top of that of the role of President although he claims he does know how to use a washing machine and that he already irons his own shirts. In many other ways though he is the archetypal Imperial student being a self proclaimed geek (and proud of it didn?t you know) and ISE graduand (am I repeating myself here?). As well as being a techie geek he is a political geek and it seems his political interests do stray outside the Union. He is toying with the idea of standing for Mayor of London sometime in the future (that desire to be the centre of attention rearing its head again) and the misadventures of his youth include nearly joining the Labour party. Interesting therefore to note the tone of disapproval he uses when referring to the contamination of the NUS with Labour party politics. On the subject of his current political stance he told me ?if you look on the London Student weblog I did not one but two political quizzes and both of them put me just left of centre? which is possibly just as telling of his techie affections as his political ones.
Mr Arif joins a long line of Union Presidents who believe that ICU is better off outside the NUS citing the party politics as the main reason for this. ?It would cost us money to affiliate and frankly I don?t think that what we?d get out of it would be worth it? he says ?NUS is very much dominated by party politics, in particular Labour party politics and that overshadows a lot of the work they do for students [and] on the big issues they always get let down by the fact that they?re overrun by political factions and frankly they just get ignored?. On the topic of ICU?s affiliation to ULU however, he is, unusually for an Imperial hack, more positive. ?It is true that whenever ULU have done surveys of whose using their building when they?re running their ents nights that actually there have been more students from Imperial there than any other College and it there are more ULU card holders at Imperial than any other College which implies that a significant number of Imperial students are actually making use of those facilities?. The benefits from possession of a ULU card include use of the sports leagues and ULU clubs and societies. With Imperial College?s future with the University of London and with it ICU?s future with ULU up for renewal at the end the of the 2004/5 academic year it is likely that exactly what Imperial gains and/or wants to gain from its membership of UL will be much debated over the coming year.
Whether buoyed by the glow of attention or the opportunity to do good for ICU or, more likely, a combination of both, Mr Arif is clearly very enthusiastic and optimistic about the year ahead. How long this enthusiasm will last and how many of his aims he will be able to implement as the problems of termtime and their inevitable associated bickering and in fighting dog much of the Union?s proceedings, is yet to be discovered. In any case with the new building developments in College and the impact that may have on catering or entertainments facilities, Imperial?s future with UL to be under discussion and of course the wider ongoing problems of tuition fees and funding issues in higher education to be addressed with a vocal and strong willed President thrown into the fire, this year will certainly be interesting to watch.