My first encounter was with Mr Arif, who was somewhat pressed for time as he was to visit the Silwood campus later that afternoon. I began by asking him what qualities he feels make him suitable for the job of President. “Firstly experience” he replied in a confident manner, “ I have been a member of various clubs, committees throughout my time at IC”. He told me of how he was elected to the C&G executive in his first year and he further voiced “ I have a good working knowledge of the college and the Union and can say that I understand the political dynamics and have got to know the various personalities”. Experience indeed is admirable, but is being a long-time hack enough, I wondered? Mr Arif then pointed to other personal qualities, most notably his strong commitment and dedication to Union activities, “I am in my office most evenings and weekends. I visit the various campuses regularly, more so than my predecessors and am certainly not burnt out”. In fact, he added “I relish the challenges ahead”.
I continued, asking him whether he thinks it is a good idea for a sabbatical officer to hold a second term in office. Mr Arif insisted that he saw his second term as a natural extension of his first as an opportunity to get everything done as he had inevitably spent a lot of time “treading water” and “fire fighting” when he started the job. In his opinion up until October his time had been “somewhat of a rollercoaster ride”. He added that “implementing change” would be better handled if he was allowed a second term in office saying that now he appreciated that “continuity helps student led policy work”. He pointed out that some other Unions had 2 year terms for Sabbaticals anyway although he firmly believed that it was “a good idea” for there to be annual elections.
I then asked him what he aims to achieve during his second term in office. He stressed that he would be working on a Strategic Development Plan with the new Union manager. Firstly “Da Vinci’s needs to be sorted out“ he explained “as does Beit” and “so does the Union Foyer, which looks like a public toilet!” He also plans to take a more active role at Silwood “it is neglected, there should be a Union office there!” Another idea he gave was to “sort out a proper academic representation network with better oversight of grassroots issues”. He said that he would push for more departmental representatives’ training too and would ensure “better staff support” for clubs and societies. Finally he noted that “representing 10 000 students requires a better network of year reps”.
My next question then concerned the Summer ball. I noted to him that has been some controversy of the plans for this year’s summer ball, in particular students expressing opposition to the high ticket costs, £65, and the location of Alexandra Palace. I asked him what effect he thought this should have on choices for next year’s ball. Mr Arif explained that “the Ball was held in Ally Pally back in 1998”. At the time he added, “tickets were about £55 a head” and this was the only ball “to make a profit!” He explained that he saw the ball as being an important “dinner and dance” event that would run in parallel to a Union carnival! He hoped that this year’s ball would draw more post-grads and would be seen as a substitute for the now defunct commemoration ball. He added that he thought that the Union “might break even this year” and that he would await the results of this year’s ball before any decisions on next year but was confident of a high turnout “1000 students” and thought that such an event would not be possible in college.
I asked him what type of relationship he you envisaged between the College and the Union over the next year. “Open, honest” he exclaimed. He explained that he meets with the “Rector once a month” and whenever necessary so I asked him how he would describe his relationship with the Rector. “Well he respects my position” he said, adding that while there were points of disagreement “of course” they “get on reasonably well”. He explained that he has, for example, managed to get transportation for Wye students to events at South Kensington”. He also said he now has greater confidence “to challenge” the Rector when necessary and he now knows “when to phone or email” is appropriate having “greater knowledge of the college system”.
Finally I asked him about his views on top up fees and what he feels is the best response the Union can give to the latest Higher Education Bill. Mr Arif explained that his views were in line with Union policy “most of which I drafted”. He said that he thinks that the expansion of higher education is worthwhile but there are 2 different directions; the first being tradition scholarship and the second “modern” university giving “skills for life and the workplace. He thought that it was thus important for the employer and not the students to contribute to such an expansion. He noted that the media was aware of the issue and it was more important to influence the key “decision makers” saying that “any number of Unions with hippy lefty crowds can do the shouting” but ICU, similar to ULU’s focus, should be more “intellectual” and targeted talking to “peers and submitting information to parliamentary committees”. He concluded by saying that he was against “arbitrary targets” such as the government’s target for 50% of all school leavers to go to University and believed in policies that were more based on “aptitude and will”.
Next it was my turn to question Ameet Bhakta. Mr Bhakta is in his final year at IC having studied Biochemistry and now studying the Management part of his joint honours course. He had come back from the Silwoood hustings which he explained had been a bit of a farce as no students had turned up! He seemed upbeat and enthusiastic if somewhat in a hurry to do some campaigning.
I began, as with Mr Arif, by asking him the qualities he can bring to the role of President. “I feel that I am a responsible committed person who is in touch with the student body.” He added that he would “persistently campaign for students” on the issues that were closest to their hearts and also said that he is a good “team player” too. He explained that “I am good at planning and organising, something that I feel is not done enough today in the Union”. He added that he is “easy to talk to” and stressed that as President he would remain approachable and committed to students. Mr Bhakta then stated that he was not happy simply with “competent” management but wanted “excellent” management, which he hoped to bring to ICU.
I then asked him about his vision for the future of the Union. “Firstly let me state that there is great potential in ICU” he began, saying that he believed that the Union could become one of the “best in the country” but that it currently lagged well behind the likes of UCL Kings and LSE. He added “I will fight to bring real benefits to the students”. Firstly he wished to tackle entertainments which currently “are a real let down” and he noted that IC students deserved better entertainments”. He also stressed that he would push for “refurbishment of Da Vinci’s” and strive for “excellence in all areas” adding that “OK is not good enough”.
In answer to the question of whether it is a good idea for a sabbatical officer to hold a second term in office he responded, “No”. He elaborated, “a sabbatical, especially the President of the Union needs to be a student, needs to be in touch with the students and understand the issues that affect them most” and explained that “electing a President for a second term carries with it the serious danger of “electing someone removed from the student reality”. He noted that it is better “to elect someone with fresh ideas and who knows the current issues better” and spoke of the dangers of a re-elected President becoming an ”establishment” figure set in their ways and unwilling to challenge College or unpopular ideas within the Union itself.
We then moved on to the subject of the summer ball. I again noted recent controversy over the plans for this year’s summer ball, with regards the high ticket costs and the location and asked him what effect he thinks this should have on choices for next year’s ball. “Personally I would have prefered if the Ball had stayed here in South Kensington”. Mr Bhakta explained that he saw this as an important part of “maintaining a community spirit”, something sorely lacking at Imperial. He added that the food and other such frills were far less important than “real student interaction” and he thought that it would be possible to hold future balls on campus. He thought that the £65 ticket price was far too expensive and out of touch with student feeling.
We then moved on to top up fees. Mr Bhakta stated that he was against any tuition fees whatsoever. “They are bad for society and bad for students” adding that he thought the “current President could have taken a better lead on this issue” and that as President he would campaign strongly against the current Higher Education bill “through a variety of means” including trying to influence relevant parties, peers, MPs ministers etc. He added that he “would have involved more of the student body” in the campaign this year.
When I asked him about the relationship he envisaged to build between the College and the Union over the next year Mr Bhakta emphasised that a good working relationship was “essential”. He explained that he hoped for an open relationship with College but stressed that he would not be “sweet talked or bullied” into changing his mind on issues that mattered most to students. He said that he would “stick to his principles and challenge College passionately when necessary” and would “not [be] afraid to represent student [opinion]” even if unpopular with College. He noted that he would work “tirelessly” for the goals and ideas outlined in his manifesto.