We chatted with your VP Welfare, Benn Rapson about what is involved in his role, how he listens to student concerns, his advice for students running next year and his reflections on 2020. Read the full interview below!
Can you describe what you do in your role as a VP Welfare?
So my role is Vice-President Welfare, I represent students to the university on other bodies are relating to sort of financial issues. Housing and health and well being, so physical, mental, sexual health and a whole bunch of other things. But that's the remit.
Did you have any fears about running for the role, and if so, how did you overcome this?
Well, I think any election and you have the fear of putting yourself forward and then falling short and that is always fear and I think all candidates have that fear. But, this wasn't my first rodeo. I'd ran for elections the previous year against Kayla, of all people, and lost magnificently. You just have to keep pushing forward come back a year later and that's what I'd encourage our students to think about when they think about shouldn't elections mean it maybe not the first time, but maybe the second or my case. The third or fourth.
I think I've learned from every single campaign and sometimes I don't learn fast enough. But I think not to take things too seriously. Take them how they come. My earlier campaigns, I was very focused on getting everything sorted on day one. Whereas you can probably take things a little bit more at an easy pace and not push yourself like I did on even day one, of this election cycle with my leaflets. But yeah, just take things easy and sell a lot of work, work hard but go easy on yourself.
What is your motivation to do this role?
Um, oh god, this is taking me away back to our videos at the start of the year and which is a super cliche answer of wanting to make a change. I've been involved and been around the Union since I started at Strathclyde and I've always wanted to sort of change things for the better or the way I see them for the better. So yeah, that was the most cliche answer in the world and but that is the genuine reason.
Can you tell us one thing that people may not know about you?
Oh gosh, you've caught me off guard. I'm as you can see from my background. I'm a massive gamer and those blue disks up the top. Sometimes the blur is a little bit better on this camera and I've had University think they're books. Which is probably good and but it's actually a fairly substantial WiiU collection, which is a Nintendo console that failed magnificently and I put money into it for some reason.
How do you hear about student issues?
First and foremost just talk to students and you listen. In the era of coronavirus that's obviously not as face to face, as I wish it was. But social media is a very powerful tool, you check in with people, especially the beginning of the year. When students were having a lot of problems with things like communication and sort of onboarding process at the start of semester one, just putting a Facebook post up and asking students how they are and what the issues are and generating that feedbacks been really helpful, especially when you can then compile that into a list and say, I've received X amount of comments about this issue. So it's clearly an issue that loads of students are having. So can you deal with that, please? Yeah, just talk to them, listen. I think one of the things you always have to remember and this job is that your ears are a more powerful tool to than your voice at times. Less speaking, more listening.
What are some of the key issues students have asked you to deal with this year?
I think the big repeated thing I've heard over the year is the communication from the University And and I still don't think that is golden. I think the problem needs to be some sort of substantial changes at the university to get that in tip-top space. The other big issue that I've been having throughout the year and I'm continuing to work on is housing. Specifically students in sort of private halls and in some pretty rubbish conditions. So, communications, a sort of broader issue that I think every student is annoyed about and for students who live in student accommodation halls has probably been the biggest single issue.
What is the process for achieving the outcome?
So I think one of the really important things you have to do this job and one of the things that it's quite hard to do, especially like everybody who comes into this job. Our entire team this year, really, really invested and as you have to be able to separate single cases from broad issues. So if you have a single student come along to you that has one very important but very specific issue. It needs to be dealt with, but I'm probably not the best person to actually deal with it directly and the best person to probably come talk to in the first place and raise it. Then if it as a wider, substantial issue, I would directly take that forward to the University or the accommodation provider. But it's knowing, then if it's a single minute issue. So a student is having problems with finance issue and knowing than to pass it along to someone like Advice Hub who have a dedicated team of advisors and who are literally paid to do that job and do a really cracking job. Being able to signpost students in that direction, making sure somebody at advice hub has picked up their case and is working on it. But as a broader issue like you have a number of students come into you about not having water and then I would work with advice, I'm sure. But I would take it forward to the more campaigning perspective rather than dealing with individual cases because 23,000 students at Strathclyde and there's one of me.
What do you hope that you're achieving for students.
That's a big question. I think just that things are further forward. I think when you're in a role like this, it's a one year term and it may only be a one year term. You never know. You just have to take it as sort of passing the baton on and getting the baton a little bit further down the road. I would like for this role to be a bit more solidified in terms of having some annual tasks that my successors can continue, for some things. Like I'm running a sexual health survey at the moment I would see that as an annual task so that we can improve year on year. We have the student mental health agreement, which is an annualised document that should be reviewed year on year and each iteration should improve mental health at Strathclyde. So the processes are kicked off and annualised so that things can improve as each baton is passed on.
What are you looking forward to in 2021?
I'm quite optimistic of 2021 and I'm hoping that the general situation gets better quite quickly, although I think we've all been hoping that through this year. I think we're finally at the stage where we're starting to get the indicators that it probably will be a smoother year at least. But I think for me, and I'm sure that the rest of the team as well. We spent the first sort of six months, dealing with a lot of fires at the University, putting out a lot of COVID related fires. It's only been the last couple of months that we've really started to sit down and look at our manifesto is really intensely. What can we get done in this remaining amount of time? Like at this time there's like four weeks left of the semester I sat down and Friday and I was like, cool, How much can I cram into this week so I get as much done. So the rest of the year is gonna be working entirely on manifesto commitments, getting them delivered, getting as many things ticked off as possible so that students get their money's worth.
Do you have any New Year's resolutions?
I'm so I'm actually quick good, normally, at keeping new years resolution. One year, I used to be an absolute addict for to full-sugar Irn Bru, which, as you can imagine, is not very good health-wise. I made a commitment to just ditch it, and I ditched it for nearly three years before finally falling back when they brought Irn Bru extra. I'm probably sure that's not that much better for you but here we are. Sort of new year's resolution in terms of work-related stuff is just to be a little bit more direct. I spent my first sort of six months learning the role and I think that's quite often for first-year SABBs, they have to spend a lot of time learning the role, learn how the Uni works and it's only been in the sort of the last couple of weeks I've been like, cool. I now have the confidence to go and speak to the vice principal directly and not go through committees and try and act change that way. So I think being more direct in terms of work. In terms of a personal one, be a bit more healthy next year. I think lockdown has certainly taken its toll on a lot of people. I wasn't one of those people that got into a fitness revolution throughout lockdown, but maybe next year I'll get to that.
What is one positive thing from 2020 that’s your carry into 2021?
Basically, we can't go backwards. So that's the discussion I was having just this morning actually on a couple of different things, but COVID and I said that some of my first videos as well. For a lot of things in my manifesto at least, made those commitments no brainers and there's been a lot of things that the University has been working towards for a couple of years and to give students insight, say the University often comes up with a project and then takes umpteen years to deliver the project and it gets pushed back 100 times. COVID has actually forced the acceleration of a lot of those things. So things like transcript fees are basically a thing in the past because previously you can't get them online. COVID forced them to move online and they're just going to be online on a permanent basis. But things like recorded lectures I know like Chelbi is going to be pushing really hard to ensure that doesn't go backwards. So I think we've made a lot of progress in a lot of areas. The University spent a lot of time trying to get to and in a way, the crisis gave them a kick up the bum and actually get things sorted and get things done faster. Because they had to, otherwise we wouldn't have been able to deliver any learning. I think those processes have made learning more accessible to students. So yeah. Can't go backwards, can only go forwards.
What would you like to say to students running this year?
Do it. Absolutely. Do it. Like again, as I said earlier, I stood in many elections, before I won one. It's always, you know, you take that wee hit on election night when you don't quite make it but you pull yourself up and you go again and you learn from it. There's nothing really to lose if you are committed if you think you are the right person then absolutely put yourself forward or I know every year we have our nominate a friend process. If you think you know someone who'd be really good, nominate them and we will reach out to them to give them the nudge and say you could be really good, somebody said you could be really good at this. Have some faith in yourself. You will learn on the job as we all do. You'll bring a unique set of experiences that other people may not have had before and bringing unique insight. Which the university sorely needs at times and just a different voice in the room that has a different set of perspective. So do it absolutely do.
What is your hope for the future of the Union?
Oh wow, that's, that's a good question actually. So I have a lot of ideas. I think the Union does a lot of things right. But it needs to in a way return to the roots of student unions as sort of membership organisations, and I think we do a lot for students and we do a lot of things good for students, but one of the things we could improve on is empowering students to do things for themselves and giving them the tools and the spaces to organise themselves collectively. That's something I've been working on this year. But I think that's a long term thing that's like an institutional thing that we need to sort of put through all of our processes. So I'd like to see us be heavily focused on being a membership organisation that empowers students who raise their voices and be heard. Because I think a lot of the problems that we seek to tackle as a Union can't just be solved by six sabbatical officers and part-time reps. I think we need to get more students involved and the sort of representative democratic side of the Union and make them know that exists. When we have achievements, which we often do, scream from the top of our 10 levels of fun that we currently have. That we've had this achievement and we've won this, because we have had some big victories, like abolishing graduation fees and or net-zero, for example. We just have to talk about it more and make students realise the power of the Union.
Thanks to Benn for taking the time to talk to us!
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