Posted inOpinion

Why I’m Running for Oxford SU President: Michael-Akolade Ayodeji

As part of its coverage of the Oxford SU Election, The Oxford Blue invited all candidates for the role of President to submit an op-ed detailing their manifesto commitments ahead of the election.

All candidates for the role of President were given the same opportunity and the same specification for their piece.

Some candidates elected not to submit a op-ed piece.

Pieces were edited for grammar, spelling, and clarity of expression only.

The Oxford Blue endorses no particular candidate in the SU Election. The views expressed below are the candidates’ own and do not represent the views of The Oxford Blue.

A True Student Union: The main issue I see with the SU

Oxford’s makeup of 40+ semi-autonomous constituent colleges and PPHs comes with distinct advantages for potential and existing students. The advantage that I’d like to expand on is the “college community” this system creates, giving students a strong feeling of belonging which is incredible especially in the context of Oxford – an environment where students from virtually all backgrounds experience imposter syndrome at some point if not throughout their Oxford life – and for freshers a chance to quickly make friends and build close bonds that tend to be essential wellbeing godsends throughout your time at uni.

Another advantage of the college community is that due to their relatively smaller size and makeup, college officials and tutors (who in theory know us best and are best placed to provide support for your contextual or individualised needs) are accessible. Finally, there’s the advantage of Junior or Middle Common Room membership, usually led by individuals we’ve elected from our College communities as people we believe understand the respective needs of each student body and have demonstrated both the capacity and will to fulfil them. 

I am concerned, having observed that the Student Union in general, but the office of President in particular, is currently failing to connect with college communities and thus failing to connect with its main stakeholders (the students). This, in addition to a number of things, has led to what I’d term as SU apathy: the average student not knowing what the SU or indeed SU president does, has done or why it/they exist provides the explanatory oil as to why – for example – Student Council is so poorly attended, further colleges are considering disaffiliation, and why members of vulnerable communities don’t always think of the SU as a first or even last point of contact in redress of grievances.

This observation perplexes me precisely because the SU has done and is doing lots of GREAT work! From Nikita Ma’s valiant effort to lead the SU through its first pandemic and responding productively but sensitively to the issues of most student minds – mental health and racial equality; to the current Sabbatical Officer team delivering projects that make a real impact such as Safa Sazodai’s (VP Access & Academic Affairs) sub-fusc reimbursement to Kemi Agunbiade’s (VP Women) current work to introduce a policy that aims better safeguard students and staff from sexual misconduct and the Sabb team’s consistent facilitation of protest and campaigns that are close to the hearts of different communities.

My solution

So why so much SU apathy? As illustrated above, clearly the SU isn’t short of ideas in making the student experience better, nor does it lack the fortitude to implement change. I suspect that people just aren’t aware of the good work being done, precisely because of our failure to communicate and connect with the grassroots of the student community. This reality does not only weaken the SU, but also causes a decrease in the experiential outcome for undergraduate and postgraduate students at our university. Governing structures of Colleges or the University and their departments are less likely to listen to proposals or implement policies suggested by the SU if they perceive the SU as irrelevant in the eyes of a vast proportion of students. More damningly, its touch makes the case that any of the good policies myself and other candidates are proposing is reflective of the needs of Oxford students.

For me there are two solutions: 1) the SU combats this apathy or 2) the SU elects to dissolve itself.

Obviously, I’m not recommending the latter. Whilst I do agree that for the vast majority of students, issues that affect their day-to-day life are sorted within the college through help for the staff or reps in common rooms, there are issues such as lobbying for policies that tackle sexual misconduct, discrimination or a more inclusive student hardship funding that I feel require need systemic university-wide change or a standardised approach in order to be effective and not leave any student behind. The SU is best placed to push for solutions to these issues due to the resources at its disposal but more importantly, a seat in Committees grants students access to and the ear of key university-wide decision-makers and collegiate leaders.

Combating SU apathy is a long term project that begins by firstly being accessible. This can be achieved in a number of ways not limited to Sabbatical Officers being not only approachable but also sensitive and cognisant of the needs of different people, with varying abilities and from different backgrounds. Streaming the session which holds the SU president to account is one simple concrete example of how I plan to achieve this.

Secondly, we need to be proactive in our engagement and empower communities. Whether it be SU campaign leadership or JCR/MCR leadership, our SU needs to become more interlinked and communicative with people in these communities who volunteer their time to help fellow students. 

Finally, we need to lay and cement of trust between students and the university; with the university by engaging in constructive criticism and recognition of strides made during negotiations, and with students by reacting appropriately to issues raised following through and fulfilling our pledges. For example, I am prepared to speak up and am not afraid to take activist action – as I have done in the past – if necessary and I’ll also report on progress on projects via regular short video updates. 

My hope is that this creates a loop where students feel comfortable reaching out to SU for help, feel that they’re listening to and satisfied with the actions and results which then increases trust and thereby encouraging SU engagement and slowly but surely tackling SU apathy.

Why do I care for this role?

As a Crankstart scholar who gained the confidence to apply through the UNIQ summer school, I’ve directly benefited from policies and projects supported by the SU. My circumstance as a mature student living with disabilities and careleaver has given me a unique sense of perspective. I think my track record shows I have the competency, will and determination to do my bit and help others as I’ve also been supported.