Officers reflect on year in office at scrutiny meeting

Last week saw Cardiff University Students’ Union’s six full-time sabbatical officers review their own performances before an end-of-year meeting of student representatives.

The ten person Scrutiny Committee, which is tasked with “hold[ing] Cardiff Student’s Union Elected Offices to account on behalf of students”, meets behind closed doors approximately seven times per academic year.

This time, however, marked the first time Gair Rhydd was given access to such a gathering – albeit after a prolonged discussion and subsequent vote over whether to approve the presence of a journalist.

The meeting saw SU President Elliot Howells, VP Welfare Faraz Alauddin, VP Sports Bryn Griffiths, VP Education Rhys Jenkins, VP Heath Park Claire Blakeway and VP Societies Barney Willis interviewed individually.

First before the panel was Blakeway, who in addition to her duties as Heath Park representative was recently elected to the position of Students’ Union president for 2015-16.

She suggested that the year had “gone well” from her perspective, with developments to the Heath Park infrastructure and the success of Medics’ Varsity amongst her highlights since September.

Furthermore, she emphasised the instigation of a Housing Charter, the extension of Languages For All learning hours and increased opening times of the Heath Hub’s ‘IV Lounge’ as positive developments during her term.

As part of her preparation to succeed Howells as president, Blakeway then set out plans for a summer tour in which newly elected officers will visit Students’ Unions at the four largest universities in London – and in Dundee.

When asked to bring up any failures in the role, she admitted that ill-timing had contributed to the cancellation of the ‘Healthcare Games’ but that on the whole “I achieved more than I thought I would.”

She was followed by Faraz Alauddin, who claimed that the majority of his manifesto had been fulfilled and that “a lot of extra stuff” had also been achieved.

The VP Welfare emphasised the success of having exam timetables released early, establishing a Residents’ Association (which would particularly aid first year students) and changes to the existing substance awareness policy.

However, he conceded that issues such as the ‘Time For Change’ pledge and the provision of out-of-hours health support had encountered issues which had prevented their implementation.

Alauddin was more positive on projects such as the establishment of a ‘Credit Union’ and the limited roll out of bursaries for asylum seeking students.

The latter project, which would support two new students per year (a total of six concurrently) has seen the university pledge to waive tuition fees, but now depends on the Union’s ability to raise six lots of living costs (approximately £24,000) annually.

Third in was outgoing Students’ Union president Elliot Howells, who described his year in the role as “the most amazing of my life”.

Although he insisted his focus was now on putting things in place for successor Blakeway, he was keen to point to winning NUS Wales’ Officer Team of the Year, securing £2.5m for redevelopment of the Union’s ground floor and the itinerary surrounding the general election as highlights of his year.

The latter project, described as “one of the biggest election events programmes in the UK”, reportedly contributed to 19,500 students registering to vote in the poll.

Asked about less successful events, Howells suggested that much of his agenda had been delayed by University paperwork – in particular, projects such as the ‘Campus Card’ payment system being delayed until September.

He was then the first of the officers to be asked about the furore surrounding the outcome of the previous week’s referendum on the proposed creation of a full-time Welsh language sabbatical officer.

Howells said that, ahead of a meeting later that week, he was “not sure” what Steffan Bryn Jones’ campaign members would want from him – but emphasised the need for reconciliation.

He described the angry response to the ‘No’ vote as “a weight on my shoulders”.

He suggested that the Union remained committed to Welsh and had targets for advancement, but these were easy to discount as they were “less tangible”.

Howells did remark that technical staff were working on making the Students’ Union website entirely bilingual, with ‘.cymru’ and similar domain names currently being purchased.

Once the SU President had departed, VP Education Rhys Jenkins was called in.

He too was positive on the impact his year in office had had, again highlighting the early release of exam timetables and the success of student feedback event ‘Speak Week’ as the projects he was most pleased with.

Given the opportunity, Jenkins suggested that he would meet with student representative chairs earlier than Christmas, as he did this year, as it had proven an effective method of addressing concerns.

He also confirmed that projects such as ‘Lecture Capture’ were progressing well, with the software decided but certain legal hurdles still yet to be overcome.

Like the President, Jenkins was then tackled over the outcome of the Welsh language referendum.

He acknowledged that the elected officer team was “glad of the outcome”, but conceded that it was “going to be difficult to repair the damage” done to the Union’s relationship with ‘Yes’ campaigners.

He then suggested that the Union should have started pre-planning for each possible outcome earlier, with “more groundwork” necessary to decide on the best route forward.

Barney Willis, who had come in for particular criticism for his role in the ‘No’ campaign, was next to answer to the Scrutiny Committee.

He opened by insisting that he had “loved this year”, pointing to various fairs – and most prominently, the Cardiff Fringe Festival – as particular highlights.

However, amongst his regrets he listed his initial inward-looking approach and a failure to devise a better system for societies-based feedback.

Despite this, Willis suggested that the Societies Council had approved of his changes, including to the controversial ‘tier system’.

He also addressed the effects of the Counter-Terror and Security Bill, insisting that his personal view was that as many speakers as possible should attend the university and that the Islamic Society had had the vast majority of their guests approved.

He too was then asked about the Welsh Language referendum campaign in which he played a prominent role.

Willis started by praising the engagement provoked by the referendum, the most successful in the Union’s history, and added that he hoped that ‘Yes’ campaigners would be willing to work with next year’s officer team.

He added that his personal encouragement of a ‘No’ vote had been “misinterpreted by Gair Rhydd” and that he “stood by what I did” in his role as a representative of societies

Finally, VP Sports Bryn Griffiths was asked in – telling the committee that the year had gone “very quickly” and that he had learnt “a hell of a lot”.

He suggested that his highlight had been Varsity, which he planned to tell successor Sam Parsons to take full advantage of the annual event.

However, he admitted that his changes to gym membership could have come earlier and that he would have liked to have seen sports facilities experience greater upgrades during his tenure.

He then addressed the ‘Rainbow Laces’ campaign, which he claimed had “blown [him] away” with his success after his initial feeling that he would have to “sell it more” to various sports teams.

Griffiths noted that the campaign had gained great social media attention, and expressed the hope that it would remove any obstacles or apprehension LGBT+ students would have to getting involved in university sport.