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Welsh Language Officer debate: referendum campaigning begins

This evening, current part-time Welsh Language Officer Steffan Bryn Jones came up against VP Education, Rhys Jenkins, and part-time Postgrad Students’ Officer, Ollie Wannell, to argue the case for the creation of the full-time Welsh language sabbatical position.

Presenting their case to a half-filled lecture hall, Rhys Jenkins and Ollie Wannell represented the ‘Against’ campaign, whilst Jones, who was joined on the panel by two fellow members of the Welsh-language community, represented the ‘For’ campaign.

The referendum debate was held to help students decide how to vote in the up-coming referendum on whether or not to appoint a Welsh language sabbatical officer. Students will be able to cast their votes between Monday 27th April and Friday 1st May. However, unless a quorum of 1500 votes is met, the outcome of the referendum will not be binding.

Certain sabbatical officers have already made their feelings known on the subject. Jenkins has not withheld from voicing his criticism of the proposed sabbatical position, claiming it would demand time and resources that would be put to better use by the existing sabbatical position.

The debate tonight began with an opening statement from part-time Welsh Language Officer, Jones. “Every student has the right to a bilingual experience [at Cardiff] but we know that’s not possible as things stand at the moment,” said Jones, adding: “we need to realise that right and turn it into a reality.”

Jones stated that, given Cardiff University has the largest number of Welsh speakers than any other university in the world, it reflects badly on the Union that it doesn’t employ a full-time Welsh language officer, especially whilst Aberystwyth and Bangor, two smaller Welsh universities, do just that.

Jones believes a Welsh language sabbatical officer would celebrate the cultural diversity that exists in Cardiff and would provide students with free opportunities to learn or maintain Welsh language skills.

Speaking for the ‘Against’ camp, Jenkins said that, whilst he agreed with many of Jones’ key issues on the need for Welsh language provisions at the University, he disagrees with the method he is pushing to bring about such changes, stating that a new sabbatical position is unnecessary.

Jenkins has stated that a Welsh language sabbatical officer would not be able to carry out their duties effectively, having to co-ordinate with all seven current sabbatical officers given that the issue of the Welsh language spreads across all corners of Union life.

Jenkins continued, arguing that the Union is already taking steps towards making the Union wholly bilingual and cited the recent move to employ a full-time translator for events such as last week’s debate. “We’ve already shown commitment as a Union to the Welsh language,” said Jenkins.

Postgrad Students’ Campaign Officer, Ollie Wannell, argued that, rather than employ a Welsh language sabbatical officer, the issue would best be served by a full-time member of staff whose position would be solely dedicated to co-ordinating Welsh language efforts.

Ethical and Environmental Campaign Officer, Daniel Roberts raised issue with Wannell’s suggestion, asking: “If it’s much better to have staff rather than an officer [for Welsh language] why do we have officers for other positions?”

To the surprise of the audience, Wannell questioned the effectiveness of the sabbatical team, openly acknowledging that he would dissolve the position of VP Societies and AU President. “In my opinion, I don’t think we need an elected Societies Officer, we don’t need an elected AU President. I probably wouldn’t have them.”

Despite criticising the effectiveness of sabbatical officers, during the most recent AMM (Annual Members Meeting) held in November, Wannell successfully petitioned for the creation of a VP Postgrad Students position. The full-time role was subsequently created and will come into play in September, with Katie Kelly treading new territory as the first VP Postgrad Students’ Officer.

An audience member, alert to the contradiction in Wannell’s argument, commented: “I thought it was pretty inconsistent that you can argue for a postgraduate officer and then argue against offices.”

He asked: “Why is it a postgraduate officer can get things done for a postgraduate but a Welsh language officer couldn’t get things done for Welsh leaners and Welsh speakers?”

Audience members also questioned the success of the Union’s bilingual efforts, with one audience member citing how the advertisement for the evening’s debate was given on the CUSU website in English alone.

Another student complained that, despite being able to carry out his assessments through the medium of Welsh, all course literature and information is given in English and he must effectively work as his own translator.

The situation at the Heath is no better according to one Heath Park student, who described Welsh language provisions on the campus as “awful”, adding “we need an officer who will put the Welsh language first and not as a last resort.”

In his closing statement, Jenkins summarised the ‘Against’ argument, posing the question: “We agree Welsh language provision needs improving, we agree the Union isn’t there yet […] the question is methodology. Do you need a VP to do it?”

To keep up-to-date with the SU’s referendum on the creation of a Welsh language sabbatical position, tweet us at @gairrhydd using the hashtag #CaerdyddRef

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