Following two academic years disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, university life out of lockdown this autumn has more closely resembled normalcy. However, students at Falmouth University and the University of Exeter’s Cornwall campuses have still faced challenges and continue to push for change.
Lars Mucklejohn spoke to the Falmouth & Exeter Students’ Union presidents about their work this term representing students and negotiating with the universities.
Ben Statham-Wilkins is president Falmouth, focusing on academic support and representation for Falmouth University students.
He acknowledged that the position has been “extremely busy”, and while he enjoyed the “non-stop vibe”, it could be “tough mentally at times”. However, he said that “knowing you can help even one person, it is worth it” and has particularly enjoyed “seeing the university being open and seeing everyone out and about”.
Ben said that he has already started work on “almost all” of his manifesto points, mainly Show Offs, a scheme giving students the opportunity “to showcase their skills on real projects”, including the annual presidential photoshoot. Students can currently apply to design and paint a mural “representing what the SU stands for”, and there is a £500 prize.
Continuing CoLab, a networking platform for Falmouth students, he was pleased to have held its first live event, with another planned for early next year: “It was great to see so many people turn up, pitch, and network amongst each other.”
Other achievements that Ben highlighted included resolving a “major issue” wherein some software deadnamed students, re-establishing the SU’s presence on Falmouth Campus, and continuing to have “open discussions” on personal safety.
He underscored the success of having over 260 Falmouth course representatives and thanked them for “putting themselves forward and doing a brilliant job”. He has set up monthly meetings with department representatives “to give quick updates on how the departments are going and what needs improving”, seeing “quick turnarounds on issues”.
Ben is also the university’s student governor, participating in “important meetings” and ensuring that “the student voice is heard”.
Next term, he would like to implement his manifesto point to introduce sign language teaching on campus and looked forward to seeing how the Challenge 14 survey, aiming to use feedback to improve student support, “changes and improves the student journey as it rolls out later next year”.
Ben concluded: “I am really looking forward to continuing to achieve more of my manifesto goals, and there are a few things coming up which I can’t wait to share with you in the new year, impacting not only current students but future students to come—bring on 2022!”
Steven Preece is president Exeter, focusing on academic support and representation for students at Exeter’s Cornwall campuses.
He said that the job has been “incredibly busy, with no two days being the same”, and while sometimes he could “burn out and feel defeated when it all becomes overwhelming”, the “buzz” of successfully implementing his ideas “reminds me of why I ran for this role and why I am proud to be a student representative”.
The manifesto point that he was “most passionate about”, Steven highlighted making “significant strides in defeating the second-class narrative commonly associated with the Cornwall campuses”. He was optimistic about the university’s proposals for “increasing the profile” of the campuses and keen to be involved as these develop.
On developing Truro Campus, he acknowledged that “little has been achieved in addressing this manifesto priority so far”. However, he has been “working hard” to introduce a night bus service for Truro students to visit Falmouth and “safely share the same nightlife and social experiences as Penryn students”.
“Our Cornwall campuses are located in a stunning setting, which will always remind me of the importance of preserving our environment”, he said. Exeter’s Strategy 2030, published in October, has made sustainability one of the university’s top priorities. However, he wished for the Cornwall campuses to “have a distinct lead” on this principle through “strong links with climate research and recognising how sustainable values are interwoven throughout many of the modules taught at Penryn Campus”.
Outside of his manifesto points, he has worked on the possibility of “studying a degree with a proficiency in sustainable/climate studies”, inspired by discussions at the COP26 climate summit last month, which he attended. He said that the net-zero targets discussed there made him realise that the university’s approach was “simply not ambitious enough to address the climate crisis”.
Steven emphasised the “pivotal” importance of the student voice and “always being on hand to listen to what students have to say”, though highlighted one challenge as “learning to say no to meeting invites where the student voice of the Cornwall campuses cannot be heard or responded to effectively”. His busy schedule leaving little time for student-facing activities, he hoped to “have a better control on this in the new year”.
Ellie Ricks is president student experience, focusing on extracurricular activities across both universities.
“Life as a president has been an adventure”, she said, adding: “Every day is a little different to the last, and you never know when those little changes will lead to something big and exciting in the future. It’s full of opportunity, and I’ve been trying my best to seize each and every one.”
“I think the biggest challenges I’ve faced have been internal”, Ellie said, including dealing with anxiety. However, she “has tried not to let anxieties take me down”, adding: “I’m a professional worrier, and while sometimes that can be useful, it can get to my head and make even the simplest days very overwhelming.”
She said that she has made progress on all of her manifesto points, especially using surveys to “get a real firm grasp on what students want from the events hosted by the SU” and “make sure that as we go into this next study block, we’re putting on the best events we can”.
On work outside her manifesto points, Ellie highlighted “getting student art displayed across the universities, which you can look forward to seeing next year”. She also described working with the “amazing” Student Council and sustainability-focused Green Committee: “I think there are definitely some future presidents among them.”
She stressed the importance of “making sure what I’m asking for is thoroughly backed up by the student voice and not just what I or any individual wants”, facilitated by hearing from student representatives and The Octopus feedback tool.
Among her plans for next term, Ellie wanted to “flex my creative muscles” by modernising the SU space and Falmouth Campus Library, incorporating advice from students. Additionally, she described plans to work with the sustainability team on improving on-campus composting facilities to “crack down on the growing issue of food waste in the wake of COP26”.
Charlotte Agnew is president welfare & inclusivity, focusing on student wellbeing, welfare, accessibility, inclusivity, and diversity across both universities.
Her second year in this position, she noted that “sometimes there are challenges around mental wellbeing and combatting inequality due to these being huge cultural changes, which can be time consuming without immediate effects”. While it has sometimes been stressful, she affirmed: “I do love this job because it’s always absolutely worth it in the end to get to see positive changes made for our students.”
Despite the country being out of lockdown, Charlotte said that “many students are still facing challenges brought up by the pandemic, such as feelings of isolation and anxieties of bigger in-person events”, with mental health “still a top priority”.
On her manifesto points, she highlighted establishing a “wellbeing opinion panel”, a paid opportunity for students to give detailed feedback to the universities “in a supported safe space” and ensure that mental health feedback is “proactively implemented to create change in a more linear direction”.
Charlotte has also worked on personal safety, including drink spiking, which “encompasses a deeper conversation around gender equality”. She has helped to organise the distribution of safety kits, on-campus pop-ups, conversations with student representatives, and meetings with local authorities. Incorporating student feedback, she has worked closely with Cornwall Council on a “safer streets plan”.
She mentioned individual conversations, survey feedback, forum discussions, and social media as ways of engaging with the student voice, also “ensuring that the SU engages with the non-engaged” by working with course representatives, the Student Council, and Liberation Committee to ensure that feedback “is more reflective of the whole student body so that it’s more inclusive of everyone”.
Next term, Charlotte said that she would like to see “lots of events happening on campus and lots of visibility, solidarity, and support for all of our student communities”, adding: “I can’t wait to support our students in bringing some of their really exciting ideas into a real-life thing where people can go: ‘Oh, remember when we went to that event? I really enjoyed that!’”