Interview with future union president David Cichon
In your campaign, you pledged to increase democracy, transparency and representation and to create a more inclusive union. What have you done for union democracy so far, as Chair of Council, and what are your future plans?
At the council meeting [Monday 14 February], we discussed areas we can change to make the union more accessible and improve the election system. In the next meeting we’re going to make concrete decisions on how we publicise meetings, communicate with the students and getting more of them involved in promoting union democracy. We also set up a working group to look at union democracy to solve current problems, like there being a closed set of people who have become involved and the difficulty for those who stand in elections to know how they need to represent. Lots of students know council is making decisions for them but not that they can propose motions and attend meetings if they want to. It’s not meant to be exclusive; anybody can propose ideas for the agenda and we need to ensure students know this.
But as someone who is highly involved with the union, aren’t you part of that exclusive set?
I got so involved as I realise how hard it is to get through to students and how neither my role nor responsibilities were clearly defined. We had feedback meetings and allowed students to come and see what has been discussed at council which didn’t work so well, so we’ve definitely been trying to improve the situation and address the problems that I have seen over the last few years.
Do you think that students want to see these changes? Do they care enough to go to meetings? Are there better ways they can get involved?
I think people want to be more aware of how they can contribute. If they don’t want to, that’s fine but that there are people who want to but can’t is really terrible. In my election campaign I said that the many areas of the union – support staff, advice staff, sports and societies and obviously the campaigns and representation – all seem to be quite disconnected from each other and people don’t seem to realise that all these things are coming from the same democratic organisation. It’s important that people who play sport and people who are campaigning realise this.
Interesting that you mention sport as during the campaign there were rumours that you plan to get rid of it. Is this the case?
As I said in my email to the sports societies, of course sport will be on the agenda. It is a very important part of student experience and well-being. Sport will be improved if anything. This comes back to trying to integrate the union, as an organisation that facilitates sport, to integrate them into the decision-making process. It doesn’t matter what part of the union you are involved in, you are still affected by the decisions made and it is important that you are part of them.
What about the rumours about your rival, Jian Farhoumand? Was your campaign group responsible?
Definitely not. No one in my team was making any allegations. Jian and I discussed that as there were only two of us running, there was a possibility that it’d get heated so we said we’d keep it clean. I’m upset that things were said as it brought the week down and made things personal.
Your majority was quite large. Why do you think this was?
I think there are multiple reasons. I had an incredible team of people who were always knocking on doors or talking to people so there was a constant presence on campus which is really important. Also, it was a choice between two very different approaches: Jian and I had two very different ideas about where the union should be.
Jian offered proposals about how the union can raise extra revenue. With the decision on Bramber House supermarket looming and possible financial insecurity, how will you secure the future of the union?
I think we need to look at alternative ways of generating revenue. One of the obvious ways to do this is through the proposal that is being pushed forward at the moment about a union letting agency. It’s also important that we continue working with management on the block grant. It’s our biggest source of revenue and we need to uphold it.
But you could inherit an unfortunate financial situation.
It might be that we have to make some really quick decisions about what to do and our budget might look very different to how it looks now. That would mean a very difficult start. Let’s hope not.
You’ve a history of involvement in student activism. Do you support all demonstrations or do you draw the line at certain tactics?
When we look at student protests it’s important we recognise the incredible wave recent of student action. Obviously there’s a line to be drawn at physical harm to another human being and even intimidation. But if students stand against the government when it makes decisions that they don’t agree with, it’s important that as a union we support them and are on their side.
Is damage to property is acceptable when it comes to fighting fees?
It depends. I wouldn’t condemn the damage to Millbank Tower; broken windows are nothing compared to the damage to higher education. But physical violence by both the protesters and the police is unacceptable.
Campus protests often involve occupations. There seems to be a small group of extreme activists taking part in these protests, alienating the main student body. How do you propose representing everybody, ensuring that education is not disrupted while raising support of the whole student body for union campaigns?
That’s a very interesting question. With some of the occupations and some of the big protests after the suspension of the Sussex Six, the levels of support were much larger than just a small percentage of radical activists. We had 600-700 at the protest outside Sussex House; lecturers, students and support staff, resulting in 300 people occupying Arts A. It was not disruptive to people’s education and was a creative way of protesting. I think that was incredible and must be supported. With changes in government policy, I think there will be more people getting involved and interested in what’s going on. Some tactics may alienate some students and we need to take that into account. On the other hand, I have been involved in protests and in actions against the cuts and I honestly believe that it is the right thing to do. I obviously want to represent everybody but I am going to continue supporting those people and hopefully find a way to get more and more people involved. One of the ways we can do that is by opening up as these cuts are affecting a lot of courses. For me, it all began with the Save Linguistics campaign in my first year which included a lot of students who weren’t political activists and just wanted to save their course. They were willing to fight for their department.
What role will negotiations with management play during your tenure as president?
They will be very important, but what will be even more important is that the student body is behind us. For management, we will be just another set of officers like they’ve dealt with year after year. The only way that we can make an impact is if we’ve got the students on our side so that we are pushed into getting the best for them, showing management that we are not just another group officers who’ll be gone soon.
The international student visa legislation is a big issue. As an international student yourself, how are you going to escalate the voice of the union to a national level?
There are two sides to this. There’s door knocking and walking around. I spoke to two international students who have a lot of discontent with the government’s plans and would also like to see things change at a local level. It is important to get international students involved more locally as we can’t represent international students on a national level if they’re not involved in the union. But of course we want to go national with it; Sheffield has a big campaign running currently and we want to link up with them.
This is an attack on international students for no apparent reason. It is a right-wing ideological move which is threatening the diversity of the student population. It could create a situation where we have a lot less international students and the ones we do have aren’t allowed to assimilate because they are unable to work whilst they are studying and they are no longer allowed to stay here after they have finished their degree. The whole idea of building up personal relationships becomes harder if they know there is no chance they will still be here after their degree. It is damaging to higher education and student life.
Will it be much harder to mobilise mass support for that issue as opposed to rising fees?
Yes, definitely. It will be very hard especially with everything else going on. From a student union point of view, the international student’s cause is something that we are definitely going to take on. Also the union can cooperate with the management of the university as they are angry about this legislation too. It is a good chance for us to work with management and a good way for international students to get involved in the union.
What will your legacy will be?
I can only hope that I deliver on the promises I made during my campaign. I really hope the international student campaign, which I have already started working on, will be successful.
I hope the student body and union continue to stand against things they see as unjust. That obviously involves all the lecturers, support staff, porters; it involves working with the staff as well as the students. We need to make sure that we have an opposition to the changes that we are seeing nationally and locally.