Sabbatical Officers Hustings: Thoughts from the Chair

For seven hours last week, I sat on stage with candidates for all six Sabbatical Officer positions and had the chance to question them about the most pressing issues facing UCL students. Now that the results are in, some were surprising and well, some were not. Here is my impression of the diverse range of candidates and those who ultimately won.

Activities & Engagement Officer

The seven candidates for this position embodied a broad range of the UCL student spectrum. The President of the Hockey Team went head to head with his counterpart from the Harry Potter Society. All of the candidates were upbeat and, to an extent, offbeat – I couldn’t take my eyes off Mirabel Brow’s fabulously flamboyant pink lashes. The session passed largely uncontroversially, with the prospective Sabbs concurring on strategies to improve club and society inclusivity and safety. The victorious Mary McHarg, President of the Sci-Fi Society, was undoubtedly impressive, making well-reasoned arguments to present herself as sensible, if nothing else. This moderation was somewhat surprising, given that she was a member of the ‘radically caring’ slate – however, maybe it’s why she was the only one to win. While Mary performed well, Thomas Lau proved the most passionate, in my opinion, speaking naturally about the issues at hand and exhibiting a rare candidness in an often over-rehearsed ritual. It wouldn’t surprise me if he returns for another shot next year. Yet, despite Lau breathing some energy into the discussion, it remained fairly stale – nothing concerning, but also, nothing surprising.

Education Officer

When Tim Fung and Will Porter came on stage – the only two of five prospectives for this position to attend the hustings – they were chatting away like old chums. But this camaraderie soon expired, leading to perhaps the nastiest session of the day. The silver lining of a small turnout was that it increased the pressure on the two candidates to perform their best. Porter, a Secondary School teacher currently pursuing a masters in education, did not shy away from openly challenging his opponent. Fung, whose platform was largely based on closing the BAME attainment gap, failed to present a plan to do so. In fact, there was an uncomfortably long pause as he grasped at a response, while Porter’s smiling schadenfreude was rather awkwardly caught on camera. Yet, Fung’s failure to materialise a concrete response was not exceptional in a debate that remained largely theoretical, lacking any convincing policy proposals. The end of the discussion saw open debate break out, rendering me useless as Porter subjected Tim to his own interrogations; “are you interviewing Alfie now?” was Porter’s final interjection before we closed the debate. It is perhaps no great surprise that voters opted for a third choice – Hamza Ahmed – who had sent in a video for the broadcast, successfully steering clear of the sty.

Postgraduate Officer

The three candidates for Postgraduate Officer were fittingly mature. Vikki, the incumbent, was natural and confident, undoubtedly aided by her year in office. Suhaila, who will soon replace Vikki, seemed less comfortable at the start, but by the end had lost the shake in her voice and allowed her vision of ‘development’ to flourish. Thenmozhi, while maybe more realistic than her opponents who touted the scrapping of application fees and slashing of tuition, lacked that mendacious knack for promising people what they want. By defending these payments as a necessary evil to keep degrees competitive, it was hard to avoid the conclusion that Thenmozhi’s policies were out of touch with her base. Suhaila and Vikki possessed the foresight to promise the world, whether they believed it or not, and their platforms were about the same. In the end, the voters opted for a change from the old guard by backing Suhaila to replace Vikki.

Welfare and Community Officer

This was yet another crowded field, with issues to tackle as lofty as the mental health crisis and academic support services. Another member of the ‘radical’ slate, Daria, ran for this position; she undoubtedly performed well but faced a challenging field. Ziad Miqdadi was well prepared, but perhaps too much; his discourse came out rather unnaturally and appeared over-rehearsed, not helped by the fact that he came with paper in hand. Chenchen’s banana hat deserves a special mention, but, unfortunately for her, it failed to convince the voters. Ultimately, Muhammad Umair’s victory was a genuine surprise to me. Yet, I could see how his altogether relaxed but unspectacular performance may have endeared voters, who saw him as a person instead of  a politician. However, reports of him and his supporters coercing votes from unsuspecting pedestrians may partially explain his victory. In the first round of voting, Muhammad was backed by 1944 students, with an astonishing lead over Ziad, who was the second most popular with 871 votes. If Muhammad is as apt at representing students as he is at collecting votes, then we are in for a productive year.

Equity and Inclusion Officer

This session dealt with some of the most complex issues facing UCL and the SU – including how to tackle inequality based on race, religion, gender, and sexuality. The candidates were impressive and authoritative in their ability to represent marginalised voices. Arifa Aminy, the incumbent officer, provided a less ambitious, or should I say a more realistic, platform than her counterparts – perhaps a reflection of the inevitably dashed optimism engendered by a year in office. Yet, she stood firm and principled, seeming eager to continue her fight for the rights of all students. Some were not convinced by Arifa, however; Mustafa Almi’ani launched a tirade accusing her of aiding and abetting transphobia on campus. Mustafa, a member of the ‘radically caring’ slate, did not come off well berating an Afghan refugee, and mother, for being apathetic to students’ struggles. The other two prospectives, Darius and Seyi, were two sides of the same woke (and I don’t use that derogatorily) coin. On a few occasions, Seyi couldn’t help but burst out into agreement with Darius, and the two appeared genuinely selfless and passionate about the issues – certainly proving a good fit for the role. Ultimately, it was Seyi who won the election, and I have little doubt that they will fight and advocate for much needed action on Stonewall, the BAME (for want of a better word) attainment gap and many other issues.

Union Affairs Officer

Two of the four prospective candidates showed up for the hustings for this position: Deniz and Anoushka. Anoushka was the final member of the ‘radically caring’ slate while Deniz represented quite a different contingent, having cut his teeth in the law debating society this year. Undoubtedly, this experience gave him a leg up as he skillfully navigated the questions with eloquence and composure. However, most of his policies entailed increasing spending by the SU – which is already reeling from budget cuts – so it is hard to imagine him achieving many of his promises. Anoushka was unlucky to go head to head with Deniz, as she   seemed less prepared but also less political – something that could have worked in her favour. Yet, ultimately, Deniz’ plentiful and well-placed campaign posters may have given him the upper hand. Now, he must show that his policies can materialise as something other than attractive rhetoric to a financially struggling student body.

Looking ahead 

As Investigations Editor this year, I have been knee deep in the issues dogging UCL’s community. Marketisation, racism, transphobia, sexual misconduct and poor working conditions were the defining topics of our coverage, and indeed of the Sabbatical hustings. These seem unlikely to disappear any time soon, but as I leave for a year abroad, I hope to return to a slightly better campus. While the newly elected Sabbs represent a mixed bag, there are undoubtedly some gems in there that provide a glimmer of hope for the future. And as I hand over to a new editorial team, I can promise our readers that this magazine will continue to scrutinise the actions of the SU leadership and UCL administration as long as they (and we) exist. With transparency, we can effectuate change, and we can gradually chip away at institutional oppression and inefficiency to improve both our learning conditions and staff working conditions.

By Alfie Pannell

This article appeared in CG Issue 82