Vivianne Zhang Wei
Lack of awareness about the Students’ Union elections is a persistent problem at UCL, but one candidate in the latest Leadership Race was difficult not to be aware of.
If you were on campus at all during the 2022 election season, chances are you either were or saw others get canvassed by his supporters. Perhaps you even scanned the QR code on one of their phones and voted for him, despite having had no more than a minute to think about your decision, not to mention a chance to research the other candidates.
“I hadn’t had a proper read of either his or any of his competitors’ manifestos. I just voted because they were looking over my shoulder to make sure I did it,” a student told The Cheese Grater. “Two of them approached me in the Student Centre, and after they finished their pitch, they kind of just stared at me waiting for me to vote. I didn’t really feel like I had a choice,” said another.
The candidate was Muhammad Umair Mehmood and the position he was running for was Welfare & Community Officer – one of the six Sabbatical Officer roles at UCL. Also known as the Sabbs, these are the most influential individuals of the Students’ Union, which employs them full-time for a salary of over £25,000 a year.
Umair’s campaign strategy was certainly effective by many metrics. Most obviously by the fact that he won, but also by the unusually high voter turnout it generated. A total of almost 4400 votes were cast in the election for Umair’s position, almost half of them for him, while the other five sabbatical elections only saw an average of around 2000 votes. When The Cheese Grater met Umair for an interview, he spoke proudly of his campaign: “I had a very impressive campaign with twenty of my friends campaigning for me throughout the campus. And then I had the highest number of votes in the entire elections.”
With voter turnout in these elections being notoriously poor, this might not strike you as bad news. Surely, more students voting equals good? But not if they were pressured into doing so – and whilst we don’t know exactly how many of Umair’s voters had felt this way, we know for a fact that there are ones who did.
When we point this out to Umair, he denies that his supporters were putting any kind of pressure on students to vote for him. “Yes, they had these QR codes, but they took you to the Leadership Race voting page, not to any specific page where you could only vote for me. It showed all the candidates, all the manifestos, and then at the end, my friends would just say that if you align with the interests of our friend, please vote for him as your first preference, and that’s it,” he says.
However, a student we spoke to had described quite a different experience. “I was accosted by someone I know on the way to a timed online exam. The QR code took me to the voting page, and they pointed to Umair’s manifesto and said, ‘This is the one, please vote for him.’ I said I’d do it after my exam, and was then told, ‘Do it now, it’ll only take a second’,” she told The Cheese Grater and showed us the Instagram messages she had received an hour or so after the interaction. The first message contained a link to the voting page, and the next one read: “pls send me a screenshot when done”.
Umair admits that complaints about his campaign had been made to the Students’ Union at the time, but points out there was no proof of him violating any policies. “The complaint did come to the SU and the SU did call me. But because at the time there was no evidence, they just told me to be cautious, saying if you are doing it, don’t do it. But I was not doing it, so I just continued on with my normal campaign,” he says.
After looking into the Students’ Union’s campaigning byelaws, The Cheese Grater suspects Umair had been let off easy. Besides forbidding the intimidation of voters in general, the byelaws specifically state that “[c]andidates and supporters must not utilise devices or digital technology to intimidate or coerce potential voters.” If a candidate is reported for breaking this byelaw during their campaign, punishment can range from an oral warning to disqualification.
When we ask Umair whether he was aware of the rule, he says that he was and had even asked the Students’ Union for clarification. And it seems like he had managed to find a loophole. “The Union said it’s perfectly fine to just show the QR code. In previous years, people would go around and ask people to log into their iPad and then vote on the spot. That was wrong and nobody from my team did that,” he says.
But this response from the Students’ Union is dubious, as is the legitimacy of Umair’s office. The wording of the byelaw not make a distinction between whether you use the device to intimidate voters by asking them to log in and vote, or by asking them to scan a QR code and then vote. And for good reason, since what you use the electronic devices for doesn’t change the fact that allowing them in the election campaigns gives an unfair advantage to candidates who can afford or have access to them.
“In this age, if you’re studying at this university, I don’t really think there would be anyone who may not have a phone or an electronic device,” Umair responds when we point this out to him.
In his view, he had won fair and square. Students had been convinced by his supporters’ pitches, and when presented with a choice, decided to vote for him because they truly believed him to be the best candidate. There is neither a way to prove nor disprove this, but comparing his manifesto to those of his competitors does give us some indication.
Umair’s manifesto certainly makes some relevant points. He pledges to, among other things, ‘make [the] guaranteed accommodation scheme more clear to freshers, structuring it by budget and location’ and gather ‘quarterly feedback from students on the performance of Sabbs and Union itself’. However, several sentences leave us with more questions than answers. What does it mean to ‘emphasise a sense of welfare and community in the recruitment of new staff members’? And what exactly is this ‘range of schemes designed to ease the transition for new students and support existing students’ that he is ‘keen to introduce’? And finally, why does he feel it is relevant, and appropriate, to bring weight loss into it all?
“My transformation journey began when I lost 60 kgs in school; it hasn’t stopped since,” he begins his summary of why students should vote for him. It is not clear what he was trying to say, but it’s probably not a comment that belongs in an aspiring Welfare Officer’s campaign.
It is by no means the worst manifesto we have seen, but there were other candidates for the position who were clearer about the specific actions they would take – such as rejoining Stonewall or implementing a no-detriment policy for students affected by war back home. Also unlike most of the other candidates, Umair made no mention in his manifesto of plans to improve or change the Student Wellbeing Services. Strange, given, first of all, the widespread dissatisfaction with them currently – but also the strong emphasis on “wellbeing” in the Welfare & Community Officer’s role description, which is to “[l]ead on all issues relating to welfare, wellbeing and housing for Members ensuring that the Union promotes their mental, physical and social wellbeing”.
Maybe it was for these reasons that The Cheese Grater’s former Investigations Editor Alfie Pannell had commented from the hustings: “Ultimately, Muhammad Umair’s victory was a genuine surprise to me”.
However, speaking to Umair, we do get the sense that he has learned a thing or two since writing that manifesto: “I started off with a lot of priorities. You kind of come into the job very excited and you’re like ‘I will do this, I will do that’, and you don’t acknowledge the time these things will need,” he says. “Decisions have to go through a lot of different people to get approved. I didn’t know if, within a year, I would be able to do all of the things that I set out when I started off running for the elections, so I came down to like five main priorities. And number one was the welfare and well-being of the students.”
The Sabbs’ profiles on the Students’ Union website all feature a list of their main priorities and projects, as well as updates on their progress. It is worth noting that the Sabbs take office in mid-July, which means they have been working full-time for close to four months now. Assuming a full-time employee works 35 hours a week, that amounts to over 500 hours of work.
Curious about what progress Umair has made in the 500 hours since he took office, we had a look at his profile ahead of the interview – only to see that all the priorities he had listed still said ‘not started’. For comparison, both the Union Affairs Officer and the Activities & Engagement Officer had reported progress on three out of five.
But when we speak, he assures us that he has been working. On two things in particular: starting discussions about his ‘STS’ (Sleep and Toilet Strategy) and preparing to start an initiative called ‘Welfare Wednesdays’.
The toilet aspect of the STS is clear and focused. Umair wants to get UCL to install bidet showers in our toilet facilities – something which KCL’s Welfare & Community Officer successfully campaigned for earlier this year. “If you’ve been to the Middle East or the South Asian countries or anywhere near Arab countries, a lot of people use these bidet showers in the toilets,” Umair explains. “And it’s a big issue. I’ve talked to students who do not use the toilet facilities between coming to the university and going back home in the evening, and don’t eat much or drink much, because they don’t want to use the toilet.” His aim, for now, is to get approval for a pilot project in the Union spaces.
Umair says that the sleeping aspect of the STS, which is about creating “sleeping areas” or “napping areas” around campus, also is a response to student demand. We do ask him, though, if he has considered that this demand might be a sign that students are overworking. Should that not be the real welfare concern here?
“Yeah, so that’s the argument we’re having with the Student Support and Wellbeing people. You’re right that that is an issue,” he agrees. “But then again, there are a lot of students who are pulling out all-nighters and it’s more dangerous for them to not sleep the entire night. I’ve had interaction with different students and they’re like, even if you don’t give us the sleeping places, we’re gonna be staying here pulling out all-nighters before the deadlines,” he says. And he is right that some students will sleep on campus regardless, but the risk with providing sleeping areas as the sole response to this problem is that it may only encourage them to do it more. Perhaps what those students really need is for UCL to review whether the workload on their courses is reasonable.
Umair clarifies that the sleeping strategy is very much still in progress and that the Union is yet to come up with a “proper strategy”. But he ensures us that Welfare Wednesdays, on the other hand, can be expected to start “soon”. This initiative will essentially involve Umair inviting students to chat to him about, you guessed it, their welfare, on Wednesdays. He is aware though that, without any professional training, he won’t actually be able to give them advice. “Obviously I could not help them psychologically, but I would be able to signpost them to the right services,” he says. “I’ll try to e-mail those people myself as well, so that they could get the right help as soon as possible”.
While it sounds like a really well-intentioned initiative, we do wonder if – considering there are over 40,000 students at UCL, and only one of him – he is biting off more than he can chew. But Umair says it won’t be a problem, as he doesn’t expect many people to show up anyway: “So previously there hasn’t been a large turn out to these new things. So at the moment we’re expecting that even if like 8 to 10 people turn up, that would be really nice for us as a start. As we increase, I would be trying to get more of my colleagues involved in this initiative.”
But if the turnout to these sessions ever reaches the point where several Sabbatical Officers need to spend their Wednesdays signposting students to wellbeing services and chasing counsellors up by email, shouldn’t we be asking ourselves why that is? Could it perhaps be a sign that it is not clear to students what help is available to them? Or that UCL is too slow at providing them with help when they reach out for it?
Several experiences shared by students with The Cheese Grater illustrate the persistently appalling state of UCL’s wellbeing services. In May 2022, we reported on how UCL’s Security and Crime Prevention team, Rape Crisis Adviser, and Support and Wellbeing Services had all failed to provide adequate support for a first year student who sought help after being raped by a resident in her halls. In March 2021, we spoke to a number of students who described feeling neglected by the wellbeing services while studying abroad. In March 2020, we were told by a deaf first year student that the Student Support and Wellbeing team had sent away him and his family only eight minutes into their first meeting, without offering any help.
Much of what our Student’s Union does can feel performative – like sticker-plasters on the real problems. But at the same time, can we really criticise our representatives for not doing more when, once the Leadership Race comes around, we can’t even be bothered to do our research and vote?
The 2022 Leadership Race was the biggest ever at UCL, but the percentage turnout of 21 percent is still low by any democratic standard. For just the sabbatical elections, we are looking at an even lower turnout of around six per cent. Campaign tactics like Umair’s feel wrong because they take advantage of our evident apathy, but if only we were more passionate about the elections, they would not work this well. The Cheese Grater asked some students why they think we are so disengaged.
“It’s just all a bit distant. I know I will probably never meet these people and that they will have no impact on my life, so what’s the point in voting? I think most don’t bother unless they have a friend running for a position,” one student said, expressing a sense of alienation.
Another student suggested that a lot of people simply don’t understand how the Student’s Union works. “I know there’s an Activities Officer, for example, but I have no idea what they do. Like, what are they responsible for? How much influence do they have?”.
If this is the sentiment across the student body, then clearly, whatever the Students’ Union is currently doing to spread awareness about itself and its purpose is not working. Figuring out why should be its top priority, or else, we’ll be perpetually stuck in a vicious circle of poor student engagement and a useless Students’ Union – where unengaged students end up voting in unsuited candidates, and those candidates’ subsequent failure to implement any real change leaves students all the more disillusioned.
It is concerning, therefore, that when we ask Umair about his thoughts on the low voter turnout, he doesn’t seem too bothered by it: “I don’t understand. Maybe they’re busy with their workload, but we actively try to engage them. Emails have been sent out. I think it’s about your interest. If you’re interested, you vote. If you’re not, you abstain from it,” he says. “I think the Union does everything in its power.”