Meet Your Prez: interview with Millie Beach

Describe your job in a line or two.

My job is to define the strategic direction of the Union and be a lead spokesperson for it. This means I represent student needs to the University and external bodies, highlighting key issues that face students such as mental health, financial burden and employability.

So what are you doing right now?

Over the next few months, I’ll be exploring YUSU’s social media strategy to see how to improve it for students. You realise when you come into the job that you’re just one part of a far larger company, and some manifesto points might be great but they aren’t at the right time for YUSU as a charity. I’m also working on laundry. Over the last five years or so, a lot of students have complained about the quality of laundry provision on campus, so this year we’re trying to gather all the evidence and define the next steps to improve this for students.

So how does the representation work? How do you gauge the views of the student body?

My favourite thing is to post a message on Facebook for feedback – it works well with things like busses and Yoyo Wallet that make a real, tangible difference for students. Some themes are pretty constant like money – if things are the same quality for less money, students will like it. I also get quite a lot of information on student views via conversation with college Chairs, presidents and societies. Personally, I also try really hard to listen to the liberation groups; as a straight, white woman I’m actually really privileged, so it’s important to me to give those voices a seat at the table.

If you could change one thing about the way YUSU is run, what would it be?

In my manifesto I outlined a plan for a student summit which would bring together student representatives from different areas into a court-like setting. They’d be able to hold the officer team to account and feed in key student views and thoughts on policy proposals. I would still really like to bring that in as I feel at the moment we do still lack symbolic representation.

What do you think are the biggest problems facing college chairs and how do you think YUSU can help with them?

The biggest problem is stress – it’s a year long voluntary role alongside a degree and it demands a lot from students. YUSU has gotten better at supporting Chairs and Presidents with things like EMFs, We also have weekly meetings and a full time member of staff who works to support colleges. Another big challenge is that as a volunteer you are essentially telling a lot of other volunteers what to do. It’s a challenge because you want to be their friend, get the jobs done and keep up morale and this can be really challenging. I hope the advice we can give on people management is valuable.

What has been your greatest frustration so far as Prez?

You come into the role full of big ideas and it’s very important not to lose that fire when you’re working hard and not always getting tangible results. You have to recognise that just because you want to do something doesn’t mean it’s the right time to do it. Another big thing for me this term is learning to say no because I don’t have the time or the resources to enact the desired change. It’s tricky because you really want to help every student but it’s essential to be able to say ‘we’ll try but I’m not sure that’ll work’ or ‘this is something that we have campaigned on in the past, and been unsuccessful’. It’s something I have really struggled with.

Does your role include representing students politically? Is YUSU Prez a political position?

There’s undeniably a political aspect to the student movement – you just have to look at the NUS to see that. When I came into the role I was certain that I didn’t want to be too political as I didn’t want to alienate students from a range of backgrounds, and I’ve mostly stuck to that. Presidents can make of the role what they want to, so some will definitely make it a political role. I’ve chosen not to, with the exception of expressing views on higher education reforms, as they are directly pertinent to the role.

Nationally stats show a decline in drinking and a rise in attendance at alternative nights. Did you see that at York and what do you think is the future of the classical fresher’s week binge?

Yes, we are seeing that reflected at York. Colleges are now expected to provide a clubbing event and a non-drinking alternative to that each night. We have more and more students who are really conscious of the dangers of alcohol – link that to rising tuition fees and I think you get students who want to work hard and potentially not play quite as hard. There’s definitely something to be said for drinking responsibly – when I started here in my first year the attitude was still that you could go out and get drunk and there’d just be somebody there to pick you up and get you home. I think the change is a positive thing – nobody is stopping anybody from drinking. We’re just encouraging students to think about the way that they’re doing it.

There’s a sense in academic circles that after the rises in tuition fees, students see themselves as ‘customers’.  Do you think this is right, and do students get enough for what they pay?

Tricky question – I will confess it’s the card I often play in meetings. If I feel a particular decision will really have a positive impact on student experience, I do point out that students are paying a lot more and expect more because of this. It’s difficult because the money that comes into the University has actually decreased, it’s just coming from students rather than the government. This essentially means that universities are expected to do a hell of a lot more with the same amount of money so you can understand why there aren’t loads of really obvious results from the fees rising. Academics often feel that students should be working really hard and taking joy in academia for academia’s sake. Meanwhile, students sometimes view academics and their degree as just one step in getting a good job, and owing to the amount they’re paying, there is more of an expectation that students will be supported to get a first class degree. I think that’s where some tension is – in an ideal world it would be great if all students loved academia and didn’t have to pay fees to experience higher education.

With YUSU elections coming up, what do you think makes someone well-prepared to do well in student politics?

Having a level head is a big part of it. It’s very easy to get flustered and make decisions when you might get halfway through your term and regret them. Be ready to adjust your plans based on what happens through the year, and accept that everyone in the University has their own projects and won’t necessarily drop everything to help you with yours.

If you could give just one piece of advice to your successor, what would it be?

The same piece of advice that was first given to me: “if nobody is frustrated with you you’re not doing your job right.”

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