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Life in Lockdown: "A big weird time for the union"

Nouse talks to YUSU's activities officer, Ollie Martin, about how his role is changing in isolation

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Image Credit: Ollie Martin SU Facebook Live/ YUSU

'Life in Lockdown' is an interview series focusing on people, organisations or student societies who are adapting to isolation in interesting and innovative ways. If you’d like to talk about your experiences in lockdown or share how your student group has adjusted during the pandemic, email ***editor@nouse.co.uk*; we’d love to hear from you.

This week, Nouse caught up with Ollie Martin, YUSU’s activities officer, for our second instalment of ‘Life in Lockdown’.

Starting things off by asking how life as a sabb separated from campus was going, Olllie tells us “It’s really strange obviously. In terms of day to day it took a couple weeks to get properly settled in trying to adapt from it being so people focused so it's a bit of a strange one moving over.”

In a time where students are feeling more isolated from campus and student life, Ollie tells us that students can still get involved with activities. Commenting that “Maddi smashed it with Virtual Roses”, Ollie adds that aside from this “we’ve been doing online activities and there's lots of things to keep me busy as well obviously. It’s a big weird time for the union as a whole; it’s alright but obviously I’d much prefer to be on campus talking to students and looking forward to summer ball.”

For students already involved in groups and activities we ask what sort of support leaders can still expect. Ollie asserts that “we’re still doing our absolute best to support students who are trying to run their clubs,” despite adding that “obviously some societies will be more applicable to lockdown than others.” He notes that “we’ve seen an Animal Crossing society set up and our gaming society is doing really well but other groups that require more in person stuff, like the sports teams, are obviously suffering a bit yet they’re still meeting and being social.”

Ollie adds that “there’s stuff every group can be doing to stay active in lockdown and we completely understand if this isn’t people’s priorities” but notes that he’s “completely impressed by how much groups have been doing given the situation”.

One of the activities officer’s key ideas was the introduction of a January Refreshers Fair but in the current situation I ask whether it’s likely we’ll see a virtual one this term, or even potentially next term as we start a new academic year: “it’s a really interesting one and obviously I’m out of the role in July so this will all fall to Mr Terry to make those decisions on but we’ve been asked to put forward some plans and suggestions on how it might run next year. It dramatically depends on when the University allows students back onto campus, they’ve committed to a September start of term but they haven’t said in what manner that will be and it’s really difficult to tell how that will manifest itself”.

“No decisions have been made yet on freshers fair but my gut feeling, however, is once we have a full cohort on campus that’s when we’ll do it. I’m sure with Brian’s manifesto he’ll be keen to push some form of digital freshers in September. Obviously I pushed for refreshers fair and it looks like refreshers fair might be bigger than ever inadvertently next so that’ll be good at least. There will be some form it’s just a case of when it takes place.”

The success of Fresher’s fair, in whichever form it takes, will inevitably have a huge impact on next year's student groups alongside any drastic changes to block-grant. With the University facing the prospect of huge losses, the scale of which is revealed HERE, I ask the activities officer about the block grant, funding which YUSU receives from the University. Ollie confesses that “in many ways I worry that if the university has taken a big hit, where that loss lands in departments. I know we’re independent but you can kind of think of YUSU as a University department and they're going to have to look and see where they can make savings.” Despite this, Ollie declares that he trusts that “the University will make the right decision for students and I think they’ve shown us in this period that they’ve been really good at listening to us.” Ollie admits the possibility that “there might be a drop” but hopes that it isn’t too significant: “ideally it would stay the same or go up with inflation but it’s impossible to predict and the fact of the matter is the University just has a whole lot less money and it’s the same for every university across the country.”  What Ollie would ask of the university, however, is “that they make sure we can be sustainable; there’s no point giving us a massive hit this year and then taking it back up next year, because that massive hit would see us lose staff and we’d lose that support for students. We’ll just have to see but I really hope and trust that the University will make the right decision on that”.

In terms of how this will affect student groups, Ollie tells us that “at the moment we’re having to postpone any expenditure meetings indefinitely”. When I follow up about when they’ll be rearranged to I’m told “we're still working it out, it may be that we do a grant allocation this term but for less time or it gets completely moved into next year and it becomes my successor’s role, it’s hard. What we want to happen is that we make sure our groups have enough to tick over but I think there will be some difficult conversations to be had.

“What we’re seeing is groups doing really well and being creative with this weird digital landscape, so with you guys with your weekly edition or URY with their programming miracle. We’re seeing a lot of agility and flexibility from media groups and student groups. More than ever, this is a period we need to support student media. I would be really surprised if there weren’t some groups taking a hit. We're seeing a lot of good will too which might play a bigger part; what’s really encouraging is where societies are offering refunds we’re not seeing a massive uptake on that and people are sort of donating their refunds which I think is really positive. If people have to take it then that's fine, but I think that good will is going to be what keeps groups ticking over for the next few months. I’d love to look back in two-three years time and we haven’t seen a drop off in the number of groups. I think groups will be really important for the new cohort next year. I can imagine a digital freshers fair is quite achievable and probably a really good way for people to meet others.”

On the note of student groups and their achievements, I bring up the upcoming awards season which will be carried out online this year. Ollie describes this as “sucking because the awards season is great.” As Activities Officer, Ollie states it sucks especially for him “as our groups are such a big part of the awards season, whether its them receiving recognition for what they do or being involved in the awards nights themselves.”  Ollie tells us that YUSU will be doing “ a video for each awards night so people will still get the recognition they deserve.” Ollie does however say that it’s “heartbreaking” that  “there’s so many students where this will be their final year and they're not going to get to stand up in front of an audience and thank people the way they traditionally would”. Ollie promises that they’ll be doing their “absolute best to make sure our groups and the individuals are recognised for their contribution” adding that he hopes “students appreciate that we will do our best to make sure they’re recognised and that we’re trying to make the best out of a bad situation; we’ve still got a judging panel and the VC helping with Love York awards, we’re still putting the same people behind it and same effort in it just won’t be in a swanky venue (or the lounge)”

The conversation is then moved onto the recent wave of YUSU Furloughs. The Furlough’s included several figures within YUSU who are of vital importance to the every-day workings of YUSU societies with key figures such as the Student Opportunities Coordinator. When I ask how difficult these decisions were to make Ollie confesses that he “wasn’t a big part in that decision making process; it went to the senior management team and Samara fed in on that.”

Ollie adds that “obviously furloughing is never going to be easy for anyone; we had the first round of furloughing for commercial services staff which I think was taken really well but is really challenging, and again with this section round of staff on the charity side. The problem is there is no ideal person to Furlough. There will always be organisational problems and almost every aspect of the union has taken a hit due to furloughing. Obviously  we don’t have a lot of money at the moment. We’ve lost our income from commercial services, the university hasn’t got a lot of money at the moment so there’s a risk to block grants, so I think furloughing is horrible but necessary and at least we’re able to top up that 20% so they’re still getting a full salary”. Ollie however stresses that “it's not easy for anyone.”

When I ask about how the absence of these key, now furloughed, individuals will affect student groups, Ollie tells us it's very difficult to gauge at this time. On the finance side Ollie tells us that  “hopefully we have less stuff to deal with, obviously there’s recurring costs but in some ways there is time to be saved there.”

“But you’re right in that activities has been hit really hard with the furloughing, we’re really down to very bare bones staff. Partly that's frustrating because my role is to push the development of activities, to try and make things better, but actually right now that's shifting to maintaining what we have, its a bit of the status quo where he had this amazing core bedrock of staff which were really supporting activities well and I could kind of go off and try to push to improve things but now I’m having to work to keep things ticking over and I think it will be the same next year. Hopefully we’ll have staff back but it’s difficult to see things slow down and the loss of that acceleration.”

Yet when I ask whether the furloughing of these staff shows YUSU’s priority isn’t student groups right now Ollie answers with a strong no, arguing “for a start it wouldn’t be fair for me to speculate on a decision that's not been made by me. What I’ve been led to believe is that decisions were made on business critical stuff, things that weren’t seen as business critical were removed and things were given priority that needed to be done now. There’s talk of doing what a lot of organisations are doing now where they’ll rotate furloughs so there’s that potential there. Organisationally we can’t prioritise everything, and obviously that's frustrating for me and at the moment but students need academic support, need to be represented, so we do need to go to our bare bones to keep it ticking over. I would feel awful if we had one less advice and support staff member in exchange for an activities member so it’s really hard and there’s no right decision to make, it’s just a case of making the best one for the organisation for the time being.”

In terms of coping without these staff Ollie is hopeful that YUSU will manage: “I think we’ll try our absolute hardest. We’ll always try our absolute best to support groups as much as we can. I think to be realistic there will be some difficult decisions where we’re not 100% able to fulfil what groups expect from us or how we do that will shift. It's just a case of waiting and seeing and doing our absolute best to support however we can but I think it’s going to be really difficult in the coming months.”

Ollie has been hosting Q&A DJ sessions through Facebook live and will continue to do this through lockdown if you have any follow up questions from this interview. This has, however, been attracting attention from Facebook's copyright algorithms threatening to delete his account and so Ollie had told us that “if we want to keep Ollie Martin SU alive we’re going to have to move onto a more legit platform.” Ollie will therefore be hosting his DJ set / Q&A session on URY from this point on so if you have any follow up questions from this interview please tune in and ask away.

Do however be warned the sessions were recently described in The Lemon Press as “unbearably hot”.

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