At the end of June, 2014, I will take over as the Vice President for Welfare and Equal Opportunities at Oxford University Student Union. There’s a lot of words in that job description, and it’s a role which a lot of students don’t know about or understand the importance of. I know that plenty of you will have been annoyed when I knocked on your door to ask for your vote when you were right in the middle of that essay crisis; I know many of you will have relegated me to the mental file labelled ‘hacks’ (apart from those who’d already met me on a night out at Babylove, who’ve put me in a very different file altogether).
However, the position actually has quite a big role to play in making sure welfare services provide students with the appropriate support, regardless of their personal circumstances. Sure, we have a collegiate representation system here, and that provides many advantages, including the fantastic common room welfare reps which so many of you have in your colleges providing excellent help. But what about if you want to have counselling and the Counselling Service isn’t helping? What about if you’ve had some really difficult news, and you don’t just want to talk to your friends in college? And what about if you suddenly find yourself depressed or anxious, and you’re worried that no one else will understand? The VP (WEO) – to use the role’s considerably more convenient name – can make a difference to all of these things: by making sure you know which services are available uni-wide; by lobbying the university when those services aren’t good enough; and equally importantly, by supporting your college welfare reps in their work and getting professionals into colleges who can support them and you. After all, does it really make sense for welfare reps to tackle issues, on their own, which other students are facing across the whole university? OUSU helps to unite welfare officers so they can do the best job they can. And the VP (WEO) can dedicate their time, for a year, to making sure that happens.
The other side of the role, which is just as important, is equal opportunities, which is mainly focussed on liberation and equality for LGBTQ+ people, people of colour, and disabled people (equality for women is the portfolio of the VP for Women). Many of you who’ve been here for a few years may have noticed the focus on LGBTQ rights that has occurred over a short period of time, with flags flying from many college flagpoles and reps on common room committees across the city. But those reps don’t just work alone; they’re supported by the fantastic LGBTQ Society, but also by the LGBTQ officer for OUSU, who is supported in everything they do by – you guessed it – the VP (WEO). For example, a couple of years ago OUSU ensured a big step forward for trans* (we write ‘trans*’ instead of simply ‘trans’ in order to recognise that there are many different identities included within this term, not just ‘transgender’ students) by removing gendered restrictions on sub fusc. The student union can provide a platform for marginalised groups to shout out about what they care about and provide them with a space to further the cause of equality. I think it’s fantastic that our university funds someone to do the job of supporting those people every step of the way.
The current VP (WEO), Charlotte Hendy, is already doing a fantastic job, and has just succeeded, alongside the other OUSU sabbatical officers, to ensure that currently rusticated students still have access to university-run facilities such as the Counselling Service; a clear achievement which colleges, on their own, couldn’t have managed but which is incredibly important for the welfare of those students. Next year I hope to build on her work and put welfare and equal opportunities on the map, both in freshers’ week and throughout the year. Get in touch with Charlotte, or with me, if you want to learn more.