SCAN Interviews: Joel Pullan

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On a quiet afternoon after the hubbub of another long day of meetings, I sat down with the outgoing Lancaster University Students’ Union President Joel Pullan in his somewhat sparse – if you don’t count the Sugarmouse on the windowsill – office to mull over what has been an extremely busy year; as is tradition in the final issue of SCAN. I was excited to get to the real issues, like the industrial action, the failed AGM and whether or not Joel is a cat person. My curiousity was satisfied as Pullan admitted with a laugh, “I used to hate cats and now I don’t mind them.” I’d like to think my forceful exposure to cats in every single issue of SCAN played a part in this.

We eased into the interview with what I assumed would be a reasonably easy question to answer, about why Pullan ran for President. He took a minute to think before answering and laughing again, said: “I think if you has asked me this a year ago it would be, ‘I’ve done the whole LUSU thing, I’ve been on a college exec, I’ve held some other officer positions, I really know how LUSU works!’ … but really when you get in to it you realise that there’s so much more to the job.”

Pausing for a moment, evidently to reflect on his year in office, Pullan said “the most satisfying things that I have done [were] the things I didn’t expected I would be doing. You have these ideas about what you think [is] important and what should be done – ‘be more transparent’ and all those kinds of buzzwords, but actually when you get in and in the first week, there’s been a horrendous incident”, at this point he stopped for a moment before continuing. “… In the Sugarhouse and you realise, shit, there’s just such a horrible lad culture around, and a rape culture, and misogyny… and you wake up to the fact that there are incredibly sensitive issues going on around campus that you might have either ignored or inadvertently been a part of.”

Apologetically, Pullan said “it’s kind of a wishy washy answer, but I guess… I’m indirectly answering your question but if I was going to run again I would have completely different reasons to the ones I chose a year ago, [as] being in the job really opens your eyes to what the real student issues are.” It’s rare that a Full Time Officer team make real progress in their year in office, but Pullan and his team have seen a breakthrough in their relationship with the University and in tackling problems such as the counselling service and mental health awareness at Lancaster. With that in mind, I asked if Pullan felt this year had been about tackling the real issues; rather than spending time in Union Council debating college byelaws. “Yeah, I think one of the real issues is that there was a feeling of resentment towards the Students’ Union,” Pullan enthused. “[There was] a real feeling of, ‘I don’t want to engage because those people [LUSU] don’t listen to me and they don’t really care about the real student issues’.

Actually, the things we’ve done this year have been a lot more pro-active than what I saw as a student, we’ve gone out and actively tried to speak to the student body. We’ve had a fantastic opportunity with the new strategic plan to go out and try some new methods of engagement… whether it’s the #iwantLUSUto campaign or the whiteboard in the Square – simple things like that have gotten so much raw feedback and it’s been brilliant.” He also mentioned the progress made towards making LUSU officers feel “empowered”.

“We’ve done our absolute best… to do the things they want to do, they’re not our puppets. They’ve come to use with ideas and we’ve helped to facilitate that.” As an example, he spoke of the Big Night Out held this year and claimed that it was one of the biggest selling BNO events they’ve seen. “It’s really just making things possible for those who, y’know, we wouldn’t be a Students’ Union without.”

In an echo of last year’s interview with Ste Smith, who had been a friend of Pullan’s and worked with current VP (Campaigns & Communications) Rachel Harvey, I asked Pullan what he thought his year would be best remembered for. Diplomatically he responded “I don’t want to leave anything behind… but actually I do believe that we’ve become a far more accessible Students’ Union, [we’ve been] far more progressive in the stances that we’ve taken and I’d like to see that carry on.” He also spoke of the long-term changes he felt have been achieved, such as with the counselling service, but said “I don’t care if the students know if it was us [that did it]… Whether you call it a legacy or not, we’ve made positive changes.” To this I suggested that the success this year had been more of a personal satisfaction for the team as opposed to celebrating victories publicly and Pullan agreed, stating “we don’t really want recognition as long as we know there is something there that’s been improved, and I think that’s very much the mentality we’ve all shared.”

Following on from this, I asked what Pullan felt had been his biggest achievement this academic year, and whilst he acknowledged that the strategic plan is important and a lot of work has been done on that, counselling was where he felt the team had truly shone. He claimed that the lack of funding and staff in the counselling service had been “an ongoing issue that seems to have been ignored by the University for the past few years”, and said that the changes LUSU had made alongside the University showed big progress. Alongside multiple new counsellors and trainee counsellors, there has been a review of the service, “hundreds of thousands of pounds” in investment and the eight week waiting list had been rapidly reduced with “more appointment slots available during the week.” Proudly, Pullan said that mental health services was something he had been passionate about and campaigned for as a student; he was thrilled to see that pressure from the students had led to pressure above – with University governors acknowledging the issue too – which had led to a great concern and desire for change.

In terms of failures, Pullan initially couldn’t think of many and said that perhaps his failure to follow his manifesto was his only issue. “I wanted to do a constitutional review, I got a few months into this job and I was like ‘I’m not doing that’.” He admitted that there were some issues with LUSU’s governance, “but actually there’s so much going on that if your number one problem is governance then you need to take a step back and see the bigger picture.

Unwilling to accept that it had been a perfect year – because, well, I’m a cynic – I broadened the scope of the question, asking Pullan what he felt was the team’s biggest failure. After taking a moment to mull it over, he revealed that a problem he felt really stuck out, due to it receiving the most negative feedback from students, was the change in the Sugarhouse – LUSU’s nightclub – pricing at the beginning of the year. “We got so much negative feedback for increasing the ticket prices by a quid if people were a bit later and didn’t book online”, said Pullan, with a flash of irritation. “It’s incredibly frustrating that that’s [one of] the only times I’ve seen a passionate student body, and I’m a little bit disappointed. Rather than [getting passionate about] getting fleeced with accommodation and… hidden course costs that you’re expected to stump up for… a quid on a night out extra and they’re up in arms. Maybe it’s a chance for next year’s FTO [team] to really focus students’ passion collectively on something they can make a big difference on.”

In terms of a vision for LUSU under his leadership and the changes he had made, Pullan agreed that this year had been about enhancing what was already offered by LUSU and fine-tuning aims in order to ensure consistency for students. He summarised what had been done as “underpinning activities that needed changing, not the overall grand scheme of things… I wouldn’t necessarily say I’ve changed anything, probably just the fact that I’m a different kind of officer to [previous] ones. Every year you get natural change with a new team [and] I haven’t purposefully set out to make change, things have just been tweaked here and there.”

He also proudly spoke of the Union’s improved relationship with the University, claiming there tends to be a myth amongst students “that the University is the enemy” and emphasised that there were definitely issues that he didn’t agree with them on. But Pullan felt that “there are times when working with the University gets the best results, I guess my advice for next year’s team would be to never compromise on your independent voice and on being the voice of the student body, but it’s also not a bad thing to want to work with the University if you feel it’s going to get a result, because it’s worked this year and no students can dispute that. I think the team next year may be a bit more sceptical about the University.”

With regards to the strategic plan, which LUSU have been greatly emphasising since the end of Lent term, Pullan said that he felt the team had done really well, and decided that his biggest failure of the year was failing to celebrate success, as he felt it was a “bit egotistical” to do so; but stressed that they had done “really well” with engaging students. “We’ve tried so many new things and it has paid… the open forums, the strategic kind of carousel where we pick a stratified sample of students to get the best spread and stick them in a room to discuss different things… the Twitter campaign, the blackboard, the pop-up cafés… We’ve definitely seen a lot of different students come and engage with us rather than just your standard student officers.”
I don’t think we can say that we haven’t tried hard enough to engage… I think our strategic plan does reflect the thoughts, the feelings, the wants and the needs of the majority of the student body – if not all of the students collectively.”

Two of the most divisive policies this year have been the Union’s decision to reinstate Liberation Cross Campus Officers and the Union’s support of the industrial action, particularly after UCU threatened a marking boycott. I asked for Pullan’s honest opinion on the Liberation positions, after he was forced to defend himself against a flood of negative Facebook comments in Lent term from alleged ‘disadvantaged minorities’ who were angry at positions they deemed to be patronising. Pullan admitted that originally, prior to beginning his term as President’, he felt that the positions were previously abolished because “obviously [they didn’t work]” and that he didn’t particularly understand or care about their purpose. “This year, it was down to Tom and Laurence going to a Liberation Activism conference and coming back with a completely different perspective. The realisation that these people, these liberation groups, whether they believe it themselves or not are disadvantaged by society. You read the statistics, if you’re disabled you come out of university around 20 percent less satisfied, [for] women there’s a glass ceiling, so when they get a graduate job they’ll be making less money statistically than men just because of their gender.”#

Pullan said that now, he felt Liberation officers were a great thing as a means of recognising disadvantaged groups and whilst the roles were yet to be formalised, they will be a tool which ensures that these groups have a voice on LUSU Council; where previously they may not have been represented. “WE are the Students’ Union”, said Pullan passionately, in reference to the Liberation officers and to the Union’s continued support of the industrial action on behalf of postgraduates who were also affected. “They are our students and if we don’t stand up for them, nobody will.”

The industrial action and the Union’s support recently became a sore point, when it was announced that a marking boycott would potentially take place. This was prevented when UCU accepted a two percent pay rise, and Pullan said that he felt they would always accept this, though he believed they had been “short-changed”. Though a chivalrous endeavour on the part of the Union to support the lecturers and other staff, I raised the point made by many undergraduates, that supporting the boycott may have been supporting postgraduates, but it would also have had a negative impact on the vast majority of LUSU’s undergraduate population. Pullan countered by stating that he felt “once you get the message across that it isn’t a ‘them and us’ situation, it’s about the erosion of higher education, staff not being paid fairly, student fees going up and University [upper management] getting massive bonuses… once they wake up to that realisation I think they’d be a lot more supportive of our stance.” He admitted that once a marking boycott is announced, the unions risk losing support from a lot of people, but said that if there was future industrial action it would be good for the Students’ Union to show their support again. Pullan also agreed that he had “politically dodged a bullet” when the pay rise was accepted as if the boycott had gone ahead, “I would have stood by the unions personally… and I would have expected quite a lot of criticism from the student body… I would have taken a bullet.”

With regards to the Union’s own use of zero-hour contracts – after the assertive stance LUSU have taken in supporting the industrial action’s demand for fair pay – Pullan acknowledged that whilst it was something being discussed, the Union was being hypocritical to an extent by using such controversial contracts on their own staff, but claimed that there was “a complete difference in the kind of jobs” within LUSU and the way in which the Union employs student staff; which means that occasionally, zero-hour contracts were the best solution for ensuring flexibility.
LUSU were also criticised this year when the Annual General Meeting failed to reach quorum. I asked Pullan why he felt this had happened. Looking somewhat defeated, Pullan paused before saying “Honest answer? Students don’t care enough to participate.”

We did our best to publicise it… if students really cared about industrial action they should have turned up. Maybe we do need to take a step back and look at ways we can do things differently… but I’m not willing to say that the fault was entirely ours.”

On a more light-hearted note, Pullan said that he felt student participation this year on the whole had been really good, though more work could be done. He claimed that more needed to be done to harness students who are already engaged but “might just not think of it in that way” and reaching out to those who weren’t in order to figure out why. “I can’t really use postgrads as an example, because we’ve made really good progress in that we’ve got a full PG board, but traditionally postgrads have been incredibly difficult to engage with. I think we’re now getting to grips with a lot of the issues [they] face and realising that they’ve very [different] to undergraduates.”

Looking inwards at Pullan and his team, he described himself as a “consensus builder”, revealing with a laugh “it’s never been, ‘I’m the boss, you are going to do this.’” He spoke fondly of the dynamics of the team – working alongside his twin brother Laurence, the couple Tom and Emily who have been dating since before their election in March 2013, Rachel Harvey who is serving her second elected term under a slightly different title and Joe O’Neill, a wise old crone of the University – and confided: “Sometimes [it’s been] the most frustrating dynamic ever and sometimes it has just clicked and it’s been the best… It’s worked really well and just being good friends with everyone has helped, because we’re able to challenge each other and yet at five o’clock say ‘right, let’s go to a bar and forget about work’. I think that’s important in a team, to have that element.”

Chuckling to himself, Pullan went on to say “[Joe] is a pain in the backside and you can write that down… but when he applied himself he’s the best officer you could ask for, he’s absolutely fantastic. We’ve disagreed on so much but actually, I’ve learnt an incredible amount from him and I hope that he’s learnt from me as well.”

Pullan also revealed that he would have “loved to” run for a second year as President and put a lot of thought into nominating himself. He revealed that most of his motivation came from what he described as “the most brilliant Winter Officer training” he had attended in the last few years. He enthused about the motivation and passion of the new officers and admitted “I’ve never seen motivation like it”, which had prompted his desire to run again in order to work with these officers. “Then I had a chat with Laura… I guess I just thought you know what, she’s completely different and actually maybe it is time I did my term and stopped when I was on a high rather than do two years [and regret it].” He also said that he wouldn’t like to feel as though he had stood in the way of other candidates, nor did he want to run the risk of ruining his memories of presidency if he felt the dynamics of a new team weren’t as good as they were previously, but overall: “it was a difficult decision not to put my name down.”

The future is looking bright for Pullan after LUSU, as he has secured a job with the Civil Service in London and is looking forward to it. He was keen to stress that he won’t forget where he started though – particularly after spending the last 22 years of his life living and studying in Lancaster – and that during his time as President, “I have learnt so much about myself, it has probably been the hardest year of my life but it’s been so rewarding.” The position has not been without its dark moments though, as Pullan confided “mid-Michaelmas term I was so close to resigning, I just wanted to get out of here. I did speak to Laurence and say I want to leave, this is not fun, I’m not in a good place – but when you get through that and you start really working on things and making a difference, you suddenly realise ‘wow, we are doing things’.”

Looking ahead to next year’s team, which will be guided by Laura Clayson, Pullan felt the best advice he could give was to consult the staff in LUSU as “they’re the real people that run the Students’ Union. There’s like the six of our faces all over the place our there saying ‘WE’RE THE STUDENTS’ UNION’, but really, talk to the staff, ask for their help and expertise because they’re brilliant and you need them to be successful.”