The Mancunion

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Long-read interview: Jack Houghton, SU Communities Officer

“I don’t see why you would want to be a politician. Politicians maintain the system, they don’t change the system”

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It’s safe to say that Jack Houghton, has had a busy time in his since being elected as Students’ Union (SU) Communities Officer in March 2017. His role involves addressing student safety concerns, notably after the petition titled  “Greater Manchester Police & Andy Burnham: help us to make Fallowfield safe for students!” was signed by almost 10,000 students and handed to Deputy Mayor of Greater Manchester, Beverley Hughes, on Tuesday the 7th of November.

Though I wanted to use my interview to talk about the work the Students’ Union is doing to tackle these concerns, I also wanted to find out more about what makes Jack Houghton tick.

So before we began discussing student affairs, we chatted about his background and life as an SU Executive Officer.

From prospective welder to SU Exec Officer

Having grown up in Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria, Jack Houghton left school with one GCSE graded C or above and took a year after his GCSEs to work towards becoming a welder.

“That’s what everyone I knew had gone and done so I never really thought to go to sixth form or go to college” Jack said, explaining that he “wanted to go to college to do welding or steelworking or something.”

Jack explained that he “dropped out of that” and “worked in a few jobs throughout the year and then went to sixth form after that.”

Commenting on his time at Sixth Form, Jack said: “[I] Enjoyed it, learnt that actually education is actually pretty cool and that I’m not too bad at it.”

Having secured excellent grades at Sixth Form, Jack then gained a place at the University of Manchester to study History and Politics, before deciding to take a year out after his second year to stand to be the Students’ Union Communities Officer, for which he was successful elected in March 2017.

“I was never really from inside the Students’ Union through my student experience . I came from very much outside the Students’ Union into it” Jack says as we start talking about his role.

Asked about what he enjoys most about the role, Jack said: “what it offers compares to other jobs: the opportunity to problem solve, coming up with solutions to problems that you did see coming through your student life and that really frustrated you. Safety, for example, student housing, and trying to come up with solutions to deal that. And then having the means to do something about it, having the contacts at the University, the council and the police and things like that.”

Photo: Joshua Poh @flickr

Jack Houghton describes institutions such as the University of Manchester as bureaucratic. Photo: Joshua Poh @flickr

Describing institutions like Manchester University as “bureaucratic”, the Communities Officer suggested that the most frustrating thing about the role was at times “relying on the University or the council.”

“You can only ever do so much, you get to this point and always its seemingly blocked and you have to really fight and fight and fight until it actually goes through. I like to work at my speed which tends to be very fast, things like not having to wait overnight if I want something done there and then.”

Jack did add that it is “an important process for [schemes] to be checked because then you get the best outcome” but said that it “would be really good to move things super-fast and get it in place for students as quickly as possible.”

Jack also talked passionately his involvement with “Love For The Streets” which he describes as a “a brand new campaign that me as well as many other people are running…. It’s so innovative and new, focusing on things like marketing, culture, music and art so it funnels to people into the issues of homelessness.”

Student Safety

A hot topic at the moment, it didn’t take long for myself and Jack to begin discussing student safety.

“I don’t want to release too much information on specific policies; they’ll be released soon” Jack said as I ask him about what the Students’ Union is doing to address student safety concerns.

Jack added: “I don’t want to rush into anything. When a government or housing company or anything builds something too fast, for example a house, all you do it build the slums of tomorrow and a scheme that causes issue the next five years, ten years down the line.

“What I want to do is create a strategy which puts things in place for future years basically long-term.”

Image: James Shuttleworth

Students are worried about nighttime crime in Fallowfield. Photo: James Shuttleworth

Explaining the general strategy he has developed in conjunction with the Students’ Union, Jack said: “basically, what we’ve done is broken it into our short, medium and long-term strategies into three themes to make it more concise, more effective, and more efficient in dealing with the safety issues which you see in Manchester.

“One is student safety at night called Night Time Safety which has a range of measures. ‘Night Owls’ has been one of those. There have been other measures as well to supplement those schemes. It’s not a replacement of the police, it’s a proactive measure to help students when they are drunk get home. Basically, it is taking those steps to prevent students being in any situation where they may be in harm…

“Then its safety awareness, trying to increase the amount of awareness students have of the current schemes and what is going around to help them as well.

“And thirdly, is their student safety voice, someone that is there for them at every single moment to receive those messages.”

Commenting again on the need for long-term solutions to student safety issues, Jack said: “what I want is an officer to be there every year so there is a consistent and coherent so every safety initiative put in every part of the University or the Union will have someone there that’s been there for five years, six years, however long, that can tell them this is what it needs to feed into, this is the strategy we’re trying to work towards.”

On the 14th of November 2017 the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, and the Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham,wrote a letter to Chancellor Phillip Hammond urging him to use the Budget on the 22 of November to “end the police funding crisis and end the risk to public safety.”

Endorsing this message, Jack said: ” the Students’ Union has been fighting for years, ever since the cuts began years ago has always been fighting for increased police, for increased measures to protect students and also residents around those student areas. It is really important and I also love the fact that Andy Burnham represents these interests.

“I’d still like people to do a bit more like the council to fight harder for that. I think funds can be released and this is what the Students’ Union is fighting to do.”

SU democracy and student engagement

Another issue that is high on the agenda at present is student housing. Jack Houghton is in regular contact with the admin team of the ‘Fallowfield Student Group’ who a few months ago created a new group titled ‘Fallowfield Student Accomodation’ where members could find rooms and roomates. The group also featured a “landlord blacklist”, a feature that was dropped for the potential for students to leave defamatory reviews on a public systems.

Although Jack praised ‘Fallowfield Student Group’ as a resource for students, he was visibly frustrated at the fact schemes such as this are being pursued without full co-ordination with the Students’ Union.

“I really, really love how interested and proactive some students are in taking measures to try and deal with issues. Like I said, that’s one of my favourite things to do. One thing I would really love, I’d love people to come here first. And if it isn’t something that’s already been done, we’ll help you do it at the Students’ Union. We want you to change, we want you to do something. But what’s really important is if there’s a scheme already similar to that, we can contribute and shape that current scheme with your ideas and make it even better.”

Asking him what can be done to bridge this gap, Jack said: “I’m trying to look to create ways, for example through Students’ Union apps, through new marketing techniques and collaboration with GMP, Manchester City Council, the University, and the Union all sitting round a table and creating a more united front to get that information out because it is vital for students to be fully aware if these schemes that have large amounts of money poured into them, manpower, and a lot of care and effort by the people involved. I can certainly say that Manchester Student Homes and the Students’ Union with the Rate My Landlord scheme do really want to help.”

Photo: Students' Union

The 2017/18 Executive Officer team. Photo: Students’ Union

The democracy of the Students’ Union and its engagement with students is something Jack considers essential. In response to questions about November’s Senate, he made a particularly bold claim that, “we’re the beacon of democracy at the Students’ Union; we’re there to be better than what is going on at Government or other levels of business or anything like that. We’re there to be fully democratic.”

I found these comments particularly interesting given the 1.3 per cent turnout in the ‘All Student Vote’, so I asked Jack about the ‘preferendum’.

“Although it is disappointing, we’d like to see a larger turnout, what we need to focus on now is what went wrong, how we can improve it and we are analysing that data and how to improve it for the exec elections coming up for 2018”

He added: “I think that what we’re seeing with the student safety initiative, for example, is that students do care and that they are proactive and want to do things. Getting information out, however, is difficult for everyone. Most people don’t even have an awareness of a government scheme that’s being put out that effects everyone. What it is it’s a process, it’s a process of improvement.”

Commenting on the Students’ Union communications and marketing strategy, Jack said: “we have to test what content does well and doesn’t do well, and how to engage students in that content. There are people currently look at how to improve social media like analytics.

“Looking at, for example, trying to get students in to create their own content to then release to students because the Students’ Union is run by students for students and it is important that students are there to get that information across as well. They know how to do it best.”

Looking to the future

Asked what he hopes to achieve between now and the end of the year, Jack said said he hoped to have a “range of measures passed which increase student safety at night, student safety awareness and having that coherent Officer to ensure there’s a student voice… Like I said , it is slow in terms of what we have to wait and it is frustrating for me and for everyone…

“I also want to create a new marketing strategy for student safety issues… working in collaboration with all these different groups. In terms of homelessness, I’m hoping that and I know this campaign I’m working on, Love For The Streets, is going to do excellent. For example, between the 18th and 25th of March, we’re going to see homelessness week which will have a series of events, for example, at Whitworth Art gallery taking over to showcase street art from photography to drawings to poems. We’re going to have an event in Owens Park basically to really raise awareness of homeless to really get people engaged with charities so they can increase volunteering.”

“I also really want to have homelessness on every strategy of the University so it’s embedded within it because I think that is vital for the long-term because, for me, it’s about the long-term.”

Jack also said: “I am still trying to create a unified student home website through the students’ union and that basically will be a means of advertising and it will be interesting to see how we can work together with FSA, with Manchester Student Homes.”

Looking beyond his work at the Students’ Union and his future career aspirations, Jack said: “basically, I want to, and I’ve been in the process of, setting up a charity. I want to work in the voluntary sector, the third sector… I want to work with charities which help other charities achieve their goals.

“Whether that’s getting more students involved, for example, in homelessness, or whether it’s trying to use new online marketing techniques where it’s hard for other charities to maybe engage with because they haven’t got the time, the resources or even the manpower…that’s where I see myself going.”

I finished the interview by asking Jack Houghton if he would ever consider standing to be an MP.

He laughed and said: “I don’t see why you would want to be a politician. If you want to actually change something, work in an NGO. Politicians maintain the system, they don’t change the system.”