An interview with incoming Union President, Maria Epishkina

Image credit: Celeste Abrahams

With her stellar record and almost tangible zeal for the Union, you could be forgiven for seeing something of the inevitable in Maria Epishkina’s rise to presidency. But, she tells me, sitting across the table in the Union's pistachio green Mountbatten Room, this was never her intention. What initially drew her to join the long line of Fresher’s vying for membership was instead a passion to improve the place of women within the world of debating. "I felt that that the whole scene was very male dominated" she says, pointing out that men still statistically hold most of the top spots due to "sexism you just wouldn’t expect" in the the way in which competitions are judged and run. She soon became Women’s Officer, and remained in the role for three terms, using the time to focus on such issues as women-only debates.

Undoubtedly, though, the real legacy from her pre-presidency period will be the founding of Union+, a scheme which has opened up certain events (80 last term) to non-members. How does she plan to progress this scheme, as laid out in her manifesto, whilst retaining some sort of exclusivity for paying members? The heart of that matter is, she replies, "insuring that as many people as possible can take part in the discussions that are important to us as a student body and as a generation. We have a duty to be that sort of a platform." Under her presidency, members will still have exclusive access to the most interesting speakers, from celebrities to world experts, but when it comes to matters that unanimously affect all students, the Union should, she says, "involve as many people as possible" - citing recent discussions on homelessness and decolonisation as examples.

Our conversation moves onto the almost inevitable topic of freedom of speech, something which the Union has traditionally been seen as a bastion of. Why maintain an open platform? "It’s a difficult issue" she says cautiously, but "an open platform helps a variety of discussions happen that might otherwise be easily avoided". However, she notes, "at the end of the day we are working for our membership" and so the speakers they choose to invite have got to reflect the views and interests of those members. Their role is not to pursue controversy for controversy’s sake. Paying members must be appeased. I narrow the question by quoting from the recent, controversial Freedom of Speech University Rankings by Sp!ked, which was mostly based upon the activity of Unions. In its somewhat loaded traffic light ranking system, Cambridge was assigned to the amber camp (Oxford red, and ARU green), which means that the Union supposedly "chills freedom of speech…through restricting vague and subjective types of speech, such as "offensive" or "insulting’ speech, or requiring burdensome vetting procedures for events, speakers, posters or publications." 

Would she actively pursue a green rating? In short, no. She begins by dismissing the rankings as oversimplified, as failing to understand the nuanced issues of selecting speakers and instead promoting a pointless total-freedom. "On one hand there’s the discussion about freedom of speech, and on the other there’s the discussion about value of speech. As a society we try to promote freedom of speech" but increasingly their focus is on "relevant freedom of speech". This doesn’t mean screening potential speakers to see whether their views are congruous with the student body, it means handpicking speakers who will in some way push the discussion forward, who will "add something to the table". A degree of vetting keeps the Union at the forefront of relevant issues.  "You could have freedom of speech for the sake of freedom of speech, invite every person who has ever done something. But nobody cares. It doesn’t matter if it’s not relevant. And if it’s not meaningful it doesn’t add anything to the discourse." If there will be a future ranking she hopes they’ll explore some of the reasons behind Unions' choices of speakers and avoid slapdash and all too easy labels.

Pushing the issue further, I quote Jo Johnson, the ex-minister for universities, on his plans to impose fines upon those Unions which wouldn’t give a platform to controversial speakers. Is this an effective method of encouraging discussion? "Well it’s coming from a place of slight detachment", she explains, "students make the Union. You elect your representatives. It’s an elected body of university government. Therefore students should be able to set the tone of their university and come to the conclusions themselves". Ultimately, if anyone is going to instigate restrictions, she thinks it really ought to be the students: an external body outside the university shouldn’t be imposing itself upon a democratically elected body within it.

Moving onto a more recent issue, we begin talking about the number of cancellations that occurred over the Lent term. Is there anything that can be done, and do members have a right to feel disappointed? "The only thing we can do is try to work harder to make a good future term, but it needs to be understood that it’s a very human society, and we invite other humans" who inevitably get sick and have unexpected family commitments. Members need to learn to view these people in a more realistic way. After all, "we would never hold friends or family to that same kind of account".

Following this, we round up and say goodbye, but not before I’ve flashed my most charming smile and asked whether she might disclose something about next term’s line-up. Either the smile is not charming enough, or Maria is immune to such duplicity. I receive an unamused "No". But, she flashes back, the term card should be released around the 23rd of April. And with such a charismatic figure at the Union’s helm I don’t doubt it will be a good one.



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