Luke Alsford interviewed Joe Eaton and discussed the influence of a JCR President, the dangers of the rising costs of college participation, and what makes Aidan’s the ‘Rainbow College’.
Luke Alsford: What is it about college life at St. Aidan’s that made you want to be involved for another year as JCR President?
Joe Eaton: That’s always one of those questions where it’s, “Oh, you are just putting off getting a real job”! When I agreed to do this interview, I told myself not to say anything corny or any of the old tropes. I’ve been involved in many different ways all through my four years at Aidan’s in college life and I have found that Durham students are capable of such ingenuity. Whether it’s the football team or a committee, or Curry Society, I love seeing students take things into their own hands and I love to see students getting involved in determining their own experience at university. I think especially at Aidan’s, where we have gone on this transition as a common room and gaining independence as something by students for students. I think it’s really rewarding to see students just do their own thing. I kind of fancied a job where it would be my job to facilitate that. I am rubbish at football but I always loved going to E team events and socials because we had our own traditions and our own culture. That was such a big part of my university experience. With COVID there was loss of knowledge and potential break of continuity. That’s when I thought that I wanted to run to make sure that that culture continues through running the JCR.
LA: How important are you as JCR President in college life?
JE: Absolutely not important at all! Freshers have this idea that I am responsible for the sun coming up in the morning! In truth, I’m just a very small cog in a big wheel. I think I’ve got strengths in that I was elected by the students. I have my weaknesses too, and I couldn’t do my job without my exec or even random members of Finance Committee, or whoever.
LA: I saw that you signed a pledge on the cost-of-living crisis. How much influence do you think that JCR presidents have influence the University? I saw that you were not allowed to introduce free hot drinks at Aidan’s because of University rules…
JE: I think we have a lot of influence, but I do not think it is because we are the JCR Presidents and therefore someone high-up in the University is going to listen to me. Anyone could influence those people, it’s just about knowing who to speak to and who has the decision-making power on something. I was always amazed when I saw my predecessor and some of the other Presidents, because they’re just these geniuses because they know exactly who to speak to, to get something done. I signed the cost of living pledge, but I signed it knowing that I couldn’t fulfill it. That is because I hoped that all of the Presidents would have signed it, and then we would have had massive leverage to say, “This is important.” Even though only a few of us did end up signing it, they were able actually to review that University health and safety rule that prevented just having a kettle in your JCR, or a microwave in your JCR – that’s being reviewed now. If we had all signed it, then it would have been even more powerful. As JCR presidents we meet in a Committee of Presidents, and there is also a forum, when all the JCR and MCR Presidents meet with the Pro-Vice Chancellor Jeremy Cook. I knew that went on, but I didn’t realize how many university committees that JCRs Presidents sit on, I sit on the Health and Well-being group with the Van Mildert and Collingwood Presidents. Our job there and these committees is to give a student voice. The University sometimes comes to very bizarre conclusions, not because they’re malicious, but just because they’re not students. Sometimes they overreact and sometimes they underreact. A lot of power is almost soft power. Not the power of sitting on committees and passing decisions, but actually being able to speak to University high-ups and conveying the student mood and keeping them close to reality.
LA: What is your perspective on the impact the cost-of-living crisis is having on student experience? Are you worried that it might be strangling college life and participation?
Joe Eaton: Definitely this has been one of the big themes coming into this job. Participation in college life is, in my opinion, the most important part of going to Durham. It is not about the academia, as much as Durham does have a good academic reputation which is important. It is the old saying that ‘everyone in Durham has some kind of leadership role’. Whether you are the social secretary for E team football or a society president or help run the fashion – everybody does something. It would be a massive, massive shame if, because students will be priced out of things, if Durham lost that, it was the most important part of my education. The cost-of-living crisis is really having a big effect on that. In particular at a college like Aidan’s, as it is already difficult for us to get students to come back to college and take part in a JCR meeting, for example. Now, with the cost-of-living crisis we are asking students to put aside time to come to walk to college and, say, come to a formal and take time out of their evenings, when they could be working a job, to attend an event that costs money. So many students have to do mini cost-benefit analyses of every event to asses if it’s worth it.
We want to tell students that it is really important that they do come to these events. We try to run as many free events as possible, and the balls and formals that we cannot put on for free, we are trying to make them as cheap as possible. I really, really wanted the Winter Ball to cost £60 or lower, but unfortunately it had to be a bit higher than that, it was £68, which to me is a lot. I do really worry about that, because it is too expensive, that Durham will lose its reputation of being a university where you get involved in different things and you go to balls and formal dinners. Long gone are the days when you think, “Obviously I’m going to my college’s winter ball”. JCRs can’t assume that everyone is going to participate anymore. We have a JCR participation fund that the students can apply to, which we doubled it this year, and every single penny went, which shocked me.
Featured Image: Joe Eaton