When Beth Eyre was elected Students’ Union President back in March, there were already signs her tenure wouldn’t quite be normal. That month’s campaign debates were the last public events to take place in the SU building without any social distancing in place.
By results night, Coronavirus had already arrived in Sheffield and between results being announced, SU staff could be seen scurrying around Foundry sanitising microphones and encouraging candidates and their teams to regularly wash hands.
But nobody could have predicted the scale of the task ahead. When lockdown hit on 23 March, all of the SU’s outlets were forced to close with millions of pounds lost in the process. “It’s been a massive struggle”, Eyre told Forge Press.
“We’ve had to take a look at our financial resources and just completely restructure the budget and this has also meant a reorganisation of staff as well.”
While the summer saw a partial resurgence of the SU’s entertainments program with a socially distanced Tuesday Club and Pop Tarts socials in the Bar One beer garden, Sheffield’s move into a Tier 3 lockdown has created fresh challenges.
“The rules of Tier 3 are that you need to have a substantial meal with drinks and so we now can’t open Foundry on that basis.
“It’s really obviously a bar and not somewhere where we can sneakily serve a burger and pizza as well. So that is the sad reality.”
But it isn’t just Foundry that’s a casualty of the current climate. Interval also closed for the foreseeable future last Friday. Despite being a popular eating and meeting spot in normal times, Eyre said the lack of footfall on campus in recent weeks meant the venue just wasn’t busy enough to keep open: “As much as people love Interval, we have to stay afloat as an organisation.
“We have a role in serving customers but we also have to serve our 30,000 student members. If we go bust [as an SU] then everyone will be affected negatively.
“It’s a horrible decision and nobody wants to be making these choices but it’s a question of balance so that we can continue to represent and work for our members.”
It’s a stark reminder that the SU is now being run on a knife edge. Outlets that once formed the lifeblood of the Union are now effectively being sacrificed to ensure the organisation’s continued survival.
However, there’s a sense that the current situation was preventable.
“I’m directing my anger at the Government for not providing adequate support for SUs and universities”, Eyre says.
“It’s a complicated thing because we are all operating in unprecedented circumstances but it was the Government who refused a £2 billion bailout for universities back in the spring. It’s the most frustrating thing.”
She’s even more scathing on ministers’ plans for a pre-Christmas campus lockdown.
“It’s an example of how shambolic this government is. If they’ve had months on end to come up with a solution to the migration of students and the best they can come up with is to lock students in their houses for two weeks, it’s just so disconnected with what student life is.”
Criticism aside, the SU President is otherwise keen to use the pandemic as an opportunity to reimagine and improve the Students’ Union’s offering.
“This year we’ve created so much less waste because we haven’t had [physical] freshers fairs. I want to use this to think about how we can do things better in years where there isn’t a pandemic.
“There’s no real excuse for producing loads of plastic and paper unnecessarily. I want to see the SU focus on this in the coming year.
“We’ve also opened study spaces and people are loving them so we are looking to expand these wherever possible.”
Food and drink can now be ordered to tables and it’s hoped innovative thinking like this will generate extra revenue through the winter months.
There’s also determination to not let Coronavirus dictate every policy. This year, the entire officer team have abandoned their original manifestos and united around five common goals including building an SU for everybody and an anti-racist campus.
Eyre says she wants to “make sure the SU are hopping on this worldwide momentum with racism issues. Lily [Woman’s Officer] and Matt [Sports Officer] are doing a lot of great work with sports groups and societies on this.”
But she adds: “Obviously, we’re another all white team which isn’t really good enough”.
The aim is to use the SU’s forthcoming democracy review to float the idea of having a dedicated BME Officer and ask questions about how different liberation groups can be better reflected in future officer teams.
There’s also talk of expanding SU Council beyond the 46 departmental and eight representative positions that currently constitute it.
“It’s such a shame to see people run to sit on Council who end up getting turned away from the democratic process”
“I like the idea of people not having to run to sit on Council [but instead] everyone is automatically a member. I think that’s a good idea”.
As for Eyre’s own role, it would appear the jury’s still out.
“I think the role of President could probably be re-distributed. This is not to say I don’t have a job to do but it’s the circumstances [of the pandemic] that mean I’ve had so much work to do this year.”
But at least for as long as Covid-19 sticks around, she’s likely to remain indispensable.