The following has been edited for length and clarity. Interview conducted on March 13th by Stuart McFarlane.
Why did you feel it was important to run for EUSA President?
Firstly, I’ve been involved with the BME Society and was made Convenor this year and I really feel that I could continue with that. There are a lot of issues that need improvement in the University and also in terms of student politics and activism, its importance can’t be undermined. On a smaller scale within the University, small changes such as fixing international students’ fees, but also at a national level, we do have the power to influence policy, especially if we work together and it’s important that we don’t become apathetic.
What is the most important issue in your campaign overall?
I think that would definitely be diversity, in terms of both gender and race, as well as financial background because that is definitely something that Edinburgh University lacks. People from here often go on to have world-influencing jobs and they need to be from a range of backgrounds so that they can represent people.
The key aim of your campus is to ‘reach out’ to students on all campuses and you propose to achieve this by spending regular hours across all campuses and a one-day surgery at Kings’ Buildings. Is this a genuine commitment or simply a superficial attempt to look as if you’re engaging with students on these campuses?
It’s something that I’m genuinely committed to doing because I think that we need to have a stronger student union. I think that people should know more about what EUSA is doing and it’s a matter of publicity that explains why students don’t engage with the union. If you want to have an efficient organisation and student movement, then it helps to have as many people involved as possible, otherwise it’s just the same people running around and that’s stressful for them, so opening up the process would make the officers’ jobs easier as well. It’s one of the reasons why I wanted to become President, to avoid the position becoming concentrated in the same group of people.
But, if you are looking for that sort of regular contact between the two levels, is a one-day surgery at King’s Buildings really enough? Would it not require regular back-and-forth coordination to join up communication, rather than spending one day at KB and then retreating back to central campus?
I mean that if I was elected into the role and I realise that that wasn’t enough, then I wouldn’t just stick to that and adapt it to the situation. I mean you’re right, it does seem superficial but I do think that it would help to gain a greater understanding over there. I’m a law student so I don’t know KB, but I don’t want it to feel centralised on campus and I don’t think of this as a vote winner, but rather an issue of doing something that would require me to have a physical presence over there, otherwise it’s just like a satellite.
Moving into the policy statement, one of your policies to reduce course costs for students is for the University to buy more textbooks and reading resources for the library. Why do you believe it is in your remit to decide the University’s spending priorities?
The thing is that the University is there to serve students and if students are saying – and this is a complaint for a wide range of students – that there aren’t enough books. It’s a horrible situation when there are 25 people on your course and 3 books in the library, it’s so stressful and inaccessible. If you have disability or mental health problems, it just presents another layer of stress and trouble that you do not need and so maybe the issue just hasn’t been pushed enough and don’t realise how pressing an issue it is. If students want more books, then it’s my job to represent that, I’m not representing the University’s views so much as students’ views.
An aspect of your welfare policy is to improve personal tutoring services for joint honours students by providing PTs from both subjects of the degree. This assumes that students primarily head to their personal tutors for academic advice based on their degrees. Does this not discount the role of tutors and lecturers in offering advice and feedback to their students?
This was an issue that was raised to me by a number of students on joint degrees and it is incredibly frustrating when one PT doesn’t understand how the other subject works and so they can’t help with course choices, for example. If you are studying English Lit and Art History, if you have a PT based in Art History, then they won’t understand how the English department works, which makes it difficult in making course choices and answering questions about the subject. Students need a specific point of contact in both departments to help alleviate these problems.
Is there confusion in a situation where, for example, a student was writing their first essay and had two PTs and they offer different advice and tips? Is that not creating complexity and confusion for that student in terms of who to go to?
I mean this is not without complications but it is definitely better than the current system, where you get one option and it’s an uninformed option. They have the choice and students get different advice on subjects like essays all the time, such as in different lectures but most lecturers tend to have a similarity and commonality in advice anyway. Even if it is different, then that a wider level of choice and information from which to pick and I think that’s beneficial to students, rather than offering information which is only suited to one half of their degree.
You wish to create an anonymous reporting system for problems and issues with tutors. Could you give some details of that scheme?
I think it would be run in tandem with EUSA and the University so students would be able to their complaint to an external office to deal with it. The system now means that students often have to go to course organisers with complaints and what happens if they are the figure that you are complaining about? This can put students off their course completely. I think that it would have to be an outside body that was unbiased and respected the anonymity of the student, dealing with the issue in a professional manner.
In this new office or organisation, who would make up the group deciding on these complaints? Would it be lecturers and tutors from other subjects, specific staff trained in welfare issues or a combination of these backgrounds?
I think it would be a combination. An example would be the Athena SWAN project, which involves a number of academics joining to combat discrimination on campus. If there were academics like that willing to get involved, that would definitely be a positive approach and it needs to be a holistic approach to changing the attitude at university. We also need people able to take students’ case forward and follow it through, then that would also be an efficient way of dealing with their issues.
You claim that the University needs to diversify its curriculum and particularly to ensure that it is less Eurocentric in nature, can you offer details of what you mean by that?
There is feedback from a lot of students, particularly from a BME background, that their lecturers are focused on Western academia and that’s quite a neo-colonial attitude which presumes that the West is at the centre of the world. From my own experience, when we study law and being blunt, it’s all old, dead white men and there is not enough of a range, meaning that we are missing out on interesting perspectives.
In terms of gender studies, you seek to ‘improve representation of and support for women in STEM subjects’, how would you go about seeking this improvement?
I can use the example of the group Edinburgh University Hoppers, which is a computing studies women-only group and is not affiliated with EUSA, but is a valuable group on campus. They told me that it is all about support as lots of people drop out because of the culture that exists and that if women can’t see other women represented, then they can’t see themselves in that role, especially in not feeling comfortable and supported. That may force them to change courses, so providing more support to group like Hoppers who do really good work and get similar groups within other STEM subjects can really help to build up this support and have individuals for women to discuss issues with.
Your campaign has faced controversy with an incident reported in the student media where you responded to a status posted by student Ines Rattray on Twitter with the comment ‘Fuck you white person’ in October. Can you firstly offer us your side of that incident?
A – In the context, Ines was one of a group of people in the Law School when a particularly racist incident happened, where a group of people dressed up as Somali pirates, she had minimised the feelings of students minimised and distressed by that incident. A lot of people, myself included, did not feel comfortable going into Old College after that incident at all because these issues are not abstract and are very personal to people. She made another comment, which I responded to and was angry about having my issues trampled all over and being told I was overreacting and then proceeded to tell me that I was being racist. I think it’s absolutely ridiculous.
As a candidate today, do you regret that comment?
A – I’m not going to say that I enjoy people making personal attacks on me, but I don’t retract what I said. Swearing wasn’t essential to it, but pointing out that as a white person, you can’t minimise people’s experiences of racism and that it if you do, you are contributing to that oppression is something that I don’t regret.
What do you think has been EUSA’s biggest failing in recent years?
A – I think it comes down to accessibility and we fall down on it. We don’t always put our talk into practice. For example, some of the other candidates and I were worried about a bug in the system which stopped us from uploading our videos and we were worrying all night about it. It doesn’t help with your mental state and your sleep patterns and so putting our talk into practice would be a good thing.