Presidential candidate Connor Bok on stopping university expansion, his time as Business School rep, and the UCU strikes.
Can you give us a brief overview of your manifesto’s key points?
Number one would be to stop university expansion. Last exam season I was at the library at 9am and it was impossible to find a seat. There was 31,323 students in 2012 and now there are roughly 40,000 students. I want to stop that expansion because it lowers the teaching quality and is bad for staff in terms of room allocation. I want to make sure existing students can get the most out of their education.
Number two is a course review website. It sounds controversial as people might think this is dehumanising lecturers, but what I’m trying to do is balance the views of lecturers and students to give students a good selection of courses. There is already Path on Learn, but no one uses it because there is no option for likes or comments. People might get scared of being marked down by their lecturers for writing negative ones, so I think it should be anonymous to bring out some honest feedback. I want it to be similar to Yik Yak, but with language monitoring so it doesn’t become abusive, and you can thumb up and thumb down someone’s view to make sure it doesn’t get biased.
Number three is a second-hand book market. Last year in the business school I organised a second-hand book market, where students could give their old books and we could sell them on. The people who sold the books made around £25, and the people who bought the books saved about £30. If we did an event across the university we would be saving at least £10, 000 for students each semester. It’s hard to achieve but once we have it people will use their books in a better way. I can evaluate how much we save from it and create a report out of it, and it can become an annual thing.
Number four will be the university guarantor scheme. I am not British, and if you’re an international student without parents living in the UK then you can’t provide a UK guarantor to your letting agent. I paid six months rent in advance to my letting agent, and if you fall out with your landlord after paying it, it puts you in a weak position. This wouldn’t mean the university has to pay for rent, as you could provide a bank statement to the university at the start of the year. If you’re paying £23,000 a year for your tuition, you would be able to pay £400 a month for your rent. International students have the money to pay, so there will be basically no students who will go default. We have this scheme already, but only for 100 people, which is about 0.6 per cent of international students. I want to make this visible and accessible for all students
Number five is general facilities. I think overall the facilities are good, but lots are broken. In Swann building they use tablet seats, but either they are as small as my phone or they are broken. It is the same in the library, where the water fountains are never working. This is the most basic stuff, but it’s either broken or not working properly. The university could fix this so easily. By fixing utilities they could save time for students – I want to provide the best quality of environment for students.
Returning to your first point about stopping expansion, do you not think that stopping expansion would make the university less accessible to people from a wider variety of backgrounds?
I think they are two different problems. Is Nottingham university less diverse than the University of Edinburgh because they have less students? No. It’s not about student numbers. More student numbers mean it’s bad for those groups of people because this university has a cap for EU and Scottish students. It is only admitting more international students, who are all paying £20,000 a year, and those people are not going to be from a poor background. Increasing the student number just increases international students, not students who are disabled, or working class, or LGBT+. The more people who are in the class, the more the teaching quality goes down, which is unfair on working class students who have worked hard to be here.
Is that accessibility something that’s important to you?
I am from a single parent family and had to rely on my scholarship in my year abroad. For that reason, I definitely don’t want to keep out working class students, but I don’t want to get too radical. I don’t want to discriminate against people from the top tier, as they work really hard as well, but just provide fairness. I don’t think it’s fair to provide a lower offer for those from lower income backgrounds. It might be more difficult if you are from a lower income background but that might be something you have to overcome. If you have an extreme disability, of course the university should widen its doors for those people to come in. The university is public so should have room for those people to come here and get good quality education as well.
So what do you think about different grade boundaries for people who went to state schools compared to people who went to private schools?
That is unfair. I think every single kid, unless there is an extreme disadvantage, should get the same offer.
Currently, we have course feedback questionnaires, which have notoriously low response rates. How would you ensure response rates are better for the course review website?
I think it’s about how you approach the student. Apparently, you get about 24 questionnaires from the uni a year, so you don’t pay attention to it. You also don’t get any feedback or see any change. People don’t do it unless they see the results or the feedback clearly. If we have transparency which shows how many people are thinking certain ways, if we have options for thumbs up or thumbs down, I think it will do really well, as people will try to post comments to get more reactions.
You’ve been business school rep – how do you feel this has prepared you for a role as a sab?
I think it has made me a more realistic candidate. I have experienced how things get processed. It is very complex. I worked on getting more feedback for exam papers in the business school and I started it in the first week of September and achieved it just a few weeks ago. Some candidates might think if your idea is legitimate it will happen in a month. But I promise nothing is going to happen within your term. You’re just setting up the infrastructure so the next person can do something. You have to make sure the next president will continue what you have done.
What is your opinion on the strikes and the Students’ Association’s decision to support them?
Both sides make sense. People who support it do so because lots of people will lose their pensions but a lot of people supporting them don’t really understand what is happening. If I was a lecturer I would strike, but I’m a student and I am kind of neutral about it. For people who don’t support, you pay for it and you don’t receive the service. If you were at a restaurant and paid for a steak and the waiters refused to bring it to you would you ask for a refund?
It is complicated, but in my view as lecturers I totally support them, but as a student, I’m not sure to what extent I have to support them as I am technically losing money. It’s basically some sort of monetary value from the student goes over to the lecturer so they don’t lose anything. I think the Students’ Association supports it because if the pension goes down, not a lot of quality lecturers will want to work here. I read an article saying that the reason they cut down the pension scheme is because a lot of universities have a deficit, and if they pay the same amount into the pension scheme they can’t afford to spend money on buildings.
There is an equal amount of pie, but how much of that are we going to give to pensions? Some people think, if the whole pie is getting smaller, then you have to give a smaller pie to the pensions. But some people think – why are you trying to get rid of my pie? In my heart I support it but my brain is like, ‘where’s my money?’ If I value money a lot, I guess I shouldn’t support it too aggressively. I neither support nor am against the strike.
You talked about a pie getting smaller, but in 2017 the university’s surplus budget was £132,635,000, larger than all other Scottish universities combined. Do you think this money is being spent wisely at the moment, and if not, how would you redirect this money, in relation to the strikes as well?
It is increasing. But it’s always comparative. If all other universities where making £200,000,000 then the University of Edinburgh is basically a charity, but if all other universities are making £10,000,000 then it’s different. The university should always have some reserve money, so for example if the University of Oxford was trying to take one of our top professors we could say no, we’re going to build a new lab for you. It is important for universities to have money, but rather than answering that question I think the way the university makes money is really wrong. In 2012, 23 per cent of income came from tuition fees. In 2017, 30 per cent came from tuition fees. The money they are making is increasing really fast. They are making money by taking more from students. A healthier way of doing it is by having better research and getting more investments. They are making money in the wrong way and spending it in not the most efficient way.
The university has recently announced full divestment from fossil fuels. Do you welcome this decision? do you think there is more to be done?
The university is more sustainable than private businesses and is doing well. Comparatively, Edinburgh University is outperforming other businesses. But has Edinburgh University done that for the environment, or to attract environmental businesses as a marketing tool? Sustainability can only be achieved by money and recycling. The university only ever advertises their achievements and hides the bad things. I love what they are doing for sustainable projects, but I think they are doing some bad things at the same time. I love that they have divested from fossil fuels, and have given 20p off on reusable cups. I love the projects but I think they shouldn’t hide what they are doing badly. As a whole, I think Edinburgh University is doing badly in terms of sustainability.
Which do you think is the most difficult to achieve?
Number one is going to be the most difficult and the most important. Five is going to be the second most difficult because it is always difficult when you spend money, but they would save by cutting down on repairs and on opportunity costs as students will have more time. Number one is only difficult because the university loves money.
What do you think sets you apart from other candidates?
I’ve been involved in a society as an executive committee, so I know something about that. I’ve also been a University Council Representative and have worked with a lot of lecturers. I have a lot of friends from all over the world; I want to be an international Students’ Association President who will work for every single student. I want to make the best policies that everyone can access.
Image: Connor Bok