Interview: Students’ Association presidential candidate Tom Greenstein

Presidential candidate Tom Greenstein on lowering prices in Teviot by 20 per cent, his time as a student activist, and his plans for a Students’ Association Date Night.

Of your manifesto points, which is the most important to you?

I think the most important to me is probably creating a Renters’ Union for students. At the moment students face extortionately high costs for rent, in halls in particular. Most of our students are in halls in first year, there aren’t many in second year and above. I really want to create a union whereby students can come together under one organisation and unite to push rent down. We can do that in many ways, but first I want to send a petition to the university and get as many students to sign it as possible to say that rent is extortionately high. Then we could escalate to other tactics to try and get our rent down. So that’s the first thing the Renters’ Union would do. The second thing is that in other years, students aren’t in halls – they are in private accommodation. I want to organise students in private accommodation, and basically organise them by letting agent to try and take on the problems of each specific letting agent to pressure them that way. In addition to this, we also want to work with the council to introduce rent pressure zones, whereby the council basically halts the rise of rent in certain areas of Edinburgh where the stress is too high.

Your manifesto states that you want to lower prices in Teviot by 20 per cent. How do you plan on making up for this 20 per cent? Will it come from lowering staff wages, which currently sit at the national minimum?

What I hope is that the university recognise that as a student body, as a Student Union, we need affordable living and we need students to be able to live at the university and be able to enjoy the university at a reasonable price. So I hope that, given recent figures show that they have a £130 million surplus, more than all the universities in Scotland combined, they will contribute more to our Student Union. In terms of cutting wages, there will be no cuts in wages, there will be no job losses – but I think students have a right in their Student Union building of Teviot to have affordable food.

I think at first it will bring in more customers by having lower prices. I’ll keep the prices for non-students at at least the level they are at the moment, if not raising them. It has to be a Student Union building, one which serves the students at a reasonable price. At the moment students are struggling to afford to come to Teviot and to enjoy university life.

Can you describe what a fortnightly ‘EUSA date night’ would look like?

I want a more social EUSA and I think one of those things would be to collect people not just as friends, well, firstly as friends, but also as a bit more than that. EUSA date nights would be quite a good way to really connect the student body in a different type of way… so people can find a way other than through Tinder and more sort of online, artificial manners of meeting people, and meet people within their own university.

Including revision weeks, students currently have eight weeks of break from university throughout the academic year. With undergraduate English student fees for the 2018/2019 academic year sitting at £9,250, and undergraduate international student fees reaching up to £32,100, do you believe students want/need another week off university per semester?

I find, and many students find, particularly who do science-based courses at King’s Buildings, that eleven weeks straight of teaching in first semester is really really difficult to keep your attendance high and to keep concentration. Actually what is needed in the centre of that is a one week break like you have in second semester, whereby students can have a rest and actually rejuvenate and be able to continue for the rest of the semester at a high level.  Because we have a two semester system, unlike many other universities, it’s quite intense. I think a break really is needed.

It would have to be a university-wide scheme. We will only be able to learn well and keep our mental health well if we are able to have a period of rejuvenation. Even if humanities students have fewer lectures I think it will be welcomed by them as a source of break.

You want to implement a BDS policy and stand side-by-side with the Palestinian cause. Why do you believe this policy will be effective and how can you ensure it does not bring any harm to Jewish and Israeli students?

The BDS motion was passed in 2016 and was the highest attendance at a Student Council for years, if not a decade. There was a huge majority it was voted on but it was overturned by the Trustee Board. Opposition to Israel and opposition to the policies of Israel certainly won’t affect Jewish students or Israeli students here. It’s about opposing apartheid, it’s about opposing racism, and it’s about supporting the Palestinians’ who have called for support through boycotts, divestments and sanctions against Israel, which is the best form of non-violent action. If our student body can put this policy into action it will send a real message that we, as privileged people going to an incredible university, stand shoulder to shoulder and support the Palestinians who are living in occupied territory with restricted rights within Israel.

You state that you wish to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with those from marginalised groups and stand side-by-side with the liberation causes. As a privately educated white male, what gives you the ability to do this better than someone from a liberation group. The past two years have seen white men as President, is this a trend that should be continued?

I recognise that as a white, straight man that I can’t ever fully understand the issues and the discrimination which these groups face, which is why I want to work with all the liberation officers and take their guidance on issues, and for them to offer me their support and tell me what it is that liberation groups want and what causes they want me to follow. I stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them and I want to try and make a presidency that does work for every group no matter what lengths it goes to. But yes, I do recognise the privilege I have.

What do you think will be the most difficult part of your manifesto to achieve?

I’d say that reducing Teviot prices by 20 per cent will be quite tough. There will be a price review next year and there will be trustee board meetings and I hope to convince them of the argument to reduce prices. I think they will if I’m elected and I have that mandate from the student population for change. But I think it will be met with some opposition and some trepidation, and will depend on how much pressure the student body and I will put on the university. I know that I will be putting in a huge amount.

What sets you apart from other presidential candidates?

I think it’s my years as a student activist. When I started university I was elected as an external campaign organiser, and then for second and third year I was elected to NUS Scotland. I’ve constantly fought students’ causes, I’ve been involved with EUSA, but always at a bit of an arms length. I have experience within EUSA of course, though I’ve treated them with scepticism at times. I deeply care about students at this university. I want to change their lives, I want to better their lives and make them all feel part of the university and part of one community, and that does mean making affordability a huge issue. I’ve been a student activist for years and I don’t think any of the other candidates have been involved in as much student activism as I have. I’ve been involved in dozens of protests and marches and Palestinian solidarity, and in fighting against the cuts to maintenance grants, and against tuition fees.

What are your opinions on the UCU industrial action and the Students’ Association’s decision to support it?

I 100 per cent back it. At the moment our lecturers and teaching staff are under incredible attacks by UUK and they’re facing astronomical cuts to their pensions, which is astronomical and disgraceful. We need to back them completely. We will all benefit if our lecturers benefit, if they are all treated and valued as part of our university, and not treated as disposable objects. We need to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them. I’ll be on the picket lines with them and will be marching with them. It shows the priorities of our country when our lecturers and teaching staff are facing £10,000 cuts in pensions and our new Vice-Chancellor gets over a £400, 000 salary. There is huge inequality not just in society at large but also in the microcosm that is our university. As students we really need to stand with lecturers, because we all benefit if they benefit.

The university has recently announced full divestment from fossil fuels. Do you welcome this decision and do you believe there is more work to be done in making the university more sustainable?

I totally welcome this decision. I think it’s a great step and it’s a credit to People and Planet and the activism that they have contributed to get the university to put this through. There are things that can be improved upon at the university. They still have links with companies that have links to arms companies, which should be tackled. And of course, they still invest in Israeli companies which I want to tackle. But [fossil fuel divestment] is a credit to the university and I think it’s something which should’ve been done a long time ago.

Do you think that stopping student population expansion will mean less accessibility for people of different backgrounds?

I think at the moment the university is encouraged because of tuition fees to take as many students as possible. I don’t think stopping expansion will stop diversity, because you can have a higher proportion of those diverse backgrounds. It’s all about proportion in terms of coming to the university. What it does link to is the wider point about the commodification of university education, and why the university constantly wants to expand. If that is at a cost of teaching quality and class sizes, then it is a negative thing. This is something that the university needs to think hard about and consult students about.

Image: Tom Greenstein

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