Interview: Students’ Association presidential candidate William McLaughlan

Presidential candidate William McLaughlan on mental health, the budget surplus, and the proposals for a Working Class Liberation Officer.

Can you give a brief overview of your manifesto’s key points?

The main thing I’m genuinely passionate about is support. Support at the university is generally lagging in many areas and it doesn’t need to be like this. For example, the student counselling services limits the number of sessions available to four (sometimes extendable to six) for students who are really struggling. I have outlined a new way of providing support where EUSA won’t tell students what we will do for them, but ask them what we can do for them. I want EUSA to be proactive in building a quality support system with students. My manifesto makes it clear that, as EUSA President, I will ensure that all students can participate in building a student’s association, and indeed University, that works for, and supports, us all!

We’ve actually had coverage with the counselling services at the University. There’s no actual regulation that limits the number of sessions that students can have.

The issue is that many people think that is the policy. Whilst it may be that the University has no codified policy of limiting the number of student counselling sessions, a cap of four sessions is certainly is how they work in practice and what counsellors tell students. I know this as I’ve experienced this myself. I want to hold the mental health inquiry through EUSA as it would be a great place for people to come forward to tell us about their experiences, and allow for students to shape mental health policy and practice to work for them [alongside crucial collaboration with the liberation officers].

What do you mean by an inquiry?

By an inquiry I mean an investigation into University practices and support available. This will be carried out inclusively and sensitively. The main part of it is to give students the voice and help build the support available for mental health and to give them an opportunity to share their experiences. We will invite the University to take part in this too, it’s important that we include them in any dialogue regarding mental health. However, to be clear, I believe that it is students who should decide how we receive support, not the University.

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

I’m certainly extremely passionate about mental health, if you look at people at university, mental health is going to be a problem regardless of circumstances [social background, ethnicity etc.] Again, I feel like the inquiry is the best place for us to have information coming out in order to guarantee that we tackle mental in a way that works for everyone. However, I am also offering change in terms of how the extension request system works, lobbying for lighter tier-4 conditions to ensure International students aren’t aren’t unfairly treated when they’re struggling. However, I feel the most important in my manifesto is that it allows for us to be flexible in how we provide support – I don’t want a set list of what we will do – but I want EUSA to be set up in order to whatever we need to help struggling students, regardless of the problem.

In order for EUSA to effectively work for everyone, however, the accountability of the sabbatical officers is critical. Students need to be able to approach EUSA and understand the impact that we are making, and/or the impact that they believe we aren’t making…For instance, I want to hold monthly town hall meetings with the sabbatical officers. We can broadcast all of this live on Facebook to ensure that we reach more students than ever before. It is EUSA’s responsibility to ensure there are accessible means for students to hold us to account.

Another key part of my manifesto is the accountability section. I do feel that students need the chance to hold the sabbatical officers to account. So the main way I see that is we can hold a set period of time where all the officers students can come [together] and ask ‘what is going on at EUSA?’, ‘what is being achieved?’ Obviously as a law student, I’ve studied different measures of accountability, and it’s just something that I’d like to see more of at EUSA. Last year there was the promise from Patrick on the manifesto tracker, and I’m not sure if that’s out, I can’t find it, but either way, it’s not clear enough.

What do you think is the primary concern currently facing students at the University of Edinburgh?

The main concern is a lack of support. We’ve already discussed, for instance, the failing system of mental health which is leaving many students isolated. I will stand up and be a voice for these individuals. Mental health is obviously a large part of support, but I don’t want you to think that I’m narrowing down to mental health solely. Support is whatever students need to have a fulfilling and beneficial university experience. That’s why I’m listening to students. That’s why I’m making the support place proactive in finding new ways to support students. My manifesto also comprehensively deals with housing support, financial support, off-campus support.

We shouldn’t limited ourselves in what we deem suitable to provide support. If it matters to students, it matters to me. Housing is crucial as well, with exploitative landlords and a limited number of available flats. As you can see, I care about these matters deeply and this is why I’ll ensure that a full-time housing officer is hired in the Support Place.

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

I’m very happy at EUSA’s decision to support strikes. I’ll be at picket lines to support lecturers myself… We need to support our lecturers. The fact that they are losing their pension through the change in the scheme is disgusting. This is a students’ issue as well, as over the course of a long period of time, this devalues the quality of education at this institution. I want to see our teachers get treated more fairly. It’s quite saddening to see this all happen. I’m fully behind the strikes, and what we want to see is the University recognising the situation.

In 2017, the University of Edinburgh’s budget surplus was £132,635,000 — larger than that of all other Scottish universities combined. Do you feel this money is being invested wisely, and if not, how would you lobby the university to change this?

I was very happy to see the university’s decision to divest from fossil fuels. However, the University is not using the money wisely. The support system needs to be in place for students, all individuals. The University needs to spend more money on support. If the University has money to refurbish McEwan Hall and Old College, along with a rise in salary for the new principal, I can’t see why we cant find the money to spend more on support for students. We need to get more value out of money.

Some students may come from abroad and realise that this is not for them – then the support system needs to be in place. The University needs to spend more of its money on support.

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

Sustainability is very important to me, especially in EUSA’s sustainability. Things like paper waste and electricity, can be reviewed by generally looking over all areas. I would rather see the University that was making less money, with a slightly smaller budget but a good carbon foot print. I think it’s important for the University to concern itself with a more renewable future and intend for EUSA to be a champion for this.

What sets you apart from other candidates?

I think it’s my passion — I’m excited to get on with the campaign, raising a lot of issues, see changes implemented. My drive, the care for students that I have that has been failed by EUSA and university is what I want to see a change in. In fact, I’m actually going to donate £2000 of the salary I will receive to contribute to starting the support place. Change is always going to be a continuing process. I’m willing to listen and see where the other sabbatical officers, liberation officers and general student population have to say about their experiences.

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

Getting money, money is an issue. However, spending money on support is not a choice. We will find the money. However, if I can contribute £2000 of my salary to go towards funding the new support place, then I’m sure the University can spare some money too. We need to be looking at how we are spending money in various areas. We need to look for more funding from the University, and do more fundraising as well.

What are your opinions on the growing student population, do you feel that this correlates with facility availability/teaching quality? If so or not what they think needs to be done about it? What are your thoughts on the notion that stopping student population expansion does not
mean less accessibility for people of different backgrounds?

If the student population is growing, let’s look at what we should be doing to facilitate that. So I wouldn’t say ‘let’s stop growing the student population’, what we need to make sure is that the support networks are available at University. One thing that I do feel is important is that we need to look at when University population is growing, we need to ensure that is reflective of wider society. I feel that we need more working class students, and we need to look at the number of black students that we have here – that was an issue raised last year. I don’t only find that wrong, I find that embarrassing.

There’s been a proposal through the Student Council on a motion of creating a new liberation officer position, a working class officer. What are your thoughts on this?

I’m a working class student, I was brought up in a council house in the West Coast of Scotland. Having come here, you do feel like we are a small group here, it’s insular, separated from wider student population at some points. I feel in that sense, we could be doing with a liberation officer or convener that can voice opinions.

However, whether the working class is more important than other classes is a wrong discussion. We need to make sure that there are good support networks throughout the university so that the University is reflective of wider society.

Give us your thoughts on the inclusivity/merging of international communities and Scottish/non-Scottish UK students on campus, with regards to the clear divide that many students feel that could be brought together.

I’ve definitely noticed insularity. University community at large needs to be integrated. It’s exciting to meet people from all around the world, educational values are enhanced by this diverse community, so there definitely needs to be more of an integrated community to make the best of this.

Image: William Mclaughlan

Related News

Say something

The Student Newspaper 2016