Interview: Students’ Association Vice President Activities and Services candidate Kai Stuart

The Student sat down with VP Activities and Services candidate Kai Stuart to discuss access to counselling, widening participation in societies, and a new Students’ Association website.

Would you be able to run through your main manifesto points?

First of all, free sanitary products. It’s a policy that a lot of candidates are promising but it’s important to remember that this is not just about in our venues as the Students’ Association, I’m trying to get them throughout the university as well.  The current situation is that the Advice Place provides it and that’s a pretty ridiculous situation, especially if you’re a trans student. I was one of the people who submitted the motion last year to change this. Unfortunately, not much has happened but I want to make sure this does happen.

My other main issues are widening participation and liberation training for all new reps. I want to make sure that there’s a proper grounding for all reps.  Ideally, we want to do this for all school reps but we’d like to reach it out to society committees to ensure that they can widen participation in their societies.  They can then report back to the Students’ Association about how they’ve used different positions, for example how to use liberation positions, to magnify the voices of those who are underrepresented.

One which is not necessarily activities and services related, but is something that we’re going to have to constantly keep up with, is the rent campaigns. If we don’t have all the sabbatical officers consistently arguing for that, it’s not going to go anywhere.

The last one is probably the biggest in terms of how much we need to campaign on it and that is the EUSA website. As it is at the moment, the EUSA website is pretty much unusable. It’s old, it’s a barrier to participation and it actively turns people off from getting involved in societies and activities.  It’s almost impossible to navigate.  I’ve been a EUSA rep for two years and I can’t navigate it. A new website would help to increase the outreach of the organisation and explain what we’re doing more effectively.

What would you say is the single biggest issue currently affecting students at the University of Edinburgh?

I’d say the single biggest issue is access to services from the university and the Students’ Association. Under that we can talk about access to the university counselling service. I’ve used it myself, I only got four sessions and it was literally on a platform where, if I’d felt more suicidal, they would have given me more sessions.  It shouldn’t be run to encourage people to feel more suicidal so they get a decent amount of counselling sessions.

In the Students’ Association, we need to actually integrate our services with that of the university.  We need the Advice Place and personal tutors or student support officers to communicate and combine strategy rather than operate completely separate policies.  That disparity of policies within schools and the access to services really negatively effects student satisfaction, mental health and the student experience.

What is your opinion on the decision of the Students’ Association to support the ongoing strikes?

I 100 per cent support the strikes.  We should always be supportive of strikes.  Their working conditions are our education conditions.  I’m very pleased with the work that the Students’ Association have been doing.

What are your thoughts on the recent announcement that the university is divesting entirely from fossil fuels?

Very pleased with it, however, the university also need to think about the time frame they suggested.  The time frame is really good, but I know from past experience that the university is not always good at keeping those time frames.  I worked with the NGO The Enough Project on conflict minerals procurement, which makes sure the minerals in computers don’t come from slave or forced labour in the Congo and other central African countries. I know that the university, in 2015, made a big commitment to this. Today they have done very little in actually progressing this. So I think that while this is incredibly encouraging, we need to make sure they keep up their commitments.

It’s also important to remember that they didn’t change their investment on arms equipment. They’ve kept that the same as what it was which is a great shame. We should do more campaigning on that because originally the campaign was for both of those issues.

Coming back to your manifesto, what do you think will be the hardest part of your manifesto to achieve?

I think the hardest one to achieve will be the website. There’s been a lot of progress over the years on localised issues to do with the website like the societies admin panel, the societies banking features and the room booking features. It’s going to be difficult because EUSA pays one provider to deal with all their membership, the designing and maintaining of the website and their servers. In order to actually change it, we will need to either uplift and completely change who hosts our servers or revamp the website entirely and start with a clean slate. Unfortunately, this might be one of the most difficult campaigns as I know it’s something that’s constantly being worked on and not a lot of progress has been made. It should be so simple; we live in 2018, not 2008.

You’ve spoken a lot about the services side of things, do you have much experience with societies at the university?

I used to be a Vice President of the SNP society and I was actively involved in a lot more other societies.  This year I’ve been on the Activities Executive as the Political Activities Representative so I work on the Proposed Societies Committee, we talk about general changes to society rules and how to engage societies.  This means I’m quite familiar with the framework EUSA use and the opinions of people within societies of that framework. I know that the relationship isn’t a positive one most of the time but it’s something that can be made positive.

Is there anything that Kai O’Doherty has done this year that you would like to continue next year?

I’ve worked quite closely with Kai as Activities Representative and I think Kai generally has their head in the right place. What I’d like to continue doing is making ‘how to’ guides on membership fees and how to make your society more inclusive. One of the big things I’ve been raising as Activities Rep is to make sure that membership fees go back into societies so they can be used for widening participation. We want to make sure that those from disadvantaged backgrounds can actually participate in societies and that’s what fees should be for. Kai is being very stern on wanting to make sure that memberships go back into societies and that societies report on how they deal with liberation issues. It’s great work and I would want to continue that.

The work Kai has also done on gender neutral bathrooms is very important. It is a project that loosely falls somewhere between Activities and Services, Community, and Welfare for remits. I think that’s something we have to keep campaigning on and I think Kai’s made very good, positive steps on that.

You briefly mentioned encouraging people from disadvantaged backgrounds and there seems to be a problem with people not getting involved with societies.  Do you have any ideas about how you would combat that?

I would agree that, to me, it definitely feels like that.  I remember going to my first activities fair, with my working-class background, and I saw that most societies wanted to demand money from you straight away. It felt very intimidating because I wasn’t expecting that, you don’t really get told that and it’s not something that’s really promoted.  We should be promoting an educational experience that’s always free from financial barriers, so it’s very good what we’ve been doing with the widening participation fund and we should keep trying to enhance that.

One thing that’s been brought up a lot is the working-class liberation officer.  I think that’s a very interesting idea. What’s telling is that, as a working-class person, I don’t know how I feel about that. It’s something that feels like ‘should we really have it?’  It’s a fuzzy issue but I am very glad there’s a dialogue about it. It shows there is an awareness of socioeconomic class-based issues in the societies. What we should be doing, other than just having a working-class liberation officer, is ensuring that financial disadvantage, and other types of socioeconomic disadvantage, are considered in how we widen participation in societies. We should have a plan where we slowly mandate, start by encouraging societies to participate by providing feedback on how they make their societies more financially accessible. We should be writing guidance to societies that says, ‘don’t arbitrarily set your membership fee. Think about how you’re going to do that. Don’t charge for every single event if you’re going to charge membership fees.’

Is there anything that Kai O’Doherty has done that you would do differently?

One of the big changes that has been going on in societies is the new mandatory constitution changes.  The argument that the Students’ Association has put forward is that the majority of these changes have always been the rules, they just haven’t been very well explained, implemented or introduced.  However, I don’t think that’s a fair argument for suddenly, right next to AGM season where societies are doing hand overs and having votes, to say ‘non- students cannot vote in societies.’  I do not think that’s a positive step forwards.  These students have paid their membership and have the right to participate.  In terms of office bearers, I think other than the President, Secretary and Treasurer, roles should be open to non-students.  There can be issues with this – there are worries that societies will be dominated by members who aren’t students – but we can take that on a case-by-case basis.

80 societies motioned to student council about these changes saying, ‘they’re not being implemented in the correct way.’ They were not given enough consultation and, more broadly, most societies disagree with the changes.  In order for societies to trust EUSA, we need EUSA to trust societies. They need to trust that these societies are student-led, that they are enriching our community and that they are positive to our community. Furthermore, a lot of our societies enrich our wider community experience.  We should be engaging with more than just students. I think that’s positive for those societies and for our wider community. That’s something we should never be standing against and always standing for. It’s not something necessarily Kai themselves has done, but it falls under the EUSA remit.

Do you think there is a divide between Scottish, British and international students?  What ways are there to bridge that gap?

I definitely do think that there is a divide and I think it’s a problem.  But ultimately, from this diversity we should be seizing opportunities.  The university knows it can make a lot of money from international students and I think it is fair to say that the university tries to attract international students.  It doesn’t do nearly enough to support them once they get here, and if you’re not supported by the university, you’re not going to get as involved in the community in Edinburgh.  For example with the International Students’ Centre having their building taken away until 2020, that kind of thing is ridiculous.  That’s not going to build a community.

One thing I want to do is have Faith and Multi-Culture Week during Innovative Learning Week.  A lot of societies do this in their own kind of way where they collaborate, but the vast majority of students stay in Edinburgh for Innovative Learning Week and we really need something fun that we can do that will bring people together. It’s a great opportunity where people have a lot of free time. We could be bringing the community together whether that’s spiritually, culturally or with free food.

Is there anything else you would like to tell the students of the University of Edinburgh?

Two other issues. Firstly, we need more vegetarian and gluten-free options on our menus. It’s constantly something that’s talked about and we’ve made a little bit of progress but, to be perfectly honest, sabbatical officers should be running the Students’ Association and that means, if we want to change our menus so they serve better, more sustainable and more appealing food, we should be doing that.

Also, an issue very close to my heart as a student carer, we need to be doing far more to put student carers centre-stage. We’ve done a lot over the years; student carers now have their own rep the same as parents. But we need to have a proper campaign now. It’s about time that we tell the university that the fact we don’t have a proper staffing division dedicated to student parents and student carers is ridiculous. The vast majority of universities have that: Glasgow does, St Andrews does. It’s time the university did that and the Students’ Association could have more staff dedicated to that too.

 

Image: Vijay Jackson

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