Interview: Students’ Association Vice President Activities and Services candidate Stephen Dolan

VPAS candidate Stephen Dolan spoke to The Student on his dedication to improving the University of Edinburgh, and experience as a School of Divinity Representative this past year.

Can you briefly introduce yourself to us? 

My name’s Stephen Dolan and I am a fourth year Theology student, so I am well versed to the difficulties of not being on the main campus. I am also in an interesting position because I am one of the few students who live at home — I don’t live far enough away to spend the ridiculous amount of money university accommodation costs for our students!

Why are you running for VPAS? 

I am running because I’ve founded a society this year, have been on the committee of Judo club, and been the representative for New College, or the School of Divinity. With the experiences I have gathered at university, I feel like the role of VPAS would allow me to use this foundation and do what I can for our community.

Within being a founder of the New School Society, I was able to encourage students to be involved in comfortable discussions around politics and religion in a safe environment. I was also able to start inter-mural sports teams so students can have a physical outlet, and be more involved with the university community. This was especially beneficial for more introverted students, and international students.

What are the key points of your manifesto? 

The manifesto is a very small version of what I want to do.

I want to improve communication between the Student Association and the different campuses. For example, the Sabbatical Officers didn’t come to the New College this year. I want to give all campuses more of a voice — for their needs to be recognised and heard. This simply just isn’t happening right now. I know I will be able to encourage this communication to find out what students truly want.

This year alone, I was able to secure a 5,000 pound kitchen renovation for New College. On top of this, we were able to lobby and get card machines there so students could easily get food and not be running to get our money. This has greatly improved the environment within the school. What I want to do is take this example but apply it to the whole school in improving communication.

Another aspect of my manifesto, that will also approve communication, is upgrading the EUSA app. Right now, barely anyone uses it — and for good reason, it’s clunky. But if we use it as an opportunity to advertise society events, student media creations, and news. This will automatically improve communication between the Students’ Association and the study body, but also foster a sense of community.

Furthermore, I want to encourage inclusivity. This will be most prevalent in ensuring each campus has the necessary facilities for students to be comfortable. For example, King’s College does not have appropriate places to eat after hours, it’s far away, and it doesn’t have an Advice Place.

This is detrimental for mental health of students across the board. It is so important for all voices to be heard — and this hurts BME students the most. People feel terrible when their voices aren’t heard. This is something that the app can be used for as well; students will be able to directly speak to officers on the spot when they need to.

I also want to bring more awareness to sexual harassment and sexual violence that our students experience. By encouraging an independent sexual assault investigation tribunal, reports and efforts can be put towards helping students.

You’re one of the first candidates this year to discuss sexual harassment in their manifesto. Can you further expand on this?

Well, we always hear about these sexual assault cases, but rarely hear the end of them where the victim gains justice. I want to end this and make sure the university is as safe of a place as possible. At New College, we considered reprinting the U.K. Rape Survival Guide — but I brought up the issue: where can we keep this that will be 100 per cent accessible to people all the time? The only private place, if that’s what’s needed, would be the bathroom, and that is just degrading. I want to give women and men the ability to reach help the second they need it, which is why I think it is important to have all these materials available on their phone.

The help you receive, with sexual assault as well as mental health issues, should be ready for you irregardless of the time a building closes. The app will try to be a place with help lines, material, and support staff.

Another aspect of your manifesto, and something you’ve already achieved in New College, is the availability of free sanitary products in women’s bathrooms. Tell me more about this?

A lot of candidates have this idea, but I managed to achieve this in November. I spoke to Kai to provide boxes in bathrooms with the right sanitary products — and the amount of people who have personally come to me saying thank you is incredible. It is such a simple idea that gives everyone accessibility no matter where they are.

Tell me more about your concentration on inclusivity, specifically regarding international students. 

I have come across so many students who are paying so much money to attend university — up to 22,000 pounds — yet they’re unable to get involved in the activities they want to participate in due to extra costs. As someone Scottish who gets university free, I realise what a privilege this is. I believe the university should be offering grants and subsidisation to allow everyone to be involved in what they want. Judo, for example, requires insurance because it’s dangerous. If you can’t afford the insurance, and you’re not a UK resident, you’re in trouble. This is so unfair. At such a diverse school, we need to be making sure everyone has an opportunity, and this is the university’s responsibility.

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? 

I want to make sure VPAS not only offers new facilities through EUSA, but also through the university. Our university has grown up to 10,000 students in the last ten years, and there needs to be more things available for this many people. A main issue I’m seeing is when buildings close at earlier hours, or are urged to go to the library (which is always full anyway). Furthermore, there aren’t enough food options, especially by King’s. The university needs to expand to give our students more choices. We need to consider sustainability but also provision to ensure student satisfaction. I don’t think our university should stop growing, but I think we need to pay more attention to teaching quality, online portals, and dedication.

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 think we always need to consider that everyone needs surplus. But how much is enough? I don’t think we need this much surplus. Some of this money needs to go towards students specifically, and I think it is most important for it to go towards teaching. We need to provide more dedicated personal tutors, who are getting paid the fair amount, for our students. If a tutor is truly there for a student, this money would be used right.

Furthermore, a huge stress relief is sports. Some of this money must go towards the creation of good gym options in places other than Pleasance. The key to mental health and minimal physical stress is physical well-being.

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?

I am entirely behind this. Sustainability is so important. I’m surprised EUSA hasn’t considered installing solar panels on most buildings. It is our responsibility to take such issues into our own hands to ensure we are benefiting the environment. We need to invest in green energy, and in research for sustainable ways to run this University.

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

I’ve been able to speak to the head of school about the strikes. Though the university cannot change the pension scheme themselves, they can put pressure on those that can. Personally, I believe my personal wellbeing is just as important as all of the staff. The EUSA decision to stand by the strikes is very good, and we need to continue standing up for those that dedicate their lives to teach us.

Give us your thoughts on the 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.

One of the big divides within this University has to be income. Some of us aren’t paying tuition, or even rent. This puts us at a much better financial position than some students who are paying a lot more. A way to bring us all together, in my role as VPAS, would be through societies.

Your time at university shouldn’t just be paying for your education, but also be for the community you gain at Edinburgh. You gain a degree, friends, sports, volunteering, everything. EUSA should be providing grants, loans, and help. We should be advertising all of this to our students to bring them together so we can build communities and passions. We should all be able to experience everything.

An issue in the past with elections has been candidates making promises they can’t keep. What do you think will be the most difficult part of your manifesto to achieve? 

I think a big issue I have is biting more than I can chew. However, my track record is clear. Everything I’ve said I want to get done, I have. I am willing to put in all the work possible to make this manifesto possible. For example, I have begun speaking to the IT department regarding the reconstruction of a EUSA app.

I think everything I have set out to do is feasible and possible, it will just take time and effort — both things that I am ready to put in. When I put my mind to something, that isn’t my dissertation, I think I can manage to get it done. None of these ideas will cost us thousands and thousands of pounds, but they will take lobbying and idea development.

What sets you apart from other candidates? 

Apart from the period boxes in New College? I think I can offer different perspectives. I’ve spoken to different students, been very close to those who are international and those who live here in Edinburgh all the time. I have put in the hours to know our student body, and I believe this will show in my role as VPAS.

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