Interview: Students’ Association Vice President Education candidate Diva Mukherji

As we were unable to arrange a face to face interview, News Editor Mei Futonaka emailed questions to the Edinburgh University Students’ Association Vice President Education candidate Diva Mukherji to learn more about her manifesto and future plans.

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

The main issues that my manifesto highlight are improving student support, through mandatory mental health training and unconscious bias training for personal tutors and tutors, and improving access to Students’ Association services for year abroad and non-George Square campus students.

I’m also highlighting the barriers to accessible education which most students face: so many students are required to spend their own money on compulsory curriculum materials, which should be freely accessible to all! Also lobby for supply-specific grants for courses that require students to purchase their own materials, such as ECA courses. Students shouldn’t be expected to bear this cost! We also need to lobby for better facilities, such as library collections and catering, across different campuses.

Another major focus is diversifying the curriculum – having co-founded LiberatEd in 2016, I’ve held workshops with students and staff on the importance of diversifying the curriculum, and practical ways of doing so. A diverse curriculum has so many benefits to all students, including studying various critical perspectives, and highlighting voices from marginalized backgrounds. This also feeds into another focus, which is improving the retention of students from marginalised backgrounds. The University has lower retention rates, and that’s because of the lack of support that students from marginalized backgrounds receive, and it’s essential that we work to develop a more inclusive environment!

Finally, we have to develop more innovative forms of teaching and assessment, by mainstreaming alternative teaching and learning methods such as experiential, collaborative and online learning. This also includes continuing to streamline the academic representation system – we currently have over 2000 class reps, which is incredible! But we need to have clearer channels of communication, between reps, the sabbatical officers and University staff. Through this, we can utilize feedback more quickly, and allow more opportunities for staff-student collaboration, such as through co-curricula.

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

I think all the manifesto points are equally important, but given my personal university experience, it would be the point regarding creating a more inclusive environment on campus. Diversifying the curriculum, and LiberatEd, have been some of my major projects as the Black and Minority Ethnic officer, and it’s been fantastic to see that students from various schools have already been discussing these issues and that it is a priority. Last year I was successful in securing a new interdisciplinary course exploring contemporary race relations, which will be created by a group of students, and there are student groups who are active in creating a new queer theory course, and it’s been amazing to see that co-curricula model being successful in diversifying our curriculum!

While the curriculum plays a role in creating a more inclusive environment, it’s important to highlight the institutional policy changes that also need to be prioritised: I’m currently working with the VP Welfare to audit the current unconscious bias training teaching staff undertake and developing ways of improving it. The training is essential to equip staff with how to appropriately handle microaggressions and other incidents that may occur in the classroom, and how to adequately support marginalised students. The retention of students from marginalised backgrounds also needs to be analysed: The university currently has a disproportionately lower retention of students from marginalised backgrounds, and we need to consider and fix those elements which contribute to that. This also includes looking at ways in which we can enable students from marginalised backgrounds into higher education spheres more easily, such as through lobbying for more funding and scholarships for students.

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

I think as students we need to highlight and fight the rapid marketisation of higher educations: right now, the University of Edinburgh has an astonishingly high revenue and surplus, and our university degrees are not being treated appropriately. Our degrees and university experiences are being commodified, and the university is more focused on increasing their student numbers rather than reinvesting in our experiences here. While everyone should be able to access the fantastic education we receive here, the university needs to be investing as much into improving and increasing student support and services. It isn’t okay that students are required to sit on the floor at lectures because there isn’t any space, or that counselling services do not have the resources to support all their students. With many students paying outlandishly high tuition fees, we need to question how that money is being used.

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

I completely support it. Currently, our teaching staff are facing shocking cuts to their pensions from the UUK (Universities UK) and the University is yet to openly support our staff. These cuts stem from a wider change in how higher education is viewed, and its increasing commodification, and our staff cannot and should not have to deal with thousands of pounds cut from their pensions. Right now, our students have to support our striking staff, fight these changes.

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? 

It very evidently isn’t – if it was, we wouldn’t be facing so many of the issues we do! The University promised to invest an extra £140,000 into the counselling services between 2016-2018, which seems great in theory and when compared to the surplus is shocking. The University needs to be investing its money into student services and support, and that should be its priority. This includes improving accessibility to education. Currently, students in some schools have to pay such high amounts in buying course materials, whereas these should be freely accessible to all students. This could be done in investing more money into the library, so they can ensure all mandatory course materials have free online alternatives at the very least.

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?

Full divestment is a fantastic commitment and has come from years of work by People and Planet and other student activists and the current VP Community. While this is an incredible step, there’s definitely more that can be done to make the university and our campuses more sustainable – this includes focusing on food waste and using more sustainable materials in all university and Students’ Association locations.

What sets you apart from other candidates? 

I think my experience of working so closely with past sabbatical officers has helped me develop a comprehensive understanding of what this role entails. I co-founded LiberatEd with the VPAS of the time, and now work with the VP Education pushing our agenda through. This means I’ve delivered workshops and presentations to large groups of staff and students, while I also have experience in developing education policy. Through these meetings, I’ve developed working relationships with various university stakeholders, which will be key in creating change as quickly as possible.

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

I think probably the reinvestment of university funds into schemes which benefit students from marginalised backgrounds. There is still a lack of understanding of how different groups experience university, in every regard. However, the statistics, from this university and the UK as a whole, demonstrate the lack of diversity and inclusivity at higher levels of education, and I think it will require a persistence of reminding the university that these inequalities do exist, and have larger social implications. However, this is something that I am committed to and refuse to waiver on.

What are your opinions on the growing student population, do you feel that this compromises facility availability and teaching quality? If so, what do you think needs to be done about it? 

The university has expanded at such a high rate over the past 10 years, and it cannot afford to continue to do so. There is a lack of teaching and study space that such a high number of students require, and there seems to be no effort on the university’s part to combat that. Teaching staff are not only being overworked, but do not have the spaces available to conduct specialised teaching, while students are unable to receive personalised attention and feedback which is unacceptable. We need the University to commit to supporting students and staff better.

What are your thoughts on the notion that stopping student population expansion does not mean less accessibility for people of different backgrounds?

I think this is a potential reason why we need to invest more funding in increasing the number of students from various backgrounds. University is incredibly expensive as is, and we need to encourage students from different backgrounds to enter higher education and support them throughout. The current VP Education has been developing the widening participation scheme, and I think it’s essential that remains a priority. With the surplus the University has, it needs to make its system more accessible!

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.

There are so many societies and groups which do such incredible work on creating a more inclusive environment, and I think it’s the University’s responsibility to support them better. As BME officer, I’ve experienced how difficult it is to even get the university’s social media pages to share information about the Black History Month events we hosted, which is emblematic of how the university deals with issues of inclusivity. Creating a more inclusive environment would require better support and highlighting of the work that various groups on campus do, but also enabling voices from those groups to create institutional policy change.

Image: Diva Mukerji

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