The Student sat down with Vice President Welfare candidate Allie McGregor to talk mental health support, university expansion, and international students.
Could you give us an outline of your manifesto pledges?
One of the most important things for me is working on a welfare strategy for groups that people don’t tend to talk about as much. So we have section reps for parents, carers and part-time students but I don’t think we have one for online distant learners, but that’s another group I want to talk about. Actually developing a strategy for how we can approach supporting welfare for all these students who don’t have the same sorts of needs as a general undergraduate student. I think they are often pushed aside. Postgraduate students as well, and mature students, they have a lot of different time and support requirements so I want to consult with all of those students on what they need from the university. I believe the university is trying to increase long-distance learners by the thousands in the next few years, and they have no structure to support online distance learners at the moment so something is going to have to be put in place.
I’m an international student from New Zealand, which is obviously very far away. The International Student Centre, I think, is a really important resource just to find friends and a community and have somewhere to go to meet other international students. I know, especially last year, there was a lot of taking things away from the International Student Centre so I would like to put more effort into giving them more resources and more support again because I think it’s such a valuable resource for international students. It’s really scary coming to a faraway country. You’re also paying a lot more to be here so I think you deserve support and advise.
Mental health is a really big one. Something I really want to work on is the mental health mentor scheme, which is something that’s advertised to students with long-term existing mental health conditions. A lot of students are told ‘you’re on the waiting list for this and you’ll have a mentor to help you manage your studies alongside your mental issues,’ and then you’re on the waiting list for years and years and you never hear anything else. I think it’s really irresponsible of the uni to give students hope that they’ll get this person who helps guide them through their studies, and then it never happens and they don’t even really keep them updated as to what’s happening or offer them any alternatives. So that’s something I really want to discuss closely with the university and say either you need to remove this scheme and replace it with something you can uphold or you need to put more resources into this scheme so you can actually deliver on it.
Personal tutors. I think this is one that the Students’ Association has been working at already. I think Esther, the current VP Welfare, has tried to do some work on this but I don’t feel like it has progressed very far. A lot of personal tutors are just doing it because they’re supposed to and they’re not really putting time and effort into it. They’re supposed to get training on signposting to wellbeing services but from what I’ve heard, most of them do not do it. I want to put pressure on the uni to enforce proper training for personal tutors. They’re supposed to be the first point of contact for students and the most ongoing point of contact which is also an issue because a lot of people don’t have the same personal tutor the whole way through which to me seems like the point, to have that one person. So I think consistency in personal tutors and consistency in the training across all the schools the whole university, making sure personal tutors can at least tell students where they can go, even have some websites to hand.
Working with societies to try to establish welfare officers particularly for the bigger societies. Societies end up being a really big part of some students’ lives, a really big part of their social life too, and that can massively affect how students experience university so I just think that needs to be something committees are aware of. I’ve been part of societies that do have welfare officers and some that haven’t and it’s just nice having someone you can speak to if there are any issues in the societies.
My last point is really just being accessible to everyone, so my ideal would be having a drop-in hour every week where anyone can come to me and be like ‘this is a welfare issue I have.’ Obviously not going to be able to deal with every single one of them, but it just makes it so much easier to know what the actual issues are that actual students from any group are experiencing. Ideally, I would be able to take that drop in hour to other campuses because our Students’ Association has a really difficult time engaging with people outside of the central campus, and I think that’s a problem and it really alienates a lot of students. People like medical students and vet students have a huge workload, they need maybe even more support than a lot of people on George Square and they just don’t get it. I definitely want to be more accessible to them and just open to hearing their issues – even if I can’t provide immediate solutions I want to be aware.
What are your thoughts on the ongoing expansion of the university? Does that correlate to teaching quality, student satisfaction and facility availability?
I definitely think there is a correlation. I think the university hasn’t really put structures in place in these areas ahead of expanding. They’ve decided they want more and more students they want online students and they haven’t really thought ahead to ‘okay but if we have all of these students, how are we going to give them the contact hours they need, the lab hours they need for some courses, the support they need,’ when they are already having some low student satisfaction rates. Particularly in wellbeing areas it probably wasn’t that sensible to start taking on more people when they’re struggling to support people they already have. So I definitely think that is an issue, and I think it’s not impossible to increase numbers over time but currently, it feels like the university is ignoring a lot of the issues that which are causing them low satisfaction.
The University of Edinburgh has a surplus larger than all of the other universities in Scotland combined. Do you think that surplus is being invested wisely? If not, how would you lobby the university to invest it differently?
From what I can see, not so much. It just feels like they’re building a lot. In some ways this is good, I know one of the things they want to do is do up 7 Bristo Square to be a student wellbeing centre. If I am elected, I want to make sure I work very closely with the uni to make sure that as they develop a wellbeing centre they are actually doing it for student needs, and not just to be flashy. I do think in terms of buildings most of the new stuff they’re putting up is more accessible, which is really important, but it’s not just about having more space, and it does kind of reflect their values of wanting to get more students and more space. I think they could do more for the Students’ Association, groups like the Advice Place, the societies, which are really important to the student experience. The Advice Place gives completely free support for everything and they just don’t get a lot of support from elsewhere. And also expanding services like the Advice Place to other campuses. There’s one at King’s, but that one is only open certain hours through the week.
What are your opinions on the potential creation of a working-class liberation officer?
I thought that was really interesting. I don’t really have an opinion on it either way yet. In my first year, because I was an international student I was in Pollock Halls and it was weird sometimes realising that these people have had a different life to me. That doesn’t make them bad people, but it is something that Edinburgh has overlooked a lot in the past. We have a lot of representation positions for other groups that have different needs, we have parents, carers, as well as the liberation groups. I think there is probably a place for a working-class one, but you would want to talk to a large number of students before enacting it. I do think it’s something we need to think about more when we’re looking into widening participation and being more inclusive because I think it is a problem at Edinburgh Uni.
What do you think the primary concern currently facing students at the University of Edinburgh is?
Long term I think the expansion of the uni is going to affect all areas – teaching, housing, marking, support services, what the Students’ Association can do, society members. There’s just so many follow-on effects of having 2000 extra students, whether they are online, in person or part-time. I think that’s going to have a huge effect on students, it’s already having a huge effect on students. We can see that we are having less time dedicated to each individual student and that’s only going to get worse if it is not addressed.
What are your thoughts on the current UCU strike action?
For one thing, I am very behind the right to strike and the right to protest in general. Regardless of what it was, even if I totally disagreed with their points I would still support their right to strike. But I do agree with their points. I totally understand it can be hard to feel sympathy for academics (some of them are quite well off) but it’s so much more than just lecturers, and they are using this as a platform as well to talk about the wider issues beyond just pensions being cut. Teaching conditions are learning conditions, this will affect us. I totally understand it’s hard – I have a dissertation due at the end of the month – but I think it’s really important to support the teacher because in the long run it’s not just about them, it’s about us. It’s about the university as a whole and by treating not only lecturers, but all staff, like you can just take away these things and put this pressure on them, whether it’s pensions or any of the other issues they’re facing, it just has an awful follow-on effect for everyone at the university.
What are your thoughts on the university’s recent decision to divest fully from fossil fuels?
I was really happy about that. I’ve been a little bit involved with some of the campaigns on that, mostly as part of the Amnesty International Edinburgh group, so the environment is a very important issue to me, and it always has been.
What do you think sets you apart from other candidates?
The passion I have for this role, I’m so excited about the idea of taking on this role, so that is a really big thing for me. There is nothing I want more at this point that to be able to go forward with this role and make the changes that I know I can. Representing students and doing the best things for students is something that’s really important to me. Speaking from personal experience of maybe not having the best time it’s really important for me that other people make the best of university they can – it’s a huge chunk of your life that affects so much of your life and I think support and welfare for that is key.
I have a lot of experience. I’m currently on the committee of four different societies, including Sexpression, which obviously does a lot with the liberation conveners and welfare. I volunteer with the Advice Place a lot which does a lot of welfare support as well as housing support, academic support, so I know that bit really well. I currently work part-time at the Students’ Association so I have seen behind the scenes and it’s been really interesting working there and seeing what they actually do.
What do you think the hardest bit of your manifesto will be to do or achieve?
I’m torn between funding for student wellbeing – because I think historically the university has been a little difficult when you’re campaigning on getting funding to services – and enforcing personal tutor training, largely because personal tutors don’t really choose to be personal tutors. I know it’s something the Students’ Association has already been working on and there’s definitely a lot of resistance there.
Image: Isabella Neergard Petersen