Interview: Students’ Association Vice President Welfare candidate Kai O’Doherty

The Student sat down with current VP Activites and Services Kai O’Doherty to discuss developing a university sexual violence policy, championing diversity, and why they are running for VP Welfare this year.

Which of your manifesto points is most important to you?

Close to my heart would definitely be better mental health support, so that could be around counselling, but also looking at peer support, which is something I’ve worked on in the past, and looking at getting personal tutors to have mandatory mental health training, which has been a problem for years. So mental health support – based on being a student but also battling my own mental health issues – and then combating sexual violence and harassment has been a huge part of my activist work over the last six years or so and looking at that in terms of policy. So actually having a sexual violence policy here – which the university doesn’t have and is incredibly behind in terms of not having – but also looking at how we approach consent campaigns and training to make it more survivor-focussed and actually supporting people who are survivors here. I guess the  last main point would be around making the university more welcoming for people, a lot of my background being liberation-style things, so being LGBT+ officer last year working on trans issues, but also an international student.

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

I made the speech at student council proposing this motion because it’s very close to my heart and the whole team is fully behind it. It’s the motion that has passed with the most attendance at student council and by one of the highest margins, so clearly students are fully behind it. But it’s crucial that the staff that we have now, and will be here once we’ve gone, get the pay that they deserve and that we are invested in the future of education, the future of the people that are teaching us and that students stand in solidarity with them.

Last year the University of Edinburgh’s surplus was larger than all of the other Scottish universities combined – do you think that money is being wisely invested? And if not, how would you lobby to change what is done with that money?

I think that with this rapid expansion and this surplus there needs to be a slowdown of expansion but also an investment of that surplus into the services that people need and the staff that we need. If the university wants to keep students on side, which the sabbatical officers should hold them account to, then that money needs to be invested in support services and actually building the infrastructure we need to have this many students. There is no need for the university to have that much surplus unless they actually have full 100 per cent student satisfaction, which is not the case.

The university say they have invested an additional £140,000 in the counselling service in the last two years. Do you think they should be investing more in that, and how particularly should that money should be being spent?

Counselling waiting times are just ridiculous, and that’s not unique to this university, but it doesn’t mean it can’t be solved. I don’t think it’s just about throwing some more money at the counselling service, although it definitely involves throwing some more money. What we’ve heard from the counselling service, because we’ve met with them, we’ve lobbied them on this point, is that what they need is more space, and more staff not just more money, because they don’t have the time and space to actually compensate for students’ needs. That’s why when the well being centre was being discussed at 7 Bristo Square we successfully pushed for there to be nine more counselling rooms than were originally planned for, understanding that space was kind of the biggest issue.

The university recently announced their intentions to divest from fossil fuels entirely in the next three years. What are your thoughts on that and what do you think the university could be doing to make themselves more sustainable?

I’m incredibly excited about the decision: I think it’s testimony to how much student activism really makes a difference, and how different forms of activism over the years have led to this decision. I think we should really continue to push the university to reinvest into more sustainable solutions, and large-scale solutions, whether that be greener energy, or funding community projects, and understanding sustainability in a more holistic way. In terms of how the university can be more sustainable, I mean some of my projects this year have been looking at food waste reduction. For example, we’ve secured funding to hire an intern to look into our commercial services’ food waste and then translate that to the university. Also looking at reusable cups, so looking at how much disposable cup waste is an incredible issue. I put a proposal together for how both us and the university can kind of incentivise the use of reusable cups, and that seems small scale but really waste is a huge issue.

Why are you opting to shift from activities and services to welfare this year?

Welfare has always been incredibly close to my heart, as the LGBT+ officer last year but also at my undergrad university McGill I did a lot of work on sexual assault survivors’ support and policy advocacy. I have a history of writing and giving trainings to new first year students on areas of sexuality, gender, consent, race and colonialism, and obviously this strike work, really showing how intersectional these issues are, from those liberation groups but also labour unions. It’s always been where my heart has been. I think I went for the activities and services role because I wanted to try something new and really push myself, but in seeing what access the welfare role has to making better change, I think I could do a great job. Seeing those opportunities and seeing how it matches up with my experience makes me confidence that I can really make a big change in a year. This is the first year that a sabbatical has ever been able to run for a second year, and it’s an incredible difference how much I will be able to be so much more effective, because I won’t have to spend the first three months learning the ropes and learning how the organisation works, and I can get straight to my job advocating for students, in a way that I think was never possible before. This job is so incredibly exhausting that I don’t think I could do it for another year unless I was completely emotionally invested in what I was fighting for and that’s very much true for what I’ve written in my manifesto.

Is there anything from the past year that you wanted to achieve that you haven’t been able to?

Yeah, I mean I think I’ve done some work on trans issues as a trans student myself, just recognising how small things like having more gender neutral toilets or changing bureaucratic structures can make a big difference. I have chipped away at that and have done a toilet audit across the university to see what toilets we could convert to become gender neutral toilets, and that’s a slow-moving project, but I think there is so much more that I could do. Being the first – that we know of – trans sabbatical officer here and possibly the last for a while, another reason I want to be in the welfare position is to keep pushing that.

So there’s nothing in particular that you feel that you wanted to achieve from activities and services that you won’t be able to do, even from the welfare position?

It’s hard because so many things are so nebulous. I want our commercial service to be a lot more green, both in terms of being more sustainable but also in terms of having more options for vegetarians, vegans, and people who want healthy options. I think that is a long-term struggle, and a thing we’ll have to work on. And that the Students’ Association is working on, but that’s not going to be complete by the time I leave.

Is there anything that Esther did this year that you would be interested in continuing?

Esther has set a lot of the groundwork around investigating the current complaints process for sexual violence and harassment and seeing where those issues are and consulting with students on that. All of that would go into what my push for a sexual violence policy would look like, and I also think that she’s done a lot of work with the women’s officer Kathryn on the consent campaign and ‘no-one asks for it’, and getting feedback on what that looks like and next year we’ll really be bringing that all together.

Is there anything that she’s done that you would do differently?

I think that Esther has done a really great job and I think I’ll build on what she’s done to expand the consultation to more students in terms of what they want to see for mental health peer support, sexual violence policy and harassment issues and campaigning. I think just reaching out to more students and supporting the liberation officers more would be what I would do differently.

What do you think would be the hardest of your manifesto pledges to achieve? Do you think that having been a sabbatical officer already means that you will be more realistic in your manifesto promises?

Yeah I think so, when you asked before about what I wanted to achieve this year that I didn’t achieve, I thought of my thirty point manifesto from when I ran, because you really think everything is possible. But then you realise that you are human and you only have so much time, and that there are some things which have already been done or just aren’t possible. I think my manifesto is a bit more realistic, which could be my downfall, but I also don’t want to promise things that I know can’t happen. I have been ambitious, and I have been hopeful – so I definitely haven’t resigned myself to anything easy – but I think what I have written down is possible. It took three years for me and a group of students at McGill to pass a sexual violence policy – we wrote it ourselves, advocated for it and passed it. So doing that in one year will be tough, but Durham did it in two and I think we can do it in one, and I think the knowledge and skills I have will make it possible.

What do you think that proposals to stop or minimise expansion mean for students from less well-off backgrounds?

I think there’s a misconception that reducing expansion means keeping the same proportions of types of students – which I don’t think is true, and not what we would advocate for as a team either. So fewer students, or the same number of students, but diversifying what that body looks like. Definitely having more widening participations students, and providing the support that they need while they are here, not just getting them in, which is something I’ve been working on in terms of society participation. I think it’s really just not an either or situation, we can reduce expansion whilst also recognising that we have been traditionally a very privileged institution, and we really don’t need to be and shouldn’t be as much anymore.

Do you have any thoughts on how the university should go about increasing diversity within the student body?

I think the battle between tokenisation and representation is always really tricky and I don’t pretend to have the answers, but I think it’s a question we need to always ask ourselves. There’s no use us asking for people from widening participation backgrounds or BME students or LGBT+ students to just come here to show that the university is more representative, so I think what needs to happen is this point of when people are here how do we support them? If it’s for BME students, we need to push for diversifying the curriculum, for having support groups and funding to better make the space visible and useful for people who have not traditionally been represented. I think it’s more than just getting people in the door and I think it’s up to the Students’ association especially to push for that community building while folks are here.

Is there anything more you’d like to add?

Just to say that it would be really powerful to have a trans and queer postgraduate student in this role. It is a new role and I think those identities and experiences mean I can bring a lot to it. I’d be really excited to translate the passion that I have for activism and policy making and community building to actually spending a whole year dedicating my life and soul once again to working to make Edinburgh a more caring place for people.

 

Image: Chris Belous

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