Interview: VP Community Georgie Harris talks sustainability and affordability

The Student sat down with Edinburgh University Students’ Association’s Vice President (VP) Community, Georgie Harris, to talk about the importance of reaching out to Edinburgh locals, getting students involved in politics and more. 

What made you run for VP Community?

This was the role I thought aligned most with my personal interests and values. This role covers housing, sustainability, local community, democracy and transport. I studied politics for my undergraduate degree and so I am really interested in the different political issues that are affecting students. Housing, I think, being the biggest thing, as it can be so expensive in Edinburgh. Community was the role that I felt that I could be most passionate about and could contribute the most to. 

What did you feel was lacking in the university that led to you running for this role as the VP Community?

University expansion is a very pressing matter. The University of Edinburgh is getting bigger every year. This means that more and more students need housing and services to accommodate this massive influx. I thought that we needed to put more pressure on the university on its answers to the increasing student body. I am also very interested in politics and voter registration —  something that I’ve noticed hadn’t previously been brought up very often within the Students’ Association. I think we should be pushing students to get more involved in registering to vote and knowing more about what their local representatives can offer to them. 

Within your manifesto, engaging with the community is one of your main objectives. How will you achieve this?

I have been meeting with a lot of local representatives. A lot of the time in Edinburgh, there seems to be this dichotomy between students versus local residents. This shouldn’t be the case as students are also residents. As students we live in Edinburgh and this city becomes ours as well. So, I’ve been really trying to push the benefits us students bring to Edinburgh [within these meetings]. Also, on the 1 November, there is going to be a Housing Surgery event at Potterrow with MPs and MSPs, allowing students to converse with their local representatives. There are also going to be people attending from the Advice Place, as well as the Living Rent service, who help students who are having issues with their landlords. 

Why is improving links with the local community important both on an individual student level and for the institution as a whole?

The University of Edinburgh is a massive part of the city of Edinburgh, and a huge employer. We need a more coherent community and engagement strategy. I think a lot of local residents who aren’t involved in the university can have quite a negative image of students —  they can see it as an institution that is encroaching on public space. Therefore, it is important to have a community that is integrated with the student body and vice versa. To ensure this, later in the year, there is an event taking place called Doors Open Day, providing an opportunity for local residents to come and have a look round different locations in the city, including the university. The whole purpose of university is that it is a public institution, providing so many opportunities, and not just of students. 

You mention that housing is a main concern of yours. How will you aim to improve the university’s role in accommodation?

Affordability is a huge issue. One of the things I have been pushing is for the university to make sure that a certain per cent of its accommodation is affordable. This is something my predecessor and then his own predecessor had been working on, where there was this University Residential Strategy. In this, there is a concrete aim to have 20 per cent of student accommodation as Band 1, the cheapest. The university cannot just offer the most expensive rooms to students. If it hadn’t been for the Students’ Association, that percentage wouldn’t exist.  

How will you aim to tackle the university’s insufficient means of accommodation in relation to the university’s increasing student population?

With more students, there must be more housing, and so the university is building more student accommodation. With this, I believe that we should strive for creating only university-owned accommodation. It shouldn’t be left to private companies to house students because they don’t have to answer to a Student Association. If the university creates more accommodation, there will be an Association who are able to hold them accountable for any potential issues that arise. 

Sustainability and improving the environment seems to be a big concern of yours- can you explain why this is?

Whilst people are a lot more aware of issues like climate change, we need to try and get more people to subscribe to being sustainable. One initiative we put in place included the KeepCups, which encourage students not to use single-use paper cups, or use so much plastic. The city-wide bike scheme also encourages students to cycle, which is both affordable and helps reduce their carbon footprint. At the moment there are 200 bikes, by December there will be 1000. 

Finally, what are you most excited for this coming year?

Well, some of my friends a couple of years ago campaigned to get George Square Lecture Theatre renamed as a tribute to Gordan Aikman. Gordon Aikman was a former sabbatical officer who was a massive campaigner. However, he was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease. He then threw himself into campaigning to fund more money into research for finding a cure for the condition. Unfortunately, he died in 2017 and this lecture theatre is honouring his legacy. On 10 October, there is going to be an event in the theatre which will explain the name change and celebrate his life. There is also going to be a special guest whose identity is to be announced. I think this will be a special day and will teach a lot of the new students about who Gordon Aikman was and what he did for a lot of people. 

Image: Edinburgh University Students’ Association

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