The Student Interviews Theo Robertson-Bonds, EUSA Presidential Candidate

Why are you running for EUSA President?

I’m running for President because I think EUSA doesn’t stand up for all of us. EUSA for too long has been about a small number of bars of restaurants. It hasn’t done enough for societies, it hasn’t done enough for oppressed groups and it hasn’t stood up for the university enough. So I’m running to change that, and I think I’ve got the skills, passion, knowledge and experience to deliver on those pledges.

You ran for President last year and narrowly came second to Johnny Ross-Tatam. What do you think went wrong then and how have your campaign tactics changed this year?

Last year I feel we were far too light-hearted. There was some very serious stuff in the campaign that we didn’t put across well enough. The message was very populist and I don’t think it was actually fully reflective of what I think. This year I’ve been much more blunt and honest about what I think, even though some of it is not particularly fun, sexy, interesting stuff. It is stuff that really matters. Stuff like having a really bad counselling, stuff like having a personal tutor that is totally inadequate. I want to change that. I think that’s the stuff EUSA should be working on, on top of the fun stuff.

So oftentimes, it seems like EUSA candidates will make these great promises in their manifestos, and then when they get the position, they find they can’t actually realistically achieve them. How much research have you put into finding out whether your manifesto promises are viable?

Loads. I appreciate that some people have looked at my manifesto quite cynically. For all my sins, I’ve always campaigned for what I believe in with EUSA. I have a track record on that. I’ve based my manifesto on things at other unions have achieved, to improve question of life for all students.

I’ve also based it on my own experiences with EUSA. So this isn’t wild out of the ball park stuff. Even with the stuff that require some sort of intervention, like removing the counselling cap, I have a reasonable plan I think to get there. So it’s achievable stuff, it’s stuff that hasn’t been done already.

It’s stuff I think we can do within one term. I haven’t gone out there and issued, like some candidates, twenty thirty promises. I’ve given twelve. Twelve things I think I can do in twelve months. And make a lot of progress if not complete. That’s actually a big change from last year, last year I did exactly the reverse. So this year there’s a lot more honesty, a lot more clarity. And it’s stuff that students need and sabbaticals promise every year, but they never deliver.

What are your priorities?

First one is mental health, and also safety on campus. And that ties in very deeply with my liberation politics. So that involves removing the counselling cap, so students have somewhere to turn, and revamping the personal tutor system. And on top of that, after nights out end and some do go wrong, giving students a safe space to go back to, based on the safe space zone in Leith.  That’s pretty much at the top and it’s something that effects a lot of students.

More than 1 in 5 students have mental health problems. The 2015 Youth Charter Survey found that 29% of cisgender heterosexual students have mental health problems, 48% of LGBT+. So we’re not talking about a small number of students. It’s a really, really big problem, which our university just hasn’t gotten on top of. It’s the same with safety, getting students home at night. It’s stuff that students can relate to and needs to change.

You’ve said you want to students to have 20% off in all local clubs in bars. Whilst NUS do this, they work with brands to bring in huge marketing deals; what incentive can the university give?

This is different to NUS. This is really different. A lot of people think it’s the same but it’s not. Big brands. But it doesn’t happen in local clubs bars, restaurants  and local outlets. The reason why I want to introduce and the reason why I think it would be compelling is 1 it has happened on other university campuses in England, 2 because it boosts local business and if students are shopping in local business and not chains, that builds local impression of students, and 3 it’s something that can be negotiated. We have 30,000 of them at Edinburgh now. That’s immense marketing potential, that’s immense revenue scheme.

One of your manifesto promises is to work towards the living wage. “Work towards” is a bit vague.

I don’t think it’s vague. I would love to promise outright we’re going to have the living wage next year. Lots of sabbaticals have historically said that. I have a credible plan again based on my experience with EUSA, to move us in that direction. It’s based on increasing the use of EUSA premises over the summer, it’s based on student loyalty for EUSA venues. It’s based on maximising capacity. We’ll do that through loyalty schemes, and perhaps working with the university over the block run. We’ll be able to push up wages next year. Ideally over to the direction of the living wage. I think we can at least get close to that in next year, if not there.

You’ve said you’ll remove the cap on counselling at the university. The counselling service is severely oversubscribed, with over 100 referrals a week and a 15% increase on last year. Jonny Ross-Tatam has said that removing the counselling cap will increase waiting times.

We have students at the moment who are going to the counselling service, doing the wait list and then they’re being told; “no you’re not having six sessions, you’re having four.” And we’re going to make that very public over the next week. Counselling service is underfunding and it’s failing. So we need to give it the funding, so it can maintain its wait times and number of sessions. In terms of ending that cap, the policy is based on allowing counsellors to means assess students. I want counsellors to have the flexibility to talk to students to decide how long that (counselling) needs to last.

Obviously it’s a difficult one, it is the most difficult promise in my manifesto to fulfil but I’ve outlined it in quite a responsible way. I want to see an increase in sessions but I want to see also the restrictions on counsellors lifted. It’s removing that arbitrary nature from the counselling service and I think that is achieving

Could you talk about your plans for a safe zone at EUSA?

It’s based on the scheme Big Yellow Bus, which is staged by paramedics and trained specialist staff. We’d do a similar thing, likely near EUSA reception, we’d screen it off, late at night Friday Saturday Sunday, and we’d get specialists in from those groups and also some charities. And we’d ideally do this as a sort of socially responsibility project. This would be a society on this side of town, very much like the one over in Leith designed to accommodate in crisis. This is about bigger things, this is about being a responsible union for our city.

So whilst this sounds great, and something that personally affects a lot of students, there are areas where students are also at risk late at night, such as The Cowgate.

At the end of the day, this is the resource we’ve got. And actually, Teviot is really near the meadows and to be honest with you, the meadows late at night is not a safe place to be. In terms of sites EUSA can offer and in terms of how quickly I can deliver that policy, Teviot or another EUSA site is probably the best we can offer.

Could you respond to the backlash that there are only two candidates running for President, both of whom are white men?

I’m speaking here from a position of being an LGBT disabled man. I considered my nomination for this really carefully and this was inaccessible for me too. I put my nom in 1h30 before deadline closed and considered withdrawal briefly on the Friday before putting it in. So this race is terrible.

Why am I still standing on it? There hasn’t been an LGBT president for 7 years – I come from an underrepresented group that desperately needs a voice and that’s why I’m staying in it. I to what needs to change, we’re going from 4 to 5 sabbs next year, possibly. If there is a possibility of there still being 5 male sabbs next year, that is inexcusable

We need some sort of affirmative action to ensure that women and LGBT BME groups, and also disabled students are included. I can’t say on behalf of BME and women’s liberation groups what that looks like. That’s not fair. Perhaps it involves quotas. Something has to change. I come from a background and a lib group that has historically felt oppressed from this and as a candidate, I get this issue a lot. I will, if elected, try my upmost to ensure my successor is not a straight white man.

Could you talk about this year’s sabbatical team, and teams from other years, and what you think they have done well, or what needs to be improved?

The biggest win this year has been free sanitary products. Urte has done a sterling job on that and again, widening access to free contraception. Some of her scholarships and divestment work has been really good as well. Immy I know has worked tirelessly for student welfare.

In terms of what can be improved think EUSA needs to be more proud of the fact its standing on the side of students. Sabbs, sometimes, not all of them, get a bit carried away with the fact they’re running a students’ union and sit on important committees meeting important people who give them money for their pet projects.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

I’d like to talk a bit more about accessibility, if that’s okay?

I think for too long in EUSA elections there has been a culture of people writing anonymous things on the internet, saying some pretty disgusting things. And that is why we have such a small race for each position this year. There are people out there that are matriculated students that know exactly what they’re doing, they know exactly what they’re doing to mental health candidates and they need to stop.

If they want to hold candidates to account, we have a brilliant student newspaper, we have a brilliant radio station, we have EUTV as well, who are there to ask those questions and they’re there to do it fairly and without bias, if people want to do it anonymously then they have to live with the guilt. If we want a more inclusive race this year, this has to stop. It has to change.

And If I’m saying that, and I’m saying I nearly got pushed out of the race this year as someone who’s done this for a few year, I dread to think how un-diverse next year’s race will be. That needs to change.

Last year. I had homophobia daubed over my posters, I had anon messages on the internet, I had people going through my Facebook and publishing pictures of me. That’s not fair, it’s not right. And the most hurtful bit as a candidate, is it’s done by people I likely know. And that needs to stop.

Do you feel then that EUSA has failed to address this?

I actually spoke when the first blog appeared to two sabbatical officers and asked them to put out a statement on it, for the start of the campaign. Not on the blog specifically, but saying they wanted a fair, inclusive race. And from what I’ve seen, they haven’t done it yet.

 

Illustration credit: Vivian Uhlir

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