Vice presidential candidate for Community Jo-Anna Hagen Schuller on curbing private accommodation, improving our guarantor scheme, and pet sharing.
In your manifesto you state that you want University bus and bike connections to satellite campuses to be better improved. Through what ways can this be achieved?
Ideally, there would be cheap, regular bus connections between all campuses, and not just during the day. However, this is unrealistic to promise, so a good starting point would be to revise the KB shuttle bus times so that it suits students’ timetables better. I also want to work with Lothian buses to secure cheaper and easier bus passes for students. This would benefit those who live far from their main campus, or have classes on two campuses, but also those who live centrally as it would make it easier for them to explore the nooks and crannies of this beautiful city!
Bike-wise, I would look into expanding the bike-hire scheme, as many students don’t buy bikes because they are expensive and likely to get stolen (which is another issue that needs addressing further!). Greener, safer bike roots are also needed so I would work with the local council on this.
What practical steps do you plan to take to lobby the University to curb the building of unaffordable luxury studio flats by private companies?
I would collect precise data on how expensive these studios are compared to other housing alternatives, and hopefully show how they are contributing to the housing problem and that the University is responsible for contracting them. Studio flats also increase isolationism, which the University should not be encouraging, considering that many students face mental health issues and loneliness whilst at uni.
You want to improve the university’s guarantor scheme, to make securing a flat less stressful for international or disadvantaged students. What are some of the ways in which it can be improved?
First of all, it needs to be better advertised! Many students simply don’t know that it exists, which is a shame because it could help ease the stress of securing a flat for many international students. Second, it needs to be clearer in what exactly it is offering, and needs to be there for students before they have even found a flat, not after they have gone through all the faff of securing a contract. Third, it needs to be extended to allow for more students to use it, as I am predicting that it will soon be oversubscribed, as soon as it is better advertised.
For students who would not wish to live in alternative housing like the Housing Co-op, could you please explain if you have any plans or strategies for dealing with private landlords and their exploitation of students ?
I want to work with local councillors and MSPs to fight for a rent cap in Edinburgh, along the lines of the one that was introduced in Berlin. A rent cap is a policy whereby landlords cannot put up the price of their property to more than a certain percentage of the average local rent, whenever someone new rents it out. The housing crisis in Edinburgh cannot be dealt with by the Students’ Association and University alone, and we therefore need to cooperate with local politicians, associations, and charities such as Shelter on a solution.
Of your manifesto points, which is the most important to you?
Definitely the housing point! Cats and dogs are fun, but it is the dire housing situation in Edinburgh that needs addressing. Every student needs to have a home where they are able to relax and focus on uni work and having fun, so it is essential to make the process of finding a flat (and living safely in said flat) less stressful for students, both time and money wise. My policies won’t single-handedly solve the problem, but they will definitely alleviate some of the pressure and help keep housing on the agenda as an urgent issue that there needs to be collaboration on.
What do you think will be the most difficult part of your manifesto to achieve?
I have thought my policies through, and made sure that they are all realistic and achievable. However, housing is such a complex and wide-reaching issue, so I think that I would encounter a lot of resistance or contradictory advice and responses to some of my proposals. However, this is something that I am passionate about so I am confident that I will be able to effectively get them through, in some shape or form.
What sets you apart from other candidates?
The pet-sharing scheme, for sure! I think that such an initiative, where pet-owners around Edinburgh can link up with students with dog deficits and cat cravings, can really connect students with the local community in a fun way. Students often only interact with other students, so this would be a good way to break that bubble!
Housing wise, I think that my home-sharing initiative is unique in its appeal to older students and recognising that the student body is heterogeneous age-wise. Again, it brings students out in the local community, and will hopefully give elderly people living in big empty houses the opportunity to feel less lonely. Win-win!
What are your opinions on the UCU industrial action and the Students’ Association’s decision to support it?
I am fully supportive of the strike, and think everyone in the Students’ Association should be too. I joined the picket line in front of the Dugald Stewart Building last Monday, and also attended the rally. Our lecturers, both current and future, need to know that they can retire safely, and we need to make sure that this net is not pulled out from under their feet.
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?
Yes, absolutely, to both questions! I quite literally danced and jumped at the decision to fully divest from fossil fuels, as I went to People and Planet’s celebration ceilidh. The University is still invested indirectly in the armaments industry, so I think that there is scope for it to review some of its investment portfolio.
Sustainability-wise, the University and the Students’ Association can both do a lot more to reduce food waste from catering, its food outlets, and the local areas around the different campuses. My proposal to introduce Foodsharing boxes on all campuses and in uni halls would help achieve this, as there would be a place for any left-over food to be dropped off and end up in students’ bellies, not bins. There is also too much single-use plastic floating around, so I would cooperate with the VPAS to help students and staff reduce their consumption of unnecessary packaging, both on campus and at home.
What are your opinions on the growing student population – do you feel that this is a problem for facility availability and teaching quality?
The rapidly increasing student population (almost 10,000 in five years!) has certainly put a lot of pressure on the university’s teaching facilities. I believe that the growth rate needs to slow down, but also that both material and human teaching resources need to be expanded and, for the latter especially, better taken care of. The planned revamp of the Main Library, KB, and Teviot, plus the ongoing renovation of the Old Infirmary are good first steps (although the cost of them need to be closely monitored), but we have to think further!
Image: Jo-Anna Hagen Schuller