EUSA President frustrated with government Covid-19 guidelines

The Student sat down with the Edinburgh University Students Association’s President Ellen MacRae, to discuss the toll that the pandemic is taking on the life of Edinburgh students, and what the Association is doing to defend the student community.

Do you think the current standard of teaching is adequate?

We did get a sense from students that they had been mis-sold promises.

That being said, I’ve had a seat in two very senior groups that are involved in the university’s response to the pandemic, and I genuinely believe that all of the senior leadership there didn’t feel like this was an overpromise – this was their intention.

We’ve definitely seen in some schools that this hasn’t followed through. Some students aren’t receiving anything like what they were expecting.

A number of students have zero live interaction with anyone on their course. Is this fair, and what can be done about it?

Especially during this time, that is incredibly isolating. We did collect a lot of this feedback and at the end of September we sent our open letters regarding teaching & learning and halls of residence to the university.

Fizzy, our Vice President of Education, has been recording some examples of best practice in learning. For example, there is one school where there are different tutor groups for how comfortable you are in terms of online interaction; one group will be a ‘camera on, mic on’ setting, whilst another is ‘camera off, mic on’, for instance.

Do you think it’s right that students are still paying full tuition fees for this ‘hybrid learning’ arrangement?

The university’s line is that as long as they’re delivering on the learning outcomes and people are still receiving their degree from the University of Edinburgh then there should be no change to tuition fees.

At the end of the day, it’s government that have said that Universities can open and can charge students full tuition fees for what they’ll be offering. The University of Edinburgh have delivered a lot more than other universities have – some have been solely online apart from essential teaching – and so if students are to get any financial recompense from this year, it is going to have to come from the very top.

The University of Edinburgh made national news earlier this semester, and not for good reason: Pollock Halls was dubbed “the UK’s most expensive prison”,

Do you think EUSA and the University did enough to respond to this situation properly?

With those particular news stories, it’s horrible to see students having that experience. The university has acknowledged that they were not fast enough in responding to complaints that they received. For example, we had students telling us that it took up to 12 days to fix dietary requirements for meals.

The university has admitted that they had some shortcomings during this period, but they have been very responsive in terms of our feedback, and feedback directly from students. The accommodation now has a Covid-specific email which is highly responsive, and I meet with the people from Accommodation, Catering and Events every fortnight. So in terms of support, I know they’ve improved it and I have much more confidence for the second semester, having learned from mistakes they’ve made.

What would you say to an Edinburgh student who is currently feeling isolated and lonely, and perhaps considering dropping out?

I’m sorry that this year has been affected like this! We are actively here and want to connect you to societies and peer learning support schemes. We’re currently running a ‘Coffee Buddies’ scheme at the moment, meaning two members of a society or student group can get free coffee from the Student’s Association! We’re trying to facilitate the small things that we can do. We really do realise that this year has been unlike any other, and it is hard”.

Looking back at this semester, do you have any regrets? Are there any particular lessons EUSA have learned to take forward into next semester?

At the end of September, there was a weekend when the First Minister asked students to stay home for the weekend. I was gutted. I was really upset because it all fed into the narrative of ‘students versus the rest of the community’. As if University of Edinburgh students – or any student in their city – aren’t a massive part of their community, and don’t contribute to it massively through their studies, or volunteering outside of uni, or the research they do?

It sent a message: it was the Scottish Government that said I could come to university, I’ve now travelled here, I’ve left my friends and family at home, I’ve spent money to be here, I’ve signed my lease, and now I’m being told that I’m not trusted or wanted here.

What is the financial sustainability picture looking like for EUSA? Are you looking at potential job cuts in the foreseeable future?

Our café and bar spaces are probably operating at around a 25% capacity compared to what they would in a normal year, so we’ve been really hit in that sense”.

In terms of government support that charity or hospitality spaces could apply for, we don’t qualify because we’re tied to the University.

The sector-specific guidance really doesn’t have any appreciation for how varied our hospitality spaces are. Our buildings like Teviot and Potterrow are licenced buildings, so when we had that announcement that licenced buildings had to close, we thought ‘great!’, because now we had to lose those study and social spaces that our students know and want to use, because they’re Covid compliant.

Have you had any discussions either within EUSA or with the University about an eventual return to full in-person operations?

Obviously we’re holding out for when we can finally hold those in-person events, that’s what students really want…Big Cheese! Having that in-person contact is so important and are currently working on what’s safe within Scottish Government guidelines, and the university is supporting us in that.

Image: Edinburgh University Student Association