VP Community candidate Georgie Harris on implementing the national living wage in the Students’ Assocation, her time as a student activist, and her plans to reform housing.
In your manifesto you state that you will create a ‘flat-mate finder’ app and ‘rate-your-landlord’ website. Creating an app and a website is expensive and time consuming, and given the already substandard state of the Students’ Association website, is this manifesto goal achievable, let alone within a year?
I think it is because it’s not like at this university we don’t have staff who know how to sort out a website. I could even get students to sort out the website. I feel like the ‘rate-your-landlord’ website is achievable. Leeds University has one that the Students’ Association there created and they did it with a housing charity. It’s quite a comprehensive website – I feel like it’s definitely achievable. Obviously with the app I know there are lots of people who are App experts. It will be one of those things that even if it was not achieved during my time, it will still be underway for when the next person took over.
You want the University to build and buy more housing. How do you propose they do this without pushing out local residents and increasing local area prices?
I think the student community is not just in George Square anymore. There are people living in Leith and by Parliament – it’s expanding a lot so I feel like it wouldn’t necessarily need to be concentrated in one area and it wouldn’t push residents out. The thing is at the moment we don’t have enough university accommodation so private companies are buying up all these properties and they’re the ones driving up all these prices. I’m now in fourth year and when I was in first it was all cheaper and there were nowhere near as many private companies like Collegiate. There is so many of them now and they are the ones making rent more expensive, not the university.
You want more support for students on their year abroad. What would this support look like and how would it work?
I was a year abroad student last year and I found that when I was abroad I didn’t know who to turn to if I needed mental health support or needed to know what services were available to me. It didn’t feel like I was a proper Edinburgh student and it didn’t feel like I was a student at my Erasmus university – it felt isolating. I would want to work with the VP Welfare on this. Even something like a little welcome email pack sent out at the beginning of students’ year abroad saying ‘these are the services that are available to you’. The thing is there are lots of resources available… it’s just that students aren’t made aware of them.
By paying the national living wage for Students’ Association employees, as opposed to the national minimum wage that is currently in place, prices in EUSA venues would need to be raised make up costs. How do you plan on justifying raised prices to the student population and how will you ensure raised prices won’t deter students from purchasing from Students’ Association outlets?
I think there are a lot of students at this university who do work for EUSA and I feel like we should take them more seriously. All the students that work for EUSA would be glad to be payed the living wage. Also, there is the fact that Edinburgh is affiliated to the National Union of Students (NUS) and the NUS student workers have the living wage. Also the NUS finds deals for all universities in terms of what they can sell in their shops. So I feel like they will be very supportive of this policy and be willing to work with EUSA about how to ensure prices are not raised too much. I feel like employees should be treated in the way that they deserve. I don’t think this will prevent students from buying from us.
Of your manifesto points, which is the most important to you?
For me a big focus is housing. I think that is the thing that has shocked me the most over my time at university: how rent has increased from when I was in first year till today. Also a lot of renting laws are changing now in Scotland. There are no leases anymore, all flats when purchased are on a rolling lease but no one knows that. A big thing is ensuring that students know their rights and more affordable housing. The ‘rate-your-landlord’ website would increase the accountability of landlords. I also think it is really important that the university has a strong mandate to build more housing. The current lottery system with university flats is not big enough.
Which of your manifesto points do you believe will be the most difficult to achieve?
I think the concern that you raised about the national living wage – I can see the argument – and I would definitely not want it to stop students from buying things in EUSA shops. However, I do think if you explain it in the right way then people will understand. I also think potentially that the automatic voter registration may be tricky, through no fault of the students or EUSA, I just think that a lot of times people in positions of authority who control these things are probably benefited if students aren’t voting. It’s just a lot more convenient and a lot easier. But [automatic voter registration] is a really important thing for me and they’ve tried it at other universities, so it is possible and it can definitely get done.
What sets you apart from the other VP Community candidates?
I think I have a lot of experience in this kind of area. I’ve done a lot of campaigning in different areas over my time at university and outside university. I’ve worked with local MSPs before and local MPs so I have a firm knowledge of how to get things done. I think that for me a really important thing is year abroad support and having been on a year abroad myself, I spoke a lot about that when I was away and a lot of students reached out to me and said they’ve been through the same thing but they didn’t want to speak about it. I think that sometimes people need someone to stand up and just be honest about stuff. I think that my experience hopefully makes me be able to be representative of that certain bit of society in the university.
At a Student Council meeting this semester the Chair advised attendees to refrain from using the word ‘ridiculous’ when referring to other people’s policies or ideas. Do you support freedom of speech on campus and do you believe that the Chair’s request was reasonable?
I don’t think it’s a restriction on free speech, I think it was more to encourage people to be respectful of the debate. I think that Student Council can get quite heated. I don’t think it is a restriction on free speech to say that you shouldn’t make people uncomfortable when they are trying to speak about a point they feel strongly about. Everyone should respect each other and no one should be made to feel like they can’t speak their mind.
What are your opinions on the UCU industrial action and the Students’ Association’s decision to support it?
I am fully supportive of the strikes. I think it is really good that at last Student Council we voted to overwhelmingly to support the UCU strikes. I think it is a shame that the University has been completely withholding information about it. I am the undergraduate school rep for the School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures (LLC), and I have sent out a couple of emails to LLC students and they have been emailing me about their concerns. I’ve tried to respond as best I can but I am also a student and the university needs to be the one taking responsibility by negotiating. The University is the one who has the power to stop the strikes. Tutors and lecturers put so much effort into their work – this is what they are passionate about. It is important to remember that although we might miss a few lectures, if the pension deal goes ahead our lecturers could be losing up to 40 per cent of their pensions.
Image: Andrew Perry via Georgie Harris