We sat down with Arran Byers, Student’s Association presidential candidate, to talk to him about his manifesto, a more open Students’ Association, and the ‘university bubble’.
Can you give us a brief overview of your manifesto’s key points?
Choose change. Choose Arran for President is not a huge list of promises, it’s making real tangible change to university and our everyday lives. The manifesto can be summarised in these 4 key points:
- Changing the visibility of staff so it’s more of an open-door policy and you can find your sabs more easily. One key idea I’m thinking of is ‘Sab Cycle’ which is having sabs on bicycles, going around the campus and being more visible instead of hiding behind paperwork in the office.
- The second point is about cost. It’s a huge aspect of our lives and it’s about changing the cost of our education. I think we can make tangible changes here to the rent situation. I think we can work with the council better and really change the game. New laws have come in recently but they’ve not changed enough. It’s also about changing the cost of the association itself. Glasgow Union is £2 for a pint, here it’s £2.50.
- The third point is about partnership. The university is becoming a bit of a microcosm, and I want to change that by working with the community. I want to change it by working with local businesses so they understand we are here and an asset, and working with them for discounts and events. I also want to change the university’s outlook from inward to outward, and use our surplus resources to look after the community, as well as building on the period poverty campaign. I’d like to extend that into a food bank across the whole university.
- The fourth point is about changing how the university feels for us. The university should be like a home. I don’t think that at the moment that’s necessarily the case. Our study areas are very rigid and cold, and the campus is not very well lit in places, paving stones are not well set, ramps for access are not very well labelled or marked out. It’s all these little things that make the university feel distant for us as students. I want to change that by making the university feel more like home, more of a safe space and more of a place where you can achieve your full potential.
Of those key points, which would you say is the most important to you?
I think a lot could be changed with the first point. If we take the sabbatical position, especially President, back to the people by engaging with students, engaging with the community and being more visible, we can pick up on things that are affecting the students instead of deciding what affects students. Then we can find solutions together. If your sab is there at society events and is attending things we could get more student engagement and a larger mass movement behind causes. I’d love to say, in years to come, a thousand people at student council were for this. For me, I think it’s about ensuring that the president becomes that figurehead, so students know the position is there for them.
There is a feeling around the university that there is something of a ‘university bubble’ – would you agree with that?
I would go further and say that sadly there’s a campus bubble for each campus. We’ve got not only a gulf between us and the city, but a gulf between our campuses. We can pull people together through rhetoric and making real gestures. How do we do that? With the food banks, hosting more local events, and working on ensuring that students know there are resources at each campus. The Sab Cycle idea would mean a president who goes to the campuses and says ‘If you want to disagree with me – great. I need your opinions and voices to know what I’m basing my decisions on.’ This is a long process of change but with my election this year we can hopefully begin that process of pulling things back together.
Moving on to wider issues currently affecting students, what are your opinions on the UCU industrial action? How do you feel about the Students’ Association’s decision to support it?
I’m fully for the strikes. I’ve heard other students say ‘it just seems selfish.’ No. If the staff aren’t getting a fair deal, how are we getting a fair deal? We’re all being cheated here, let’s all agree we’re on the same side. I was proud of the SA for coming out and saying they’re in favour. One thing that does worry me about the response is that it does seem to forget students. There’s a lot of students who are anxious and don’t know if they support it because they don’t really understand the issue or students who are just against it. The Students’ Association perhaps too quickly took up one side and forgot to listen to the others. My personal approach would be to support the strike but also counsel. Talk to students who have still gone into university, see why they feel this way and if we can persuade them the other way. Together, as a whole university, we could make a difference and Peter Mathieson could not sit in his office and ignore that. The din would reach him from Bristo Square.
In 2017 the University of Edinburgh’s budget surplus was £132,635,000, larger than all of the Scottish universities combined. Staff feel their pensions aren’t fair and Mathieson is being paid upwards of £400,000 a year. Do you feel our funds need to be redirected? Would you lobby to change this?
I certainly would. I spoke to the former Principal recently and asked if the students and staff should have more input in finance, and he implied they shouldn’t. But I think a lot of students out there wouldn’t say that the principal is worth £400,000. Mathieson has said that in an international market that’s what you have to pay these days. Well, that’s a pathetic excuse. £400,000 and I’ve not seen him on campus. If I had just started that job I wouldn’t be hiding away in my office at Old College sending out statements. I would be out talking to students and staff. Internally with finance, I think we need a rebalancing. We need more investment in student resources rather than ugly building sites. What about the disability service, what about the counselling service? What about all the parts of the university that are beyond breaking point? The key is saying we have a real crisis here and we need to reallocate funding. We need students and staff to tell us where the shortfalls are and make meaningful change there instead of sticking up a concrete tower. It’s not going to fix anything.
The university has just announced full divestment from fossil fuels. Are you behind this? Would it be a priority for you to make the university and the Students’ Association more sustainable?
I think it’s wonderful that we’ve finally achieved divestment. It’s been ongoing for four years now. We need to review the whole process and ask why it has taken this long. There is further to go. We’ve had motions at student council about removing plastic from our venues – a wonderful idea but I did think that motion was a bit too sweeping. It hadn’t thought about how we phase this out and what the alternative is.
One of the main things I think we can do is change our light bulbs. Lots of them are too bright, harsh, and on all the time when they need not be. What is wrong with putting in LED lights so we have environmental lighting that is far safer? I would happily work with People and Planet and other groups because I think they have got the idea of what I’m trying to do: student activism and real tangible movements that the university can’t ignore. I love the idea of working with them and harnessing their energy to pull others in and get the university to move on from 1999.
One growing concern for students is the continued expansion of the university. Do you think this is a problem? And do you think it is compromising teaching quality and the availability of resources? Would you lobby to change this?
I think we need to freeze admissions. I have come from a working class background and have had to earn my opportunities through long hours and subjective tests. I believe in opening up academia but I don’t think we should be giving people a half-arsed education. We are inviting all these people in and we cannot give them the education they deserve as we haven’t got the resources to meet them. Within five years, if the university continues admissions at this rate, we will be at 50,000 students. Bearing in mind this is a relatively small city, it needs to stop at some point. Freeze admissions and use this time to reallocate resources and build departments back up. We haven’t got the resources for the small things that to us as students make a difference every day. We deserve better.
Do you not think that freezing admissions would decrease accessibility?
If you’re from a working class background coming into a university that hasn’t got the resources to meet you, we are pulling you in only for you to trip over. I think we should freeze admissions for two years, enough to have a full systemic review and get everyone to sit around the same table and put in our facts and figures. If the university can guarantee x number of resources for x number of students coming in in two years – resume admissions. Academia is only open when we have the resources for everyone.
There’s been a proposal recently for a working class liberation officer. How do you feel about this? Do you think this is a good idea or tokenistic?
I would say tokenistic. Coming from a single parent family who was on benefits for many years – I did go to private school but it was on a bursary – I find the idea of someone saying ‘you need an officer to represent you’ bizarre because, in many ways, it just doesn’t work. How do you label students as working class or not? It seems like a wonderful idea if you want to make a statement, but I don’t see how it’s going to affect real change. Real change would be pulling all the groups with a stake in this university together and having a meaningful dialogue about admissions and the wealth divide in the university, instead of saying ‘we’ve fixed that problem because we have an officer.’
What do you think will be the most difficult part of your manifesto to achieve?
Probably making a real difference to students’ wallets. That’s going to be tough because it will require working with the council which is never easy and making the association let go of its purse strings a little. Perhaps if we put drink prices down and lower the cost of food, but get more customers in, we’ll make the money up. I imagine the board of trustees would be a little apprehensive about that, but I would encourage them to give it a go. Let’s choose a risk, let’s choose trying to change things. Because if we don’t try, things will get worse and prices will go up.
Finally, what do you think sets you apart from other candidates?
I think what sets me apart is I’m encouraging students to choose a different path, to choose a progression, to choose change. I think what sets me apart is I’m not saying vote for me because of me, I’m saying choose change for us, and I’m happy to be the figurehead of that. I encourage you – go to the voting boxes, or MyEd, and vote in numbers, in mass, in strength, for real change.
Image: Arran Byers