VP Welfare candidate: Oona Miller

The Student contacted VP Welfare candidate Oona regarding her campaign and manifesto. To read Oona’s manifesto, click here.

What made you apply for this role?

Growing up as a carer for my younger sister, I’ve always had an awareness of the wellbeing of people close to me. But, over the three and a half years I’ve been here, it’s become increasingly apparent that student welfare just isn’t taken seriously enough by the University and that the Students’ Association still has so much more it can do. Almost everyone here has had to navigate the maze of overstretched wellbeing services at one point or another – whether, like me, you have regularly sought out Student Support Officers and accessed counselling for mental health problems, or you have tried your damnedest to support friends through difficult times.

The university definitely has a culture which can be isolating to marginalised students – I’m thinking, for instance, of BME students who do not get to see themselves in academia nearly often enough and working-class students who find the student community can be elitist. To add to this, of course, we’ve all seen the news stories of horrendous sexual harassment and assault which are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to student safety. Honestly, though, my turning point was a personal one, it was when my sister told me she wouldn’t be applying to the University of Edinburgh because the campus is too inaccessible for her as a wheelchair-user. That was all the prompt I needed, and seeing the differences that friends of mine have made through the Students’ Association over the years, running for VP Welfare seemed like common sense.

The role is only two years old and still has so much scope! I’m so excited to see where I can take it. It’s funny actually when I mentioned to friends a couple of months ago that I was considering it, before I could finish my sentence they’d always jump in and say, “For Welfare, right?”

What are your views on the proposed mandatory interruptions policy? Can you expand on your views on mental health provisions at the university?

Last week I attended the Stop Mandatory Interruptions organising meeting facilitated by the current VP Welfare and VP Education, Kai and Diva, where we discussed the Support for Study policy and a range of responses available to the Students’ Association and the student body. I do not think the policy is an appropriate way for the university to look out for student welfare.

I understand the thinking that has led to the policy – nobody wants to see somebody who needs support put through a disciplinary process, which is the extent of existing policy for vulnerable students. However, what that says to me is not that we should introduce a policy of mandatory interruptions in extreme cases, but should undertake a comprehensive review of the existing Support for Study policy – e.g. the extent to which senior academics, not known to the student in question, can have a say in that student’s future at the university – and increase mental health provisions for students who are studying or on interruption.

In terms of mental health provision, obviously our counselling services are underfunded – increasing that provision isn’t just about numbers, we should also consider particular student experience. This means focusing on services at King’s Buildings, (for medics especially) and Easter Bush, and diversifying our counsellors according to the needs of BME, LGBT+, women and disabled students, as well as international, parent and carer students in using the mental health services.

I also think there needs to be greater welfare awareness in general. This is why I want to comprehensively roll out mental-health first aid training to club and society committees, and give lecturers training on mental-health so that they can inform students at the start of every semester on the services (not just counselling – also student support and disability) available to them. It’s also important that students know the university is there for them in their time of need – a Getting Home Fund might not be directly tackling the student mental health crisis, but it would alleviate the unnecessary financial stressors which accompany bereavement, illness and last-minute caring responsibilities.

What do you think the most challenging point on your manifesto is and how will you overcome this?

There are two points in my manifesto which are particularly challenging for different reasons.

First, is my promise to address the needs of BME students and students from low-income backgrounds through the university’s Widening Participation strategy. My goal with this policy is to get the university to sustain attention on the first two stages of the strategy (when people from WP backgrounds are still at school and at the stage of applying to higher education) but make a concerted effort on the third stage – whilst WP students are in higher education.

The difficulty lies in how abstract this is: I was conscious that I didn’t want to dictate how this engagement would take place to the later detriment of my goals, instead prioritising what WP students tell us they need from the university. In other words, I will be focusing heavily on creating a truly sustainable dialogue between BME/low-income students and the university’s senior administration. Working with the BME Officer will be absolutely crucial to amplifying BME voices in this respect – the current BME focus groups are an excellent starting point! I’m a politics student, and my greatest interest from everything I’ve studied is the facilitation of public dialogue and decision-making, bringing democracy closer to people and their communities. That is a huge challenge, especially because it has to take place continually and constantly to stay relevant and useful.

Second, and more straightforward, is my policy on creating sexual-health drop-ins on every campus so students can access inclusive advice, support and testing. I am particularly hopeful that this policy will make accessing sexual health clinics far easier and less stressful for LGBT+ and trans & non-binary students. This is difficult simply because it is expensive and resource-intensive. But the university runs a budget surplus of over £100 million! It’ll be difficult, not impossible.

In your manifesto, you mention art for wellbeing courses. How will you facilitate this type of programme?

I’m so excited by Art-for-Wellbeing Workshops – it’s the kind of thing I really wish had been available to me. The background to this is that I believe everyone should have commitment-free ways to de-stress year-round, like the free yoga, only of course not everyone seeks out physical activity as a form of recuperation! There are already student societies offering things like life-drawing, crafting, painting classes and so on, so I would be seeking to work with them on facilitation of these workshops in a way which doesn’t discriminate against people who don’t have a creative background, and can’t necessarily commit the time or money to regular classes.

I also think this could be a great opportunity for the university community to support talent in the Edinburgh College of Art, as well as work with local Edinburgh artists. Having a background in classical music myself, and playing the violin with the Music Society throughout my time here, I am really passionate about the power of creative expression, especially for supporting wellbeing, and fully intend on Art-for-Wellbeing Workshops being the first in a range of creative workshops!

Finally, is there anything in particular about your manifesto/campaign that you want to draw students’ attention to? What is your favourite policy?

It’s so hard to choose! I wouldn’t have written any policy I didn’t care deeply about, but of course, I have a favourite and it’s the most personal one. Breaking down physical barriers for disabled students is an obvious, easy and overall inexpensive way to make a monumental change to the university community. This is particularly pertinent because Student Disability Service statistics show that mobility impairments are the only category of disability in the student population whose numbers have been falling in recent years compared to all other categories of disability. This tells me that while, admittedly slowly, we are making progress with the overall accessibility of our university and breaking down the stigma attached to declaring a disability, we are still failing students with physical access needs.

The attitude to access the university’s Estates department remains one of meeting basic legal requirements, when it should be about liberating disabled students. For instance, it is not enough to install a lift to a lecture theatre, if that lift can only be operated when security staff are on duty and disabled students are therefore shut out of evening events with societies. The consequence of this, of course, is a further lack of visibility for disabled students – and the ability to have their voices heard either by senior university officials or the rest of the student population.

Earlier this year my motion on creating Changing Places (bathroom facilities with specialised equipment and more space, necessary for people with more severe mobility requirements e.g muscle-wasting conditions, cerebral palsy, amongst others) on campus got a 100% vote in favour at Student Council, and since then we have had success getting the university to commit to building more Changing Places facilities. There is more work to be done to continue pushing the university until these facilities are available on every campus, but I think this goes to show that a radical change to the daily lives of disabled students is fully within our grasp if we are just willing to push.

 


 

The following is a transcription of Oona’s responses during the Sabbatical Candidate’s Question Time which took place on Thursday 28 February 2019.

Some answers may have been edited for clarity.

Welfare – but how well does this university actually fare when it comes to the wellbeing of its students?

I’ve been here three and a half years and I’ve seen the strain on mental health services, the exclusion of students from marginalised backgrounds, the lack of provision for students on satellite campuses.

But my breaking point was when my younger sister, a wheelchair-user, told me she can’t come to Edinburgh because she can’t get around this university.

The university isn’t there for students when they’re at their lowest.
We only get de-stress opportunities at exam time (but I haven’t felt relaxed since before I started my degree).
Students often only find mental health services and support when they reach crisis point. The most deprived students have twice as high drop-out rates as the least deprived.
BME students frequently report feeling isolated.
Transphobia is rising on campus, and just today we had an incident of antisemitism.
And students still don’t always feel safe in their own community.

I don’t think it has to be this way.

I’ve been an active campaigner during my time here already and know that by creating a Getting Home Fund, starting Art-for-Wellbeing classes and properly supporting medical students we can institute compassion.
By breaking down physical barriers to participation, making Edinburgh Welfare Aware from day 1 and actively holding the university to account on its Widening Participation strategy, we can increase accessibility.
By launching consent training, making inclusive sexual-health clinics available across campuses, and supporting the autonomous work of liberation officers – especially the new trans and non-binary officer, we can expand inclusivity.

I want this university to be compassionate, accessible, inclusive. With me as your Vice President Welfare, it can be. Thank you very much.

What do you think needs to be done to help address students mental health issues at the university?

I will deliver a three-pronged policy. On the one hand, we have to talk about early intervention, which is why I’ve got a policy about making the whole of the university community more welfare-aware. This would involve lecture shout outs at the start of the semester and making sure that people are aware at the start of term, not just when they reach crisis point, about the services that are on offer to them. It is also about mental health first aid training being available to those who sit on societies and club committees.

So that is the kind of early intervention stage.

So then the second stage where we’re talking about the actual provision of the services, physically. It’s really good that the well-being centre is going to be created by the end of the year here in George Square, but in terms of our provisions elsewhere, those are still really lacking. The mental health support that is available to medics is basically non-existent considering the stresses that the medics go under as medical students, particularly. At King’s [buildings] there’s no expansion to their services either. I was actually at principals question time at King’s [buildings] today and levelled that question at Peter Mathieson. [time called] Thirdly counselling needs to be more diverse.

How would you work with students to develop welfare campaigns?

So I’ve got two things. One of them is that the welfare campaign… a lot of it is concentrated around the community of marginalised students and specifically liberation campaigns. I am incredibly keen to preserve the absolute autonomy of those five liberation campaigns and support all of our five new liberation officers next year in the work that they are going to do, so there’s that. There’s also the current campaign that the Students’ Association is leading on the interruptions of study and the mandatory interruptions of study policy that the university has been pushing for a long time. I would absolutely sustain that opposition because I think that the current plans that the university has will be dangerous for multiple reasons, which I don’t have time to get into sadly.

The vice president welfare plays a key part in liberation work at the students association, how would you approach this in your work?

So as we’ve already emphasised, the absolutely vital autonomy of the liberation campaigns [is vital]. There are obviously several points in my manifesto which relate quite heavily to all five of the different liberation campaigns which I won’t go into necessarily, just emphasise their autonomy. But crucially one thing that I care very deeply about is the disability campaign. I have had involvement myself for mental health reasons but also my background as a carer for my younger sister has also massively influenced this. So in terms of continuing the campaigns I would be really keen to support the Disabled Students’ Officer going forward, specifically on issues of physical access around the university which as I’ve said I’ve raised with Peter Mathieson, but I’ve also been raising with Tim Thurston, who’s the Estates department accessibility officer and also Andy Shanks, who’s the Director of the Wellbeing Service.

Image: Andrew Perry

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