Jess McGrellis is the current SRC V-P Student Support. Prior to her year as a sabbatical officer she was President of Glasgow University Lesbian, Gay,Bisexusal and Transgender Student’s Association. Oliver Milne spoke to the Presidential candidate, who is standing unopposed.
Guardian: You’ve listed amongst your achievements the University debt policy, begun under your predecessor, what positive changes has this brought about to students at Glasgow?
McGrellis: The changes to the debt policy have been crucial. When registration opens (usually around August) most students won’t have received any student funding for months and therefore it’s not surprising that some students may be saddled with a bit of debt they can’t repay until after they receive their September funding. We are not talking about students with huge amounts of debt, this is for students who have debt up to £250 which they can’t repay just yet. If you are a student in a competitive course and enrolment opens on the 1st of August, by the time you are able to register you have lost the opportunity to take the courses you want to take. No student should be disadvantaged like that because they have found themselves in financial hardship. This has been particularly crucial this year as the university financial team (or maybe it’s a mycampus screw up – I don’t think even they know who’s responsible) have continued to accuse students of having debt that they don’t have. The examples of this are significant. It’s bad enough not being able to enrol on your courses when you actually are stranded with debt that you can’t pay, even worse when you’re being accused of having debt that you don’t actually have.
Guardian: Your manifesto described this welfare week as the ‘most successful and engaging in recent history’ what barometers were used to measure its success or does that just sound good in a manifesto? Do you feel its eventual success was harmed in anyway by the initial controversy over ‘positivity week’?
McGrellis: Compared to previous years, the events we had during Welfare Week 2012 were very well turned out. The events also got positive responses in the feedback forms. It’s difficult to know the effect the initial naming of Positivity Week had on Welfare Week. The publicity helped to raise awareness of the week, not just to those who disagreed with the concept of Positivity Week but also to those who were interested in the concept. It also allowed me to work directly with a number of students who had disagreed with Positivity Week and help promote the kinds of events they wanted to see instead.
Guardian: Changes to Border regulations have caused chaos within the University. Guardian has heard from countless students about stress it has caused them. Have you or the SRC done enough? What concretely will you seek to do as President?
McGrellis: The SRC are facilitating a number of focus groups coming up in the middle of March with Tier 4 students. I’m going to shamelessly use this as an opportunity to promote these focus groups, please come along if you’re a Tier 4 student who has anything to feedback about this issue (information will be published on the SRC Facebook soon so stay tuned). We need to know more about what students want before we take action. The current situation is that there is not a unified approach to this across colleges and I suspect that the method for student check-ins used in certain colleges is better than others, but we need to hear this from the students before I take it to the university UKBA project group. I’m happy to answer any questions or hear any feedback about this via email.
As President, I will ensure that this situation is continued to be monitored, working directly with the VP Student Support in their role on the university project group. Furthermore I will continue to watch the national situation with regards to changes in UKBA. Momentum is building as displeasure towards UKBA continues to grow. This is not something that Glasgow University can do on its own and we need that national momentum to continue to grow in order for us to take further action which I would do if the opportunity arose. Whether in the form of a protest, petition or however it may present.
Guardian: You’ve mentioned the Rector election in your manifesto. What is your perception on the current rector? Would you agree with this anonymous assessment made by a senior member of University staff: “Charles is at best a part time rector, at worst he is negligent and a hindrance to good governance”
McGrellis: I feel uncomfortable answering this question when my understanding is that Charles is currently in the midst of difficult personal circumstances. Having said this, it’s really important that we have a rector that is present on campus and therefore I will encourage a number of candidates to stand in the upcoming election so that our students have a good choice for rector.
Guardian: You also talk about the website and communication in your manifesto. This is basically an SRC election trope, mentioned by every candidate in nearly every election. Why are you the candidate who can finally make a difference to what is clearly a problem area?
McGrellis: The process of implementing a new website has already begun so it’s not a case of this being something that won’t be delivered. What I need to do is oversee this process and make sure we end up with a tool that allows us to communicate in ways we can’t on our current, very old website such as embedding videos and sound that will give us another method of communication.
Guardian: You talk about the Glasgow Students forum and representation at a national level. The last NUS referendum was held in 2006. Is it time for another? Do you believe we should be a member of the NUS? If not, why not?
McGrellis: While seven years is a long time it’s worth remembering that in the last NUS referendum the results were 93.9% against membership. While I am not against the idea of another referendum to confirm the student opinion, I don’t think having this referendum in a year which already has a rector election is a good idea. It would be better to have it in a year where more resources and time can be put into making sure that a real debate on this matter can be had. I think it’s important that an SRC President remain neutral on the matter of NUS membership, to be able to facilitate debate on an unbiased platform.
Guardian: Should the SRC introduce active liberation caucuses on Campus for each of the welfare groups as is done at EUSA?
McGrellis: This is certainly not something I would be opposed to. I guess the question is whether we actually need it. We already have an active LGBT Society and a Feminist Society who already perform the work that liberation caucuses would. We have a Mature Students’ Association who represent the needs of their members and a large number of faith based societies who do the same. Our Welfare Officers already liaise closely with these groups and that is a really crucial part of their job which I think could be encouraged further. I think we could build on this structure and these relationships without duplicating something that already exists just in a different form.
Guardian: Why, in your assessment, has this election attracted such low interest with 72% of the positions either unfilled or uncontested? Is the SRC experiencing a crisis of legitimacy with the student body? How as president would try to improve democratic engagement?
McGrellis: I don’t think it’s got anything to do with the SRC experiencing any crisis of legitimacy. Bear in mind only 5 months ago the SRC had its highest ever turnout for an Autumn election, with a large amount of candidates! This Spring we had a number of students express interest in running and then decide not to for various different reasons. The interest is definitely there we just need to encourage students to take that last step and hand in their forms. I’ve met a number of people who’ve said they didn’t run for certain positions because they thought they were too inexperienced. Therefore I want to make sure that we are being encouraging to remove this self doubt from students that would be very capable in a position on the SRC. It’s also important that we are reiterating that the executive are there to support anybody that gets on Council and there is training to build on your abilities.After controversial years since 2009 with cuts, an occupation and the resignation of Stuart Ritchie it’s no surprise we are having a quieter year. I am confident that we’ll fill a lot more positions in the Autumn after a big promotional push to encourage students to run.
Guardian: Do you think running unopposed will hurt your legitimacy in the coming year?
McGrellis: I ran because I’m passionate about this role, representing students and because I believe I’m suited to this position. My strong record over the past year shows how ready I am for the role. I am disappointed others didn’t decide to put their hat into the ring, however on the election days I will still campaign and try to chat with as many students as possible. I hope in future we will go back to the heavily contested Presidential elections as we have seen in the past few years, and I’ll do my best to encourage as many people as possible to run.