Breffni is the only candidate running for President with previous SRC Executive experience, currently holding the role of VP Student Activities (VPSA). Previously a Present Student Member of the GUU, she has quite a large support base. Breffni names “activism”, “engagement” and “representation” as her main focuses.
Guardian: What ideas would you bring to the development of the new strategic plan, due to be written over the next year?
O’Connor: I had a look at the strategic plan quite recently, and there’s a lot of ideas that just aren’t carried out in it that I think are really good. There is one aspect of it that talks about engaging students online, so for example putting motions that come to Council on the website and engaging student in those is a good idea. [The strategic plan] is not just about coming up with new ideas, it’s about taking things that are already there and working with them. The whole point of the strategic plan is to ensure continuity, because there’s a changeover every year and it’s good to have this overarching aim to work towards.
In terms of new ideas, one of the things I would like to push for, something more long-term, is post-graduate representation. They’re not mentioned in the current strategic plan, and the postgraduates don’t tend to engage with the SRC unless there’s specifically something that’s a problem for them. They have this concept that the SRC is for undergraduates and that’s not the case. There’s an issue coming up about intellectual property rights – something that’s going to hugely affect postgrads if it’s implemented. We’re at a stage now where we need to raise awareness of this, but it’s difficult to engage postgrads with this when they aren’t engaged with the SRC generally.
We then need to address the various campuses – Vet School, Dentistry, Dumfries – and try to improve engagement with them. It was also really disappointing when I ran an event for home students in January and not one of them knew what the SRC was. It’s about improving our engagement, letting students know who we are and what we do, and using different initiatives. That’s another aspect of the strategic plan that can be improved. It’s going to be a long process, but it’s about what students want. It’s about getting them involved.
Guardian: What will you do to address counselling issues?
O’Connor: In terms of the counselling, that’s a money issue. That’s where the problem is, it’s a lack of resources from the University. The University should come up with an answer, but it’s up to us to vocally advocate a need to improve funding for the Counselling and Psychological Services. They recently got more funding, just before Christmas, but it’s not enough because waiting periods are still too long. It’s a long-term issue again – because of the University’s budget forecasts, it’s not something that can happen overnight.
This isn’t just an issue that VP Student Support deals with, obviously it comes under their remit, but it also needs to come from the entire student body and there needs to be a whole University approach. It’s not just the SRC – it’s the two unions and GUSA, it’s a cross-campus thing that we should be promoting. It’s not just about me going to a meeting and saying “well, I’m not happy”. It’s about us coming out and saying we’re not happy with this, on a public level.
It’s also about raising awareness. It’s quite hard to understand mental illness when you’ve never been exposed to it or you’ve never known someone to be exposed to it, so it’s all about education. We signed the ‘See Me’ pledge this year, continuing to raise awareness about the different types of mental illness that can affect people and advocating what services we can offer them. We have the Advice Centre and Nightline, but it is the Counselling Service which is hugely affected, which is why we need to push for more money.
Guardian: You’ve advocated a campaign for a “transparent review” of zero-hour contracts. What is your personal opinion on the subject?
O’Connor: I’m against zero-hour contracts and atypical contracts. However, we need to represent all students and there are some who have come forward and said they do like aspects of zero-hour contracts. I feel there needs to be a clause for staff to be able to opt out of it. I think because the national campaign is there, it should be easier to get senior management attention with this campaign and to push for it. I don’t think it’s acceptable that postgraduate tutors are marking for hours and not getting paid for it. I don’t think it’s acceptable that some staff don’t have job security and don’t get paid for six days. It’s not something they should expect. They’re here for a career. They’re here for their entire lives and some of them are still on zero-hour contracts and that’s not ok. It’s not acceptable that they’re used on such a wide basis at the University.
Guardian: The other candidates for President also have a great deal of experience within the SRC. Considering the differing nature of President and VPSA, what makes you a better candidate?
O’Connor: I believe that the experience and knowledge I’ve gained, and the relationships that I’ve built, are needed. I think that it would be unrealistic for a completely new team to go into something like Freshers’ Week because you start in July. By then, so much work has already been done for Freshers’ Week and you’ve already organised a lot of the publicity material, so for a whole new team to come in and to do that in two months is going to be very difficult. I feel that there is a lot of time lost in July because we do a lot of training, meeting people, getting to know different members, whereas I could really hit the ground running. Just because I don’t know the details of what the other executives do, we still share an office, we share a lot of emails and so much gets run by each other.
Guardian: There has been a series of strikes this year regarding staff pay, which doesn’t appear to have an end in sight. How will you deal with further proposals of industrial action?
O’Connor: As I’m aware the next strike action would be a marking boycott, which is a completely different story to rolling strikes. We only make decisions on this as a council, and I’ve been in full support of the strikes. However, a marking boycott is going to affect students in a completely different way, but we need to think about the long-term effects this will have on our staff. I understand that we’re here now, and we want our marks now, but our staff are here for a long time and it’s about their attitude and how they feel they’re valued. Right now a lot of staff, both academic and clinical, on paper are being highly undervalued for what they do, especially when our campus is reaching capacity. Everything is full and they are doing their best – so why aren’t they being sufficiently remunerated for the work they’re doing?
Guardian: Anything else to add?
O’Connor: I really believe we need to be doing more to change things. There are things going on and it’s really important to have good relationships with people, but we need to look out for students first. Senior management sometimes make decisions to do things with dollar signs in their eyes, not thinking of the ethical and moral obligations they have. Their priorities should be students. An awareness that students actually exist might be nice. We’re a strong body and we can have a lot of pull behind us to get stuff done.