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After Nicola Sturgeon’s recent talk and question and answer session at the University for Successful Women At Glasgow (SWAG), the Glasgow Guardian and Qmunicate caught up with her briefly to discuss politics, campus issues and representation of women.
Guardian: Following the Students’ Representative Council’s “Patriarchitecture” campaign, the University of Glasgow has agreed to name and rename buildings on campus after women and alumni from other marginalised groups. As it stands, the Queen Margaret Union is the only building at our University named solely after a woman. How important is it for female academics and notable alumni to be recognised in this way?
Sturgeon: Hugely important. It’s one of the things about women down the ages, even when they haven’t been allowed to study at universities with gender equality not being what it is today, women have still done great things and fantastic things, but you struggle to find the evidence of that. In George Square, the statues, apart from of Queen Victoria, have all been of men. When I became first minister, one of the things I wanted to do and still want to do, is change some of the paintings in Bute House, the first minister’s official residence, to get more notable Scottish women, but it’s very difficult to find the portraits of prominent Scottish women, so I think if the University’s looking to do that, that’s fantastic, and I hope that others would follow her example.
Guardian: You mentioned in your talk for SWAG that it is fantastic that three out of the four college heads at Glasgow University are women, however women only make up 35% of the University court, falling short of the 40% recommendation set out in the review of the Higher Education Governance in Scotland bill. You also said that you support quotas and that they’re essential to achieve a real meritocracy; should this 40% quota be compulsory?
Sturgeon: I would like to see that, not just for universities, but I made it pretty clear in what I said, without wanting to get into constitutional politics, we have a limit at the moment of what we can legislate for in the Scottish Parliament; we don’t have the power to legislate in the way we might like to but then if we get that power, we would legislate for quotas on public boards and I think that extends to other areas as well.
Not everybody agrees with me on this, and I’m sure there would be a pretty heated debate if this goes through parliament, but there’s a point where you’ve got to decide whether something’s important, and if it is important then do we really just need to take that decisive step towards it?
Guardian: What do you believe the main barriers are to 50:50 representation in university governing bodies?
Sturgeon: I guess it would be the same as in other walks of life: it’s attitudes, it’s women themselves not feeling that they’re able, for a variety of reasons, to put themselves forward to get into these positions. In my experience, lots of women do experience very overt gender discrimination, many don’t, and I don’t think I could point to an example of me having experienced that, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t lots of barriers that you face as a woman that men don’t face, and that’s about attitudes and it’s about how society is structured, and we’ve got to pick up the pace of change in all that.
Guardian: Would you call yourself a feminist?
Qmunicate: Do you think that institutions that are centuries old and built upon tradition, like this university, face a tougher battle against sexism than newer institutions?
Sturgeon: Not necessarily. In fact, I think sometimes older institutions can be better at reinventing themselves because they’ve got a confidence in their own place in the world that maybe newer institutions don’t have. Yes, there are institutional issues around all of what we’re talking about here, but it’s not the physical institutions, it’s the attitudes of the people who make up the institution who are often the barriers, so that’s what we’ve got to change. This ancient institution is a great example of fantastic strives being made towards gender equality, so no, I think it’s about determination and will rather than about the age of the institution that you’re talking about.
Guardian: The University of Glasgow recently, and rather controversially, voted for Edward Snowden as rector. However, in your Higher Education Governance bill, it seems like you want to legislate against absentee rectors. Why is this?
Sturgeon: I don’t think that’s the correct characterisation. I think what the bill is trying to do, and parliament will decide the final shape of the bill, is to make the governance of universities more transparent, to introduce a case of democracy, and to make it more effective and efficient. That’s the principle underpinning it. When I was at this University, I was part of a rectorial electoral campaign, when Pat Kane became rector of the University. Rectors before him and rectors after him have been present and absent, and students will make their own decisions. Edward Snowden was entirely a decision of the student body here. It’s not for me to say either one thing or the other about that, but also a rector has a job to do, a job to represent students, and I think that’s one of the factors that students have to take into account. But the governance bill is about those principles of effectiveness, transparency and democracy, and we’ll see what parliament thinks of it.
Qmunicate: Do you support the actions of Edward Snowden?
Sturgeon: I am a great believer in openness and transparency, and I am also a great believer of people acting responsibly. I wouldn’t choose to get too deeply into the issues about Edward Snowden. He can defend himself and speak for himself. I don’t know how active he is in terms of the debates around the University.
Guardian: In a world where the Higher Education Governance bill had been passed before Edward Snowden became rector, would he have been allowed to run?
Sturgeon: I think that would depend on the final version of the bill. I’m not being deliberately obtuse about this, it’s just legislation has to go through a parliamentary process and I’ve no doubt part of the debate around this aspect of the bill will be examples like that, and parliament will deliberate and consider the arguments around that.
Guardian: A constant topic of campus discussion is the pay conditions for university staff, with the recent UCU industrial action over pensions, and concerns over teaching staff on zero hours contracts. In light of this, is it fair that our Principal Anton Muscatelli has received a 2% pay rise, raising his total pay package to £305,000?
Sturgeon: The first thing I’m going to say is pay negotiations are obviously between the University and staff. It’s not for the government or for me as first minister to wade into the middle of proper industrial pay negotiations. But I would hope that any institution would take a responsible position around pay, particularly at senior levels of the public sector. People in the private sector have been living through a time of great pay restraint, and I think, whether it’s governments or universities or companies, they all have an obligation to be mindful of that in the decisions they’re reaching.
Guardian: Should bonuses for University Senior Management be abolished?
Sturgeon: I think that depends on context. I think people should get decent pay. I think bonuses in other contexts, banking for example, have become very discredited for obvious reasons, but these things have to be considered in the context of the pay arrangements that are in place. Overall, I would say that all institutions have got a duty to be responsible and fair in their pay arrangements, and one of my great preoccupations is people at the bottom, not just at universities, but generally people who are in low pay. We need to focus much more on lifting people out of poverty wages, because when you’ve got a situation, as we do in Scotland, where more than half of all kids living in poverty are actually living in a household where somebody is working, then something is far wrong with that.
Guardian: Aside from the consequences of strikes and marking boycotts, how do you think this affects students, for example, in their view of how the University is run?
Sturgeon: Nobody wants to see strikes and marking boycotts, that’s not good for students by any stretch of the imagination, and I know a lot of students would be supportive of their lecturers in these situations, but it’s not good. I’m not going to get drawn into issues that are rightly for the University to deal with, but I would always want to see universities and other institutions manage these things in a way that avoids that kind of action, which is never good for students.
Guardian: The UK government is soon to roll out its new counter-terrorism bill. Now, this implies, amongst other things, that university staff could be expected to monitor students, especially those of Muslim origin. How do you respond to this bill?
Sturgeon: It’s not an area where we have responsibility, but we have been discussing with the UK government the details of the counter-terrorism bill, and the bill provides for guidance to be produced to deal with how the duties in the bill will operate in practice, and one of the things that we have been pressing, and I think have pressed quite successfully to the UK government, is that the guidance for Scotland, and for public bodies or universities in Scotland, should be pretty much written by the Scottish government so we can make sure it is fit for purpose and takes account of the particular circumstances in Scottish institutions.
There is always a sensitive and difficult balance to be struck. I represent a constituency in the Southside of the city, with a very large Muslim population, and I’m generalising here because not every person in any community is perfect, but a lovelier community, more committed to Scotland, more committed to peace and harmony, you would struggle to find. Muslims are not responsible for terrorism, and it’s important that nothing we do gives the impression that they are. But governments have got a duty to keep their populations as safe as possible, so there is always a balance to be struck. We’re more likely to get those right, I think, in terms of how this act operates in Scotland, if we are very centrally involved in translating it into practice. We are very keen and we are talking to the bodies, universities included, that will be covered by these duties to make sure that we get that right.
Guardian: Surely there is an ethical problem here – that academics might have to monitor students of Muslim origin. Do you think that has connotations?
Sturgeon: I think the way you’re describing it here, I think we’ve got to be careful.
Guardian: The National Union of Students (NUS) raised concerns about this.
Sturgeon: We’ve all got concerns about some of this, but we’ve also got a duty, and I’ve got a duty, to make sure that as far as we are able to, that this operates properly in Scotland. We need to make sure it operates in a way that doesn’t seem to be overbearing, or doing things that people rightly wouldn’t think were right. But already we have all of our public bodies operate in a way to try to make sure that we are challenging any behaviour that may increase the possibility of terrorism, or people being drawn to that, and this is putting that on a statutory footing. Now, as I say, how that translates into practice is very important, and that’s why we’re taking such a close interest in making sure that it doesn’t result in the sort of characterisation that you’ve used there, but it’s something that universities, and the other institutions it applies to, can use positively to make sure that communities continue to integrate well in Scotland.
Guardian: During the referendum, the voting age was lowered to 16 and 17 year olds. Why do you think it’s important this also happens for general elections?
Sturgeon: I think it should happen. It’s not going to happen for the general election in May because the UK government are not going to do it; it will happen for the Scottish election next year. I take a pretty simple view of this: I’m not advocating it but at 16 you can get married, you can have kids. You can’t fight on the frontline but if you can join up and register to be in the army, then you should be able to vote for who governs your country. Now, if you think 16 is too young, then the only logical position is to say, well all of that should be raised to 18 and that’s not a view I take. If you can be a mother or a father at 16, you should certainly be able to vote for the governance of the country. So it’s an issue of principle I think, and those who said, and there were many people who said in advance of the referendum, “That’s rubbish, 16 and 17 year olds don’t know enough to vote. They’re not interested enough in politics,” well a) I could point you to 50 and 60 year olds who, you might say, don’t take enough interest, don’t know enough to vote; you get people like that in all age groups. Secondly, I think the referendum experience proved all of that wrong. 16 and 17 year olds were hugely engaged, hugely well-informed, and actually I think them having the right to vote was one of the big success stories of the referendum.
Guardian: No coincidence, then, that the majority of them voted yes?
Sturgeon: Well strangely, when we first extended the vote to 16 and 17 year olds all the polls were showing the opposite, if you remember. I remember all the headlines: “Ha Ha Ha the SNP have extended the vote and now they’re all going to vote no!” And, if you remember some of the early school ballots, I know it’s not 16 and 17 year olds, but the referendum that was held here, all of them indicated that 16 and 17 year olds were not likely to vote yes. Many of them did because of the power of the arguments of the Yes campaign, who won them over.
Qmunicate: Do you think that the interest in politics amongst young people, post-referendum, is a permanent change?
Sturgeon: I really hope so, certainly from talking to a lot of young folk, it feels as if something has changed permanently. The young people who have been through the experience of the referendum are going to have a deeper understanding and knowledge of politics because of that. I think the good thing is, when I talk about young people being more interested, I’m not just talking about 16 or 17 year olds who had the chance to vote, or college and university students. The number of primary school kids that seem to have taken a real interest in the referendum is astonishing, so I think there’s every reason to be quite confident that it’s changed something pretty fundamentally.
Qmunicate: Do you think we have a duty to educate young people in politics, especially if the SNP want to lower the voting age to 16, do you think it should be introduced into the curriculum?
Sturgeon: I think we should educate young people about citizenship. ‘Curriculum for Excellence’, which is a new school curriculum, has all of this as part of it: about citizenship, about politics, about government. What schools should never do is convince people to vote one way or the other, but equipping young people to make that decision for themselves is a very important part of what young people should learn about in school. I think by and large schools did a great job in the referendum in engaging young people and in enabling young people to come to their own conclusions. I think there’s a lot there that can be learned from.
Qmunicate: How do you plan on keeping them engaged?
Sturgeon: I think just trying to make politics relevant. The thing about the referendum was why did people get interested and excited and enthused about the referendum? For a lot of people, the first time maybe, they voted because they saw a point to voting, and they saw that their vote could change something, and that change was actually important.
So it’s about making people continue to see that politics is important and politicians making sure it is important to people. And if we do that then, I think, we won’t have any difficulty in keeping people enthused. But I suppose the biggest lesson for me is that it wasn’t politicians who made people interested in the referendum, it was people themselves who got interested and that’s what we need to make sure continues to be the case.