Guardian: As VP Student Support, what is the most significant thing you have achieved for students over the last year?
King: In terms of impact on students, it’s probably the behind the scenes work I’ve been doing with Counselling and Psychological Services. […] The significant changes really have been around how it’s going to allow people to book appointments, and how it’s going to allow people to first enter the system. At the moment, that is the bottleneck. It’s isn’t so much the number of counsellors on the ground, it’s the inefficiency with which they deal with appointments and their opening hours, and that kind of thing. I think that the changes that are going to be put in place, in terms of allowing students to choose when they want to turn up, having longer opening hours, will get through that waiting list faster, but also have a much more positive experience for all those students who are using that service.
Guardian: You say that the SRC has become too ‘managerial.’ What do you mean by that and what do you intend to do about it?
King: I think it’s quite a bold statement to make, and it’s certainly not something that I’ve said lightly. I think we have become managerial in the sense that, whilst we have professionalised and learnt how to work with the University, and learnt how to influence change within the University, I think we have become far too caught up in the bureaucratic process which is how the University operates. I think we spend far too much time moving through the motions of the committees, of the structures of power, but really, what we haven’t actually recognised, is that the real power in the University isn’t in these committees, isn’t in these policies, or these procedures, but is actually in the backroom politics. It’s in the sly conversations after the minutes have stopped being noted. It’s the few words said over a couple of drinks at the Principal’s lodgings. This is where people within the University actually move things forward and actually set their agendas. That is something that, while we have been concentrating on engaging with the University in their committees and structures, we are actually being shut out of quite a lot of the decision making that is happening, because we aren’t willing to rail against that committee structure because we’ve become caught up in it. I think we really need to think about how the University actually works, and actually start calling them out on those occasions when they move things through the back and sideline the SRC.
You could take for example the new campus redevelopment; in terms of the degree to which the SRC has had input into that, well you could say that we sit on Estates committee and we sit on Court, and we get to review these decisions, but when you actually look at it, it’s the been the Director of Estates and Buildings, the Principal and the Senior Vice-Principal, who have, basically, set the agenda for what they want as priorities for the new campus, and Estates committee and Court have only really had the opportunity to tidy around the edges. Now, of course, that’s senior management having contempt for governance, but it’s also the senior management actually having contempt for actual student input. They know fine well what they want already, and they’re going to build it. We have managed to change that to some degree. […] What I intend to do this year about it is to actually be much louder and much bolder and to make much more of a public statement about what we want and how we want it done, so that students are aware of what we are talking to the University about, and so that the University is aware that when we are saying these things they aren’t coming from our view in committee, but there is actually a wider student voice which is being expressed to them.
Guardian: How do you intend to engage students in the Western Infirmary redevelopment consultation process as it continues over the coming year, particularly in relation to the Learning and Teaching Hub?
King: First of all, I think that the SRC probably needs to do a lot more in terms of communicating with students, and for the first time in a long time somebody has actually set out how they want to do that, and I’ve set that out, which is to merge a few of the roles that currently exist within the SRC into one full-time position, who would be a dedicated Communications Officer. They would be a staff employee, and they would be responsible for all of the communications coming out of the SRC. That makes the job of communicating what is happening with the Western far simpler and far easier. It is a very complex process, and there is an awful lot of things going on with it, and it is, in essence, a jigsaw puzzle that the University are trying to do at the moment.
In terms of how we engage with the student voice and what students want into this building, and all the other buildings, well, there were consultations that were happening back in January for this new building, but they happened in the first and second weeks back. That was a terrible decision by the leaders of this project. They were told at the time by the SRC that this was a terrible idea, but they proceeded to do it anyway. So really, if the University is going to continue to make these terrible decisions, then the SRC needs to have its own consultation. It needs to be the one facilitating these, and it needs to be the one that is actually getting the student voice heard. That, of course, will be much easier by having a single communication vision and one person actually communicating with students. In general, if we are going to continue to see these consultations, basically, on what colour the paint on the walls is going to be, then the SRC needs have its own counter-consultations. It’s not such a radical idea: we already do it on dictionaries and a whole host of other things.
Guardian: What would be the most effective way of representing students on the ‘satellite campuses’?
King: Well, in Dumfries, we have a new School of Interdisciplinary Studies representative, so that should go some way to fixing the problems in Dumfries in terms of representation and flow of information back and forth between Glasgow and there. Singapore is a totally different one. When I came into this post, the University was delivering all the courses in Singapore. It’s now seven or eight months down the line and, actually, the agreement has totally changed. Now it’s all about joint courses in Singapore. I suspect that in the next two to three years, again, the University’s footprint in Singapore will be totally different. It’s going to change radically; it’s going to change drastically. So, I honestly don’t know what the solution is. The solution, probably, is to stop allowing the University to go out creating these campuses without consulting the SRC. They’ve already set up a campus this year in Chengdu; they’ve got one in Nankai; they’ve got one in Hong Kong; they’ve got joint agreements with New York University. They just come out with these once every couple of months, and when they do, they don’t really give any consideration to the short-term or long-term of how students are going to be represented on these campuses. This is something we are seeing in Singapore. They didn’t consider at the time how they were going to effectively represent students out there, and so now, the ground is changing beneath our feet, we’re stuck, and we can’t really do anything that effective.
Guardian: What will you do if the University tries to change the way we elect the Rector, by giving staff the right to vote in Rectorial Elections?
King: In the conversations I’ve had with senior management there doesn’t appear to be, from the University’s side at least at the moment, any real desire to change the role of the Rector all that much. I think the real risk is, perhaps, from the Scottish Government, in terms of its Governance Bill. In the past few years, what we haven’t done is as much as we need to do is national representation. We are not affiliated to the NUS, and the NUS gets to sit at all the tables when anything in terms of higher education is discussed in Scotland, but we still represent 27,000 students, which is fair chunk of university students in Scotland. When our view differs from that of the NUS, we need to make it heard. The problem is when we do agree with the NUS, we don’t make it heard, so when we disagree, the Scottish Government doesn’t recognise our voice. It doesn’t know who we are or why it’s important to listen to us. I think I want to do much more of that: much more engagement. We are very lucky to have a Cabinet Secretary who is a Glasgow graduate, and a First Minister who is a Glasgow Graduate, both of whom were involved in the SRC when they were here, and I think we are incredibly lucky in that position, and we need to exploit it and engage much more with them and really make our voice heard, even when we agree with the NUS, and even when we don’t.
Guardian: You and Cal Davies, who is also running for SRC President in this election, both have a lot of experience on the SRC. What distinguishes you from him? What makes you the better candidate?
King: I think we both have an awful lot of experience, and I think really the main difference between Cal and I is that I am presenting a radically different vision of what the SRC should be from the status quo. I don’t want us to go down the road of sitting at the table, tacitly agreeing to the whims of the University, by simply being in the room. I think we need to be much bolder and much more radical in the way that we deal with the University. I think we need to really push the envelope and challenge them a lot more than we currently do. I think it’s a difficult one because we are block funded by the University and I think that the risk of any sort of cut or freeze on that block grant could pose to our operations sometimes paralyses us and makes us think that we shouldn’t or we can’t challenge the University as much as we do, but the truth is that our job isn’t to simply tidy up policy or to improve procedures here. It’s not about improving things: our job should be about changing things. I want to present to students a radically different vision from what we’ve had in the past. I want an SRC that challenges the University on things that really matter – an activist SRC. Activist not in terms of riots or protests or anything, but an activist in terms of being bold and loud about what we want from the University, and making those cases to the University management in a way that students can actually see as going on. I think that’s the vision I have for the SRC – one which is much more active and much less about working with the University senior management and much about working against University senior management.
King’s manifesto begins with a resounding denunciation of the way in which the University behaves. He claims that the University’s consultations are hollow, as the vision for the campus redevelopment has basically been decided. In general he paints a picture of an SRC that has largely been sidelined by the University and has allowed that to happen.
This is a brave tactic. It signals that King is not concerned with pandering to the University and wants to do more than dealing with the fallout of what they decide, and will try to affect change by challenging them. It may well be time a student takes it to the University and reminds them the SRC is supposed to represent us to them, not manage us on their behalf.
What follows is as, might be expected from such a start, bold, with unusually specific and largely achievable promises.
King’s aims to increase University transparency are almost inarguable. His goal of paying the living wage through the SRC is financially achievable, convincing the University might be hard but he certainly doesn’t seem battle shy and support appears to be growing around the campus. His hopes to anonymise paid recruitment seems similarly achievable and such a move doesn’t hurt anyone, and may benefit quite a few people.
Rather than just saying communication should improve, King asserts that having a full time SRC communications officer is his favoured option ensure this. If his claim that it could save the SRC time and money is correct, it seems like a big plus for all involved.
He pledges to challenge cuts and the ban on graduating with over £5 of debt, which are basic promises but in the context of this very aggressive manifesto feels more genuine.
Testament to that aggressiveness is King’s spilling the beans on a planned Stevenson membership cost increase to £120, a 100% increase so he can announce his and GUSA’s intention to campaign against it.
His opinion on halls prices increasing automatically every year is strongly against it. This issue affects a huge percentage of students and a huge chunk of student loans is taken up by halls costs, which are increasingly significantly faster than Edinburgh.
Other positions on Equality and the Environment show a strong understanding of problems within University campuses generally.
This is a manifesto of very quick, very clear aims, promises and positions which are inarguably for the benefit of students. It should be praised for being very reader friendly and very honest. King covers a huge range of issues and makes it clear he desires to stand up to the University which is something the Guardian believes the campus needs in a SRC President.