Rector interview and analysis: Aamer Anwar

Published

Selena Jackson
Features Editor
Interview

Firstly, why do you believe that you would be a good fit for the role of Glasgow University Rector?
When you look at all the candidates that are standing, there are many that talk about being an “active rector” and a strong voice for the students. I think that if you look at my record, either at my time as a student activist or as a lawyer, I’m the only candidate with a track record of fighting to give a voice to the voiceless. I might not be a professor; I might not be an imminent [sic] High Court judge; and I might not have any fancy titles in front of or after my name, but what I do have is a lifetime that has been dedicated to campaigning against inequality and against injustice. If you haven’t done that in the last decade, how are you going to discover overnight how to do it? I am also conscious of the fact that, for some, it has become a matter of identity politics, or about being told by a student union who to vote for. If I was a student, I couldn’t care less if the Rector was the first Muslim, the first Asian or the first female to be elected, if that Rector never actually bothered turning up to champion for students. What I can say is that if I am elected, I can give a cast-iron guarantee that I will fight for students and that I will deliver.

What is your understanding of the role, and what would your main aims be throughout your term if you were elected?
I think the Rector needs to be a genuine voice for students. For far too long, you have seen the impact of not having a Rector as student unions are being played off against each other for budgets; you’ve seen cutbacks taking place while student debt has rocketed; personal lives of students have suffered – and the Rector needs to be a champion for all the students whose voices need to be heard, not just at the Senate level but in all forums that impact on their lives – that could be at the Scottish government or at local council level. Students make a huge contribution to this city and it’s about time that they were given a voice. That doesn’t mean just turning up at dinners and ceremonies and filling the ceremonial role, or occasionally sitting in the unions having a pint and a laugh with the students. It means being there every week, whether that is on campus, or being available on the phone or via email, and actually taking up issues that matter to students.

You mentioned the issue of struggling student unions. Do you have any ideas about how you would deal with this problem, and bring in more funding for them?
I think in the first instance, we need to stop the idea of the University playing off associations and student unions against each other, as in if they want the GUU to get more money, it comes out the QM’s budget, or out the SRC’s budget. The administration receives huge amounts of money because of students. Student unions and student societies shouldn’t be seen as an irritant, or as an extra, where every year cutbacks are needing to be made and those are the institutions that have to suffer. Clearly, there is money there, and it should be apportioned accordingly. People shouldn’t have to fight for crumbs off the table. I think the second issue is that there should be clever accounting done by the University, because there are always ways and means when you have grand projects needing to be paid for, but I was shocked when I walked into the John McIntyre building and it looks the same today as it did when I left in 1994, and I can’t see the reason for that. If you look at The Glasgow Guardian, it’s produced some of the best journalists of this generation, yet there doesn’t seem to be any changes taking place. When I came to university, I didn’t just come to hold on to pass my exams, to leave at the end with huge debt, and worry about whether I was going to get a job. I came to university to have my mind blown away, and with minds being blown away, students having the opportunities to join societies and adapt and change was seen as a positive thing for society, because it changed society for the better. In every generation, students have always been at the forefront of demanding change, whether that concerned civil liberties, human rights, the battle against war, women’s rights, fighting homophobia, students have always been there.

The current Rector, Edward Snowden, has been criticised for holding a somewhat “symbolic” position, without having effected any real changes. Would you be able to dedicate a suitable amount of time and the fortnightly surgeries that you have pledged?
I think it’s unfair to criticise Ed Snowden, because it was the students that nominated him. I think it was a symbolic position and I think it was an important vote that was taken to highlight the injustice that [he] faced amongst others. However, I don’t think a Rector can do justice to the position unless he or she takes on board the struggles that students face every day. If I’m elected, I’ve already pledged to hold fortnightly surgeries on campus and to always be available to speak to students and to the associations. For me, it’s not a symbolic position, because I think it’s a position that’s extremely powerful. It can genuinely change students’ lives for the better, but it demands a Rector that’s going to be on campus, and that is local and available. I think the real challenge for students is going to be judging which potential Rector is actually going to be meeting students, is going to be at the hustings, is going to be at student halls and is going to take time out of their busy diary – which we all have, but I know that I’m going to be taking time out, I’m going to be on campus – and if you can’t be on campus over the next two weeks, then can you really assure students that you promise to be an active Rector? I doubt that very much.

In your manifesto, you mention that you would be keen to promote rent control to avoid students being ripped off by landlords. How would you plan to implement this?
West end rent has rocketed by a minimum of 10% every year, and that increases insecurity and poverty levels. When students are having to choose between food or rent whilst studying and having to work, which is the reality for many students, that’s unacceptable. The Private Housing (Tenancies) (Scotland) Act 2016 was passed by the Scottish Parliament last year, but it hasn’t yet been implemented, so the first step would be to convince the government to give effect to that Act immediately, as there’s no reason why it should be held up. If it is then implemented, I think the role of the Rector, along with the students, would be to provide evidence to Glasgow City Council and to lobby the government to designate the west end as a pressure zone, which would control rent and reduce the levels at which rent rises can take place. It would also give additional rights to students against unscrupulous landlords who want to evict students because they want to increase their rent or sell the property on. It’s common sense that if you bring in rent control it’s going to improve equality of access to higher education, and whilst some people have said to me that it will take years to effect change, there’s no reason why it should. I cannot understand why rent should be rising at the minimum of 10% every year, when this doesn’t seem to be the case in other sectors.

You mentioned encouraging inclusivity at universities, so that it’s not a case of the wealthy elite gaining access, but tuition fees at Glasgow for non-Scottish students have recently risen. Would you be willing to lobby the government to ensure that students aren’t paying excessively to come to Scottish universities?
I am of the belief, unlike some other candidates, that there shouldn’t be tuition fees. Education is a human right, and sometimes people ask why the middle class should be allowed to attend university for free when their parents could pay for them, but why should their parents have to pay? It’s a right, and we’ve prided ourselves for a long time on our provision of free higher education, and I’m proud of the fact that Scottish students can access university, and I think it’s discriminatory that English students should have to suffer. Politicians seem to forget that students aren’t just there for 4 years to have fun and games – they actually go out into the workplace and we have many success stories and many stories that haven’t been told about the impact students have on society both when they’re in university, and most definitely when they leave, and it will be a very sad state of affairs if we go back to the days of the 1940/50s, whereby only the rich can afford to send their children to university.

How would you represent students coming from the EU and further afield, given the uncertainty of their future in the UK post-Brexit?
Brexit is going to impact on all of us. Theresa May recently spoke about “taking control of our borders”: I think that will increase hostility towards foreigners and the uncertainty of the future of EU students and their families. I think Brexit will be, as [Anton Muscatelli] said, the biggest disaster for EU university funding, and it will have a huge negative impact when you think about the £2billion of funding that comes into UK universities. Prospective students are at the bottom of the pile when it comes to standing up for their rights, and I think the Rector would hold an important position in highlighting these concerns, not just at a UK government level, but also at a Scottish government level. The second issue is that it doesn’t just impact on EU students who come to study here – we shouldn’t forget about Erasmus, which is a fantastic scheme which has benefitted 200,000 students and given them the ability to go and study abroad in Europe. That’s under threat, and that will be abolished unless we have the universities taking up those issues… [arguing that] we want those facilities to remain, because I think it’s not only about closing borders, but also about closing minds.

You have famously campaigned for the rights of underrepresented groups, including LGBTQIA+ people and ethnic minorities. What do you consider to be the biggest issues facing students from these groups, and how would you address them?
At the end of the day, students are part of society. There is a crisis in society, and it seems to me as though, in recent years, the clock has been turned back and the green light has been given to the misogynists, the racists, the Islamophobes, the homophobes to attack, and to say things that once they wouldn’t have dared to say publicly or online. Across Europe, you’ve seen mainstream political leaders engaging with ideas that were once relegated to the margins of fascism. Those issues impact all students, specifically those in vulnerable minority communities, and I think we have to do everything to rid ourselves of this poison, and that means that Glasgow University has to fight to remain diverse, and to be an inclusive place to study. That means standing up in solidarity of all students, whether they feel threatened or abused on or off campus, and I don’t think there is any other candidate standing for Rector who has spent nearly 3 decades doing just that, which is why I think students should vote for me if they come from those communities, or any students who want a Rector to fight for those rights.

The student representative council has recently received £10,000 to put towards suicide prevention training, however you say that you would want to do more in terms of improving mental health provision and funding. Can you elaborate?
£10,000 is welcome, but it’s a drop in the ocean. When you’re talking about one student taking their own life, that’s one too many. The number of students receiving mental health provision has rocketed by 50% over a period of 5 years, and it’s increased pressure on those services at Glasgow University to a breaking point. The people who are working in those services are doing an admirable job, but they need resources and funding, and mental health, like in the rest of society, is a taboo issue. Students need to know that when they are at their lowest, they don’t have to suffer on their own, or, in the worst case scenario, take their own lives. Funding is an issue, and I think the University needs to dig deeper, but I think there are other agencies that the University should be seeking to work in partnership with to increase provision and access to those services. For far too long students have suffered in silence, and I hope that will not happen if I become Rector.

Analysis

Aamer Anwar is undoubtedly one of the most qualified candidates for Rector, with a plethora of social justice campaigns under his belt, and a reputation as bolshy and outspoken. He is well-informed about the issues facing students, and his interview with The Glasgow Guardian proves he had been willing to do his research and source statistics to back up his arguments.

The crucial component of Anwar’s campaign is the promise to be an active and visible Rector for students at Glasgow University, and he is setting the stage to not disappoint, having been constantly on campus. He posits that “if you can’t be on campus over the next two weeks, then you really [can’t] assure students that you will be an active Rector”.

His manifesto is rooted in his desire to “champion mental health provision”, by looking to increase funding for psychological services on campus, which he says are currently stretched to breaking point. In his interview with The Glasgow Guardian, he contended that whilst the SRC’s recent suicide prevention training grant is certainly a step in the right direction, it is simply not enough, particularly where the lives of students are in jeopardy.

A number of candidates have proposed tackling the soaring cost of student rent, however Anwar appears to be the only one to have laid out a clear strategy detailing how he intends to do this. He condenses the issue, saying that, in conjunction with the enactment of the Private Housing (Tenancies) Scotland Act 2016, by lobbying the government and local authority it will be possible to impose a “pressure zone” upon west-end housing.

Additionally, he wants to tackle the increasingly contentious issue of student unions at Glasgow. Identifying the root cause of recent struggles within the unions as the competitive view of funding that has been cultivated between them, he vows to fight for better allocation of funds and an end to unions being forced to see student members merely as commodities.

On the topic of Brexit, Anwar emphasises the loss of research funding as a result of the UK’s departure from the EU, and the possibility that Scottish students will suffer from the potential loss of access to Erasmus+. He doesn’t go into a huge amount of detail regarding his representation of incoming students, but assures that he will fight for what is in the best interests of all students at every given opportunity. Given the uncertainty of the implications of Brexit, perhaps he can be forgiven for his somewhat ambiguous plan for this area.

All things considered, Aamer Anwar is certainly one of the strongest and most convincing candidates for the position of Glasgow University Rector. He has engaged with students far more than any other candidate so far, and his realistic pledges cover a range of important and widespread issues facing students today. The only candidate to have promised a regular on-campus surgery, it is safe to say that he will be extremely dedicated to this role were he elected, and, regardless of your personal opinion of him, you’d be hard pushed to find someone who disputes his passion.