Aamer Anwar reflects on his first year as Rector, the “ruthlessness” of the University’s senior management, and his recent rift with the SRC
Nearly one year ago I was elected on the ticket of being an active, campaigning Rector. I certainly was not the candidate of choice for the University authorities - more like their nightmare.
Since then I’ve managed to attend many graduations and University Court, have spoken to hundreds of students individually, while speaking at many meetings including the Rector’s roundtable discussions. The next stage is a rolling programme of public meetings held jointly with the SRC to reach out to students across all the campuses of Glasgow University. It is of course difficult trying to balance my life as a lawyer, Rector and single parent looking after three young children, but I am committed to fighting for the rights of students.
I remain proud of what our university has achieved over the last five centuries, having pushed the boundaries of what’s possible. Our students walk in the footsteps of giants, our alumni have shaped nations, fought in two World Wars, fought disease, fought for equality and justice, created miracles of engineering, science or works of art and literature, and much more.
“Scottish University of the Year” is quite rightly tagged everywhere, but I am saddened and angered at the callous disregard this university gives to those who are at its heart and soul. There are 26,000 students as well as 7,500 people who work here, not just as your lecturers, but the canteen staff, porters, administrators, librarians, gardeners, sports staff, cleaners, electricians and security without whom this university could never dream of flying a flag on the world stage.
Yet many of the staff I have met see little recognition, face severe financial pressures, lack of job security and feel patronised and harassed, all of which impacts on the student experience. At this point some staff have balloted for strike action over their decimation of pensions. I hope that they can rely on our students to support them in their moment of need.
At Garscube Sports Complex I have seen how our university is using the claim of enhancing the student experience to actually downgrade the facility. Many of the staff feel bullied and pulverised by a system that refuses to listen to them even when they provide evidence that student lives will be put at risk if cuts take place.
If University Senior Management can treat our lowest paid staff in such a manner, one can only imagine the contempt they hold for students. The University has lost its direction in its obsession with building a billion pound complex on the backs of students and staff.
Most students don’t give a damn because they won’t be there to see the end, but what they are angry about is the disruption to their studies. Our university borrows hundreds of millions but can’t even provide study space at peak times in the library for students in the here and now - what’s their solution?
International students tell me their horror stories of isolation and anger at segregation and treatment as cash cows. The drip drip complaints of racial discrimination continue to trickle through, which if released publicly would wreck the reputation of this University. Female students talk of sexual harassment while the University boasts of policies on paper yet can only point to a handful of cases over a decade. Mental health remains an indictment of this university’s priorities; every hour somewhere a student slips through the cracks with little or no support. In some instances, students I have met have tried to take their own lives - usually while waiting weeks and weeks for an appointment. The exploitation of Graduate Teaching Assistants, who went unpaid for months on end, was an absolute disgrace, while so many postgraduates feel they are just a cash-cow for the University.
Well, let me lay down the gauntlet. If you can spend £1bn on a building that today’s students will never benefit from, how about raising money for services that will actually give our students the quality of life they deserve. Whether it be mental health or rent increases, it’s time that Senior Management deployed the same ingenuity and ruthlessness in resolving problems as they do when making cuts.
In recent weeks there has been controversy which I suspect some at the top have revelled in, about splits between myself and the SRC, but heed my warning: don’t be too complacent. We have pledged not to fight each other, but to fight for our students.
The University has for far too long manipulated the purse strings to bully successive student bodies into submission or apathy. The QMU, GUU, GUSA and SRC are expected to compete on shoestring budgets, yet how exactly does that enhance the student experience if covert threats force our student bodies to compete, become commercial or else be shut down?
As for the University Court, it can be an intimidating experience, and controversial topics are rarely discussed. When you raise your voice, you are usually on your own. We are expected to read thousands of pages of documents, yet much of the work is controlled by powerful committees which contain Senior Management with their own agenda. The SMG love their powerpoint presentations and Orwellian Newspeak type abbreviations, but often the devil is deliberately tucked away in the detail.
I believe it is now the job of student associations, the Rector and staff to demand real transparency and accountability.
The object of this university is to equip and educate you for life, not solely for a profession. Yet sadly there are some who have taken students and staff for granted for far too long. It’s now up to us to scream from the rooftops and remind them who this University belongs to. I need your support to fulfil what I promised to do as Rector. So please, answer the emails, fill out the surveys, come to the meetings, stand for the SRC, march, be active. I repeat my words at the Fresher’s address: “You will walk in the footsteps of giants, but one day those footsteps will be yours. Make this your time, keep your dreams alive and never be afraid to raise your voice for the truth.”