Your rector nominees interviewed

Credit: Katrina Williams

Tara Gandhi, Bethany Woodhead, Andrew Quinn, Jordan Hunter & Sam Doak
Editors-in-Chief, Deputy Editor, Deputy News Editor & Investigations Editor

This month, The Glasgow Guardian interviewed all five rector nominees to find out where they stand on campus issues, and a little more about their manifesto pledges.

Rector Hustings will take place on Tuesday 17 March at 6pm in Bute Hall, giving you a chance to speak directly to the candidates and ask questions. Voting opens online at 9am on 23 March and will close at 6pm on 24 March. All students registered at the University of Glasgow are eligible to vote.

Only five universities in the world have an elected rector. These are the four ancient Scottish universities (Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow and St Andrew’s) and the University of Dundee.

The rector represents the students in University court and brings student concerns to the University management. This is a pivotal role, as they have a fair amount of influence in the University’s decision-making process. It is important, then, that the students pick someone with their best interests at heart. They are expected to work closely with the Student Representative Council.

The role is unpaid; the University may cover reasonable travel and accommodation expenses but, barring this, the rector receives no salary for the position.

The successful candidate will take the position on 31 March 2020, holding it for three years.

All of the candidates’ manifesto can be found at tinyurl.com/uofgrector.

Junaid Ashraf is a 2019 graduate from the University of Glasgow and has been a councillor for Cumbernauld since 2017, focusing on equalities campaigns and youth issues. His manifesto discusses four key points: increasing mental health support, advocating for action on the climate emergency, championing equalities on campus, and supporting international students.

Graham Campbell is an SNP councillor for Springburn/Robroyston. He has worked on BAME issues for a number of years, being directly involved in the recent reparations scheme at the University. He prides himself on his intersectional eco-socialist politics, with his manifesto on reparative justice and the climate crisis, amongst a number of other issues.

Elaine Gallagher is a poet and activist who grew up in Greenock. She has a degree in Applied Physics from Strathclyde, a masters in Space Engineering from Cranfield, and a MSc in Environmental Management with Waste Management fom UWS. She has also been involved with the Green Party for a number of years, standing as their MP in the 2019 elections for Glasgow Central. Her manifesto focuses on the climate emergency, building a strong relationship with students, and ensuring equalities on campus.

John Nicolson is a Glasgow-born journalist and SNP MP for Orchil and South Perthshire. He is a University of Glasgow alumni, having graduated with an MA in English Literature and Politics before moving to the United States to complete a postgraduate degree at Harvard. While at the University he sat on SRC council and was part of the GUU Debates team. He was the first BBC presenter to come out as a gay man. His manifesto focuses on welfare and support services, cross-campus relations, sustainability and divestment, and being a voice for students.

The Honorable Lady Rita Rae is soon to retire as one of Scotland’s senior judges. In 2019, the University awarded her an Honorary Doctorate of Laws in recognition of her career and contribution to the legal world. Her manifesto focuses on widening gender participation and gender equalities, student safety, internationalism, and opportunities. As Lady Rae is still an active member of the judiciary, she is not campaigning and as a result could only be interviewed on a limited range of things.

Why do you believe that you would be a good fit for the role of Glasgow University Rector?

Junaid: Being a recent graduate of the University, I believe my manifesto reflects a lot on what the students are asking University management to make changes on. First and foremost, the mental health provisions at this University quite frankly aren’t adequate. Secondly, we’ve announced the climate emergency, and I don’t believe that we’ve been dealing with the emergency with the level of urgency it requires. Thirdly, I’ve been working in equalities for the past 10 years and I believe that almost every protected characteristic isn’t being adequately supported here. Lastly, we’re going through a constitutional crisis with Brexit and I don’t feel as if there’s been enough clarity for university students. But as to why I would be the best person to implement these changes – I have the time capacity for these roles.

Graham: I’ve got a track record of working with the University on a really sensitive issue that required progress, which has really grown arms and legs, having success in making the University do something; not just radical change in the University, but actually changing it internationally. I’ve got radical principles. I’ve got the status and experience of being a campaigning activist for decades. I’ve been to this University myself, so I understand some of the issues that are going on here. Some of the things that are coming up in this campaign are similar to things that were happening when I was here myself.

Elaine: I have experience of everything students are going through. I’m not wealthy, I’m unemployed, I know recently what it’s like to be a student, I’m a good listener and I’m passionate about acting for welfare. [The university is] being run for profit. I’m not sure whose profit, but it’s not being run for the sake of the students. I’m not sure how much power the rector has to actually change that, but the management of the University are not listening to the students, and are not running the University for the sake of the students.They are running it for the sake of the financiers and the students need a voice. They need someone who is not in the pocket of the financiers, like most of the SNP and other kinds of posh people who run for rector.

John: I have been associated with Glasgow University for a long time and I have a very clear understanding from my student days onwards of what a rector who represents all the students should be. What students, I think, need is a working rector who will represent them, who loves the University and who also understands the needs of the students, because being rector is an enormously powerful position if it is used for the benefit of students. You need a rector who’ll turn up, who will reflect students’ wishes, and who will use the muscle that the rectorship gives for the benefit of the students, because the rectorship is a powerful tool for students and it’s not always used for the students’ best interests.

Rita: I was approached by students and asked if I would agree to the nomination. I tried to put them off, it didn’t work, and I accepted the nomination. I felt quite honoured to be asked by students and that was really the reason I accepted the nomination. I’ve been involved in mentoring students since I became involved in what was then called Glasgow Legal 40 and is now the Glasgow Legal Network, where professionals were brought into the law department to mentor individual students and to assist them in any way.

What is your understanding of the role, and what would your main aims be throughout your term, if you were elected?

JA: As rector, you’re sitting on a board with the heads of all the schools; you’re able to put what you want to put on the agenda. I want to completely change up and overhaul the mental health provision at this university, to advocate on the climate emergency, which is what students want to see, and support equalities. And to also support international students through this Brexit crisis. I believe the most critical part here is the infrastructure of the University. This is not a branding exercise, which I’ve felt is how the University acts regarding some things, for example the climate emergency. You have a significant amount of money, resources, and influence in the West End of Glasgow to be able to do some great things here, and I believe that the University management need to realign their thinking, in terms of when you’re acting in the best interest of the students – it’s not a branding exercise every single time. We need to be able to make sure that the welfare of our students is at the heart of our decisions.

GC: Rector has some influence in chairing those meetings to set what the court’s policy is. If the court decides that its policy will be not to invest in arms, if the court decides that it will have a proper strategy around mental health, if it decides that it will have a net zero carbon target by X date, it can decide that, and that will happen. The rector has real authority. If someone with the right principles does that, then that will help. It doesn’t mean that the majority around the table will feel the same way. I’ve got a track record of reporting back, being answerable to the public. I have a track record of helping to organise locally around the issues people care about and feeding back information. There’s a need for transparency and constant communication. Students and staff need to be kept informed about what’s going on and I don’t feel that happens just now.

EG: My understanding of the role is that I am the trustee and member of the court whose responsibility is to be the voice of the students. To me it’s the parent of all charity trusteeships and the institution has 10,000 people or more that I’m responsible for making sure are represented at the highest management of the University. What I plan for the University, I have my whole manifesto of course and the plans are set out in that, but it’s all underpinned by action for students and action for the welfare of students, and the action for equality. And yet action for the climate and action for students are things like supporting the new estrangement programme, for the likes of LGBTQ+ students, international students, or any student who, for whatever reason – finance, class, family problems – does not have the support that anyone who’s just leaving school and family takes for granted.

JN: Minorities, inclusion, anti-discrimination and mental health are things that I am passionate about. But, I think in any campaign, the most important thing you can do is listen. I think there’s still a lot to be achieved for minorities. When I was in the SRC (Student Representative Council), I set up the sexual harassment committee – there never had been such a committee and I set that up so that students would have a place where they could go and speak anonymously about their experiences and we could then pass that on to the University authorities. So I have a track record, ever since I was a student, of speaking up for minorities, being open about who I am, and fighting where I see injustice. I’m also very interested in the issue of mental health and I feel passionately about it. I have argued pretty much the same things consistently since I was a student. I’ve been pro-European, pro-Scottish independence, passionate about mental health, open about my sexual orientation, I’m a republican, and I’m passionate about issues of poverty – coming, as I do, from a first generation family to go to university; so, I’ve got a consistent track record which people can examine.

RR: It’s been a while since I’ve been at university but I hope I can relate to students. Each of the students who have come to the court, who have met me, seem to have enjoyed their time with me. If I can give advice to students etc., I will do so (if I can help), but I don’t think that’s the job of the rector, to be the advisor of individual students, but to be the voice for students.

The current Rector, Aamer Anwar, has been criticised for not following through on promises he made in his manifesto due to his other work commitments. Would you be able to dedicate a suitable amount of time to the role?

JA: “Definitely! I mean with my job, I’m a local councillor and I was elected while I was at university full time studying mechanical engineering, and I still finished with my 2:1, thankfully! So I have the time capacity to be able to do it, but on top of that I have the ability to be able to make a change. I’ve been the trustee of several national equalities charities and that’s the sort of concern I’ve had reflecting on the other candidates and whether they have the time capacity – for two of the candidates specifically. I’m not doing this as a political role, I’m doing it because I genuinely care about the University. It’s been the place where I’ve been made as a person, you know, a ‘change-maker’, as they say. I will give the time commitment to the University and I can guarantee that.”

GC: “I want to devote two days a week to this university and being rector. I don’t think it’s a full time job, but it at least requires a couple of days a week. I’ve heard that that’s been a criticism of the current rector. Aamer’s doing an amazing job and he got elected because he’s got massive gravitas as a campaigner and an activist but he has been dealing with two really important cases. I don’t blame him.”

EG: “Yes! As I said, I am currently unemployed, which means I have all the time in the world; but it is a trusteeship, there isn’t any stipend. When I’m applying for jobs, I’m specifying that if I am elected into this role then I need to be able to work flexibly, and that I need four days to work and a day to come in and be a working rector. I plan to spend a day a week here. It is made easier by the fact that I actually live here in Woodlands, meaning I could trip over and be here by 9 o’clock and be able to attend meetings or whatever. Yes, I plan on having my working week included here. Have an office here. If possible, have a staff to be able to listen to the students.”

JN: “I think you’ve got to be realistic and understand what the job involves and because I was a student at Glasgow University, I know exactly what the job involves. So I promised in my manifesto to make myself available to hold surgeries for students, so they can ask for help. There are a lot of students from my constituency at this university and also from elsewhere, as we know, so I think representing the students by listening to their concerns is absolutely key. I have a platform both nationally and throughout the UK, and also because I worked as a journalist, so I have a voice to talk about Glasgow University students and their concerns in the House of Commons, for example, and I think it is a very useful platform and I would encourage students to use it.”

RR: “As active as the students would want me to be. As you know, I am in post. I retire from this job, by force in a sense because of my age, in June. So, I will not be in a full-time job. I would consider [holding surgeries], but one thing I said when I was asked if I would accept the nomination is that I would not make any promises because I’m not going to make promises in a vacuum. I want to be able to speak to students to find out what it is that students want. If that’s what students want, or a body of students want, then I will consider it, yes.”

Many people on campus have called for a symbolic rector, to allow the elected SRC representative, who has more time and ability to represent students daily, to be the main figurehead of the students. How do you plan to work alongside the SRC without undermining their work?

JA: “I don’t agree with the idea that there should be a symbolic rector, however I completely understand where the thinking comes from. You don’t want someone waltzing in here taking credit for the work university students are doing, making a name for themselves and not really doing anything for the students, I mean who wants that? You’d rather have somebody there who represents what the University’s beliefs are. I’m not here to represent the work of the SRC, I think the SRC does an amazing amount of work to support the students. I’m not here to replace any of the student unions, I’m here to advocate for what they want on behalf of them, to the University management unequivocally, just for the students.”

JN: “Cooperation is the key to moving forward with big ideas and radical ideas. You have to show leadership but you also have to work with colleagues and cooperate. I understand completely the attraction of a symbolic rector. But students need someone who speaks for them; who can be on campus and who will speak up for them in Westminster and elsewhere. Because I find that celebrities only answer one email, which is: would you like to be the rector? Try emailing them after that to say ‘I’m having trouble with my lecturer. Can I talk to you in confidence?’ You won’t get a reply. That’s why you need a working rector and you don’t get things done if you don’t cooperate.”

RR: “I want to be an active rector because if I’m not an active rector there’s no point. I’m not just taking this on because of who I am, but for what I can do and what I can achieve for the students. So I want to be as active a rector as the students would want me to be.”

There have been calls for improvements to the University’s mental health services and the understanding is that there is a funding issue. How do you intend to improve on UofG mental health provisions?

JA: “What I believe we need is clarity from the University management, so within my manifesto I have called to work alongside the SRC to come up with a radical mental health plan that we can work on for the next few years. If you require a counsellor then the counsellor should be there, but we should be creating a positive mental health agenda at the University first and foremost. I think the need is to create clarity, to create a radical mental health plan that the University management will work towards, and University students can see that we’re working towards. I think that’s what we require.”

GC: “A lack of proper provision for that. That’s still an ongoing massive crisis that they don’t seem to have properly resourced. The rector can put that on the court’s agenda.”

EG: “The mental health services at the University are overstretched. Now not only should we look for more funding for that and find ways to make that run more successfully, but also ask ‘what is it about university life that is driving students to so much distress?’ What I want to be doing is asking students at a drop-in every week, and also by consultations and things like that, ‘Why is university life so difficult?’ ‘What is it that is burning them out?’ ‘Why is it so difficult to get access to resources and assistance?’, and other things about wellbeing in that kind of sense.”

JN: “I’m a journalist – mental health and misuse of terms is something I care passionately about and I know that on this campus, there is an issue of mental health underfunding of services and I know too that the University does not keep any record of mental health diagnoses. Students are trying to seek help, and of course there always has to be a question of privacy and of course that has to be respected, but we have to know what the incidence is of mental health concerns on campus, because unless you know the scale of the issue it’s very difficult to provide the services necessary and I think one of the reasons that there’s such a tight squeeze on the finances is probably because the University doesn’t realise how significant it is as a problem.”

What do you think needs to be done at U of G in terms of the climate crisis, and what policy do you intend to implement?

JA: “First and foremost I think we need to actually advocate for change. For example, this isn’t a branding exercise. The world is burning and drowning at the same time we need to take this seriously. We have a significant amount of money and we’re going through a £1bn redevelopment programme of the University campus. I don’t think that should reflect just having large steel buildings everywhere. I think we require more green spaces on campus, which will also promote more positive mental health. Also the universities have set up their own group but there is also the Green New Deal, who have just announced their proposals. I’ve also met with XR multiple times as well, and we need to hear from the radical end of the movement, because that’s the sort of urgency required for this movement.”

GC: “In an emergency you do something quicker. We have 10 years. The difficulty in larger society is that you don’t have control of everything. GU in itself has a massive economic footprint. If it decides to do something, it can do it quickly. Look how quickly it’s building that massive building there and the west campus. It’s doing major works to change the geography of this campus, so it can do things quickly if it has to. It’s important that the city and the University have a target that’s before 2030 as we’re trying to pull the whole country in that direction.”

EG: “I think there is so much more that can be done, for example, if the University actually promoted the exam times in advance then international students would be able to reduce their carbon footprint and flights, by flying home for a month and flying back again. Likewise, and again this is equality, what is the actual usage of the buildings? Now I don’t know the official numbers for usage, but I hear unofficially that it’s not particularly well done. For example, if you have the old buildings, possibly for reasons of access, they may not be well used. If you had modifications in the buildings for accessibility, insulation, and proper heating and lighting, then does the University really need to spend a billion pounds on building new buildings?”

What do you think needs to be done to make UofG more accessible to students from minority groups on campus? Is enough being done?

JA: “I personally believe that at this university we’re not allowing students to come be their authentic selves, without fear of perhaps being disadvantaged, and I believe there needs to be better infrastructure to support the students at this university. For example, from the working class perspective, that’s definitely an issue people don’t reflect on. Disabled students: I don’t think they’ve been adequately supported either. For example, I used to have classes in the St Andrew’s Building and then the next class was in the Boyd Orr and I was always late to that class by 10 minutes every single week. How is someone in a wheelchair meant to make that journey? Further to that, religious communities. I know in the Wolfson Medical Building students pray at the top of the staircase because there’s not a prayer space for them in that building, so they have to pray while people are walking past them. All this needs to be addressed by the University urgently because if you’re not allowing students to be who they are on campus, then there’s a serious problem there.”

GC: “I’ve stood up for those rights and principles when it wasn’t popular to do so. The fact that I’ve done so, and I do it now, I’ve stood by with people in all situations. I have an instinct against inhumanity and I have an instinct against injustice. I can show that in all the campaigns I’ve been in. That’s the kind of track record politically that I’ve got. So I have no doubt that I can respond to the issues and concerns that are raised with me and try to translate them into active policies. I will be an outreach and an outgoing rector; I expect to be able to involve all the equality groups, all the different nationalities. I have a long track record of uniting and fighting for people.”

EG: “In terms of equality, I’m transgender, I know what it feels like for LGBT students. I know what it’s like to be harassed and discriminated against and there are still some people who have tenure, who don’t have sufficient penalties to stop them from being racist, sexist, homophobic, and transphobic. So what I’ll be intending to do is to make sure the University court takes these complaints seriously.”

JN: “I think we’re having a very acidic and unhelpful debate about transexuality at the moment and my heart goes out to trans students. I think a lot of bigots are turning their attention now on the trans community, who are the most marginalised community in the country. I’ve noticed a big gulf between young people and this issue and older people, and I look at my parliamentary colleagues at Westminster and the folk who are championing trans rights are often young lesbians like Mhairi Black and others. I really do think it’s an age thing. I sit and listen to some of the stuff thrown at trans people by folk you’d think are really decent and you’d never dream about saying these things about gay people, so how come you think you’ve got this pass to talk about trans people in this way.”

Glasgow University has a diverse population of students from all backgrounds across the world. How would you aid and support students who feel afraid and unwanted right now?
JA: “I want to support international students through this Brexit crisis. I believe that’s the most critical part here which is the infrastructure of the University. There has not been enough done to support University students who come from different backgrounds, or students who’ve been struggling while they’ve been here”

GC: “My advice for people in Scotland is to stand firm and stay where you are. I think that it’s different here north of the border over Brexit and migration, because we’re an empty country that needs more people. We’re an ageing population that needs younger, tax-paying people. We need more skills, brilliant people, coming from the EU and we need them to stay. I hope that the government, the city and the University have made it clear that we stand with them. Probably need to do more to make people feel more relaxed about that.”

EG: “What we’ve got is a hostile environment being developed for international students. We see the way the government has put together this points-based system, where somebody with a PhD might only barely scrape their way through. The University is happy to take the money from international students, but what is Glasgow University doing? The University is an ancient institution with a lot of people with serious connections in government; what are they doing to prevent the University from just taking the international students’ money and just kicking them out?”

JN: “I’m not surprised [international students] feel afraid and unwanted. Scotland has always been a place where kids from other countries, college students, school students, folk who are working, decided to come across and spend a summer here to learn language skills, to have a good time, to earn some money, and then to go back. And they’ve been made to feel so unwelcome that lots don’t come anymore. One of the joys of going to university is meeting people from a broad range of backgrounds; I remember that when I came here. You meet people from different religions, you meet people from different countries, different sexual orientations… It’s the joy of university education; it’s to meet people who challenge you and who have different experiences. I think it’s vital that people from other countries continue to feel welcome here and what I very much hope is that they stay, that they vote, and that they get Scotland back in the EU as soon as possible. I don’t see why my generation should have had all the advantages of the right to live, to travel, and love without restriction across the EU and your generation shouldn’t have the same advantages. It’s entirely wrong.”