Credit: University of Glasgow

Your Rector candidates interviewed…again

By Jordan Hunter

Rector candidates sat down once again to answer the pressing questions about the role they are running for.

With the rector election once again heating up after a delayed start, we thought to ask our candidates for rector once again where they stand on important issues and see if they had changed their position on any of their manifesto points. With two fewer candidates, the field is narrowing between The Honorable Lady Rita Rae, John Nicholson MP, and Cllr. Junaid Ashraf. Voting will open on Tuesday 20 April 2021 and close on Wednesday 21 April 2021. We emailed a survey of questions to each of the candidates and this is how they responded:

Why are you the best candidate for rector?

John Nicolson: Students need a voice at the top table of the University who isn’t afraid to ask questions on their behalf and shake things up. With a background as a journalist, and working now as an MP, I’m comfortable questioning authority and want to use my profile to champion students’ interests.

Lady Rita Rae: I don’t believe that the question of whether or not I am the best candidate for rector is for me to answer; that is ultimately up to the students to decide. The key driving force behind my campaign, and what would be the key driving force behind my rectorship in the event I was elected, is the student voice. The role of the rector is to listen to the concerns of students and take these to the university management, to represent and advocate for what students want to see happen. It is not for the rector to express their personal opinions or to propose policy based on their own agendas. The people impacted by issues within the University, and by the University’s decisions, are students. Equally, it is for students to decide who they want to represent them in that endeavour, and to facilitate their participation in the University’s decision-making processes. 

Junaid Ashraf: A young working rector who understands the issues that affect current students is needed to see a tangible change on our University campus. As a recent graduate of the University of Glasgow, I believe there is a cultural difference between how students today view mental health and the climate change emergency compared to previous generations.

What do you think is the most important issue facing the University and how do you plan to address it?

JN: I think Covid-19 is definitely the biggest problem facing students. It has had such a knock-on effect for so many other areas of university life. Whether it be students whose mental health is suffering due to isolation or following the death of a family member to the virus, a lack of opportunities to participate in clubs and societies, or students not getting value for money in their courses. The timing of this coming rectorial term could not be more crucial.

RR: I am very well aware of some of the issues facing the University at the moment. Undoubtedly, a lot of these issues are as a result or have been compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic. Also, I am aware of a lot of the publicity that has been created by some of the issues. In my manifesto before the pandemic, I prioritised inclusivity, student safety, and promoting international opportunities. This has not changed and these remain my priorities.

JA: The most important issue is investment in our mental health support for students. When students are having to wait four or five months to just have an initial assessment, clearly the University has not prioritised student mental wellbeing that is, in many cases, being onset by the demanding nature of being a student at the University of Glasgow. In my eyes, a large aspect of solving this is ensuring that there is adequate investment to our mental health support provision to meet the demand of students seeking support.

Do you think you would be a working rector and how do you plan on receiving feedback from students?

JN: I will be a working Rector. I plan to treat the students as constituents. I hope to be elected to represent them. As such I should be accessible and be able to advocate their case to the University. In practical terms, this would be in the form of surgeries held either in person or on Zoom, where students are able to come to see me with their issues. These could be personal problems or wider systemic issues throughout the University. I’d take students’ issues to the principal and get answers. I’m a journalist by profession and very persistent! 

RR: It is absolutely my intention to be a working rector. I would not be doing this otherwise. 

In terms of receiving feedback from students, this would be the key element of my rectorship and form the basis of everything I do during my tenure. When it is safe to return to campus, I plan, if possible, to be there at least once a week, even if it has to be early evening, to talk to students and discuss their concerns with them. Whilst a physical presence on campus remains impossible, I would still seek to receive feedback remotely through Zoom drop-ins. I would also aim to form a strong relationship with the SRC and spend time speaking to some of the student societies who may be able to help with the issues concerning the University. 

JA: I believe the definition of a “working rector” needs to be defined. I have, over the course of my campaign, met with six former, current, and incoming student union presidents alongside a range of societies. I would definitely be sustaining this level of interaction with students on campus over the course of my time as rector, if elected, and would seek to set up transparent and engaging forums facilitated by the unions to ensure every student has access to me to have their concerns heard.

Obviously, things are quite different than when the election was last scheduled, what do you plan on doing to return the campus to normal safely?

JN: We have to follow Scottish government guidelines to keep us all healthy. That way we can return when it’s safe. At that point, the University must ensure students feel comfortable coming back to what, I hope, will then be normal university life. This will require extra funding for clubs and societies to do more outreach, an increased investment into CAPS, and extra support for home students who often feel excluded from campus life.

RR: Absolutely, it is essential that the correct processes are in place and are being followed to ensure safety. For example, in my manifesto, I mention my motivation to ensure students have great international opportunities. It must be ensured that these opportunities are reintroduced in a proper fashion. Further, Glasgow University students who are studying abroad must be supported and given clear information to aid them throughout the process. This is especially important as some students may not be receiving the help that they need to strive when they are abroad. 

JA: So far, I do not believe student voices have been taken seriously when we consider the major issues that have affected students this past year. Issues such as students wanting to be released from their tenancy agreement with the University, the lack of mental health support for students, lack of clarity and support in exam assessment, and the lack of transparency in asking students to come to Glasgow just to be told everything will be online for the past year.

With the University cutting its budget, how would you fund your manifesto goals?

JN: As a member of the University Court, I will push against cuts that would directly affect student services. The University has invested billions in cross-campus development and senior staff are paid extremely generous salaries. Students shouldn’t be the focus when cutbacks are planned. They’re the heartbeat of the university.  

RR: It is my understanding that the rector is not given a budget and thus I do not want to make promises that I cannot keep. What I can do is try to engage with the University to encourage processes where spending is allocated in a way which prioritises student experience and wellbeing. I would do this by trying to get an insight into the needs of students and to try and target areas where additional resources are needed. 

My manifesto goals revolve around listening to students and looking to report back to the SRC and key decision-makers of the University. I understand the limitations inherent with the position of rector but of course, I would try my very best to be an advocate for students and look to align the University position to that of genuine student needs.

JA: Other universities have struggled financially this year but it is my understanding that the University of Glasgow has not been comparatively hard struck. If students are continuing to face rising tuition fees and a reduction in support every year, I do believe that addressing the lack of funding for student projects by the University needs to be an ongoing discussion. I require a commitment from the University to increase the funding for mental health support, commit to climate change divestment, create further support mechanisms for international students, and review support for all equalities groups on campus. I do not believe anything of what I am asking for is extraordinary. If the University budget cannot meet my demands on behalf of students, then on behalf of students with the support of the unions I believe we need to apply pressure to the University management to ensure we can fund the vital support we need for our students. 

The University’s recent report indicates a huge problem with racism and lack of trust in the reporting procedure, how would you address this problem?

JN: There is a misconception that Scotland doesn’t have a problem with racism. This misconception extends to Glasgow University which prides itself on its liberalism. The “Understanding Racism, Transforming University Cultures” report shows there are worrying and ongoing problems with racism on campus. As rector, I would not only hold the University to account on its current goals, but engage with stakeholder groups to develop more efficient anti-racist policies.

RR: The way that I would address this issue is to first obtain a strong understanding of the issue and how students are being impacted by it. I fully believe that, only by knowing the complexities involved in issues and learning about the causes, can we look to try and encourage change. It must also be assured that there are correct processes in place for students to report any issues and for racism and discrimination to be addressed appropriately. I completely support the University’s zero-tolerance stance and I would try my best to help ensure that this is followed.

JA: As shocking as the race report was, it was not in the least bit surprising to me as a former student. The University management can do so much more to ensure that students on campus from minority ethnic backgrounds are supported. We require a centralised contact to report racist incidents and a defined procedure on how complaints are addressed, training for all lecturers/researchers on unconscious bias, and a cultural change in how we interact with minority ethnic members of our University community. Above and beyond “tolerance” of BAME students, I believe there needs to be a celebration of our diverse University community. 

Sexual assault has been a perennial issue on campus, how would you stop this cycle?

JN: As a student sitting on the SRC, I set up the University’s first committee to deal with sexual harassment as there was no policy for reporting it at the time. It is clear that aside from robust reporting procedures and more campus security, we need to deal with education on male violence and sexual harassment. The University should make sure that we are educating students, particularly male students about sexual assault.  

RR: Having been a judge in the criminal courts for a number of years, I have experience dealing with sexual assault cases. As such, I understand the realities of the issue. I am also aware of the concerns that students have expressed over the past few years in respect of safety on campus… As rector, I would seek to engage actively with students to learn about the extent of the issue of sexual assault on campus and to hear their views on what should and could be done about it. It is students who attend campus every day and who live that reality, meaning they are best placed to advise on what can be done to make it a safer space. I would be a vocal advocate for solutions based on students’ experiences… A culture of respect for others must be encouraged.

JA: I held an event called “Sexual Violence on Campus” and consulted with students who have been investigating issues relating to assaults on campus in the past few years. Students have said to me: 1. There needs to be a cultural attitude change in how the University management views sexual assault, 2. An overhaul on the complaints system to be more accessible, transparent and supportive, 3. Training given to advisors so they are aware of how to support students who approach them on issues relating to sexual assault and the sensitive nature in which this needs to be supported and 4. Listen to students on what they believe will make them feel more safe on campus e.g. improved lighting on campus and improved emotional support.

What would you do in regards to terms of the University’s social and environmental responsibility?

JN: The University has a responsibility to represent the views and ethos of its students, not the other way round. The student body, which I hope to represent, is progressive when dealing with issues around disarmament and global warming. As rector, I would use my post to act as the students’ voice – arguing their case at the University Court for world-leading, progressive environmental policy. We want the world to know we are an ancient university which takes contemporary social justice seriously.

RR: In terms of what I would do, I would try to represent student views on social and environmental responsibility. Ideas over social responsibility can differ between different groups of people so I would try to use my impartial approach not just to present the views of the majority to the key decision-makers of the University… In terms of environmental changes that can be made after the pandemic, it is encouraging to see that the University have recognised the possibility of using digital means of communication to avoid unnecessary air travel. This sort of action should be greatly encouraged if it can have a strong positive impact on reducing our carbon footprint. 

JA: The University is going through a £1bn redevelopment of the campus and I believe there needs to be a substantial focus on green infrastructure. This would mean an increase in green spaces on campus and an overhaul of University Avenue to become pedestrianised. I am also committing to ensure we fully divest from fossil fuels by 2024 and to match the University of Edinburgh’s commitment to become carbon neutral by 2040 (10 years earlier than IPCC recommendation).

You can read more about the candidates here.

Editorial note: While it has historically been a tradition that the paper endorses a candidate after completing their coverage of the candidates, this year we have decided to break precedent and not endorse a candidate. We did this for several reasons, the primary of which is to remain objective in our coverage as we continue to cover the candidates. Additionally, we believe the campaign this season has been too short for substantial debate for the paper to take a firm stance towards the election. Even though there had been a campaign last year, the manifestos and issues facing the University have drastically changed since then.


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