Following a year as VP Student Activities, Breffni O’Connor speaks to qmunicate about her experience, the issues campus is facing and her plans for the upcoming year as SRC President.
Firstly, how did you get into student politics at Glasgow University?
My first board experience was in the Glasgow University Union but I think my interest started before that, not just with politics but with anything that was student engagement. I was a board member for a year before I decided that Student Activities was the role that had everything that I was good at and everything that I was interested in, like working with clubs and societies and after a year of that I progressed up to become President.
What are the benefits of getting involved in student politics?
We’re students; it’s really important we get our degree, we’re here to learn but I also think it’s important we learn to be active citizens as well. Getting involved and learning all comes back to you. It’s a cliché that companies are looking for more than a degree, but it’s the truth. As well as getting something on your transcript there’s also the skills like communication and interacting with people from different backgrounds.
What do you plan to do after university?
I want to get into third sector work. At the moment I help out with GUSH (Glasgow University Service to the Homeless) and the soup kitchen and I’ve recently been chosen as an ambassador for Scottish Refugee Week. Anything that is to do with inequalities in society that’s what I want to deal with. I’ve never had to directly deal with an inequality to me but I feel like I empathise with people who do.
What are the top issues facing students at Glasgow University and how will you work towards solving them this year?
Overcrowding and the student debt crisis are big issues that will come and go all year, but how the SRC engages with students is something that I think came up in all the candidates manifestos this year. We sit on a lot of university committees and spend a lot of time answering emails and going to meetings but a lot of students don’t know what we’re doing. We need to work on communicating that to students and getting that out of the John Mac building. [Can you give us an example of how you’ve done that in your present role as VPSA?] I’ve been to a lot of clubs and societies. I’ve probably been to over fifteen AGMs this year, seeing who their next committees will be, either because I’ve worked with them during Freshers’ week or during Media Week. I also have a lot of volunteering position that are under my remit so I’ve been out working on those and talking to people. There has been great work by students on campaigns like the fossil fuel divestment campaign by the Climate Action Society, who’ve been very enthusiastic and engaged a hell of a lot of students. It all comes back to active citizenship; as students we’re taught to actively think about things.
Our present rector Edward Snowden is presently unable to leave Russia. Do you see this as posing a threat to student representation at the upper levels of the University?
Before his installation as rector a few weeks ago a member of University staff spoke to him and he was keen to engage with students. He’d like to hold surgeries on Google Hangout and he’s asked a lot of questions about it [student life in Glasgow] and knew quite a lot when he was speaking at his installation, so I’m optimistic that he will be more actively engaged that perhaps some people feared. As for me, I’ll believe it when I see it but we’ll have to see in the new academic year whether he follows through. [How might this impact on your work in the University court?] On a personal basis, university court can be a scary experience and I’ll be going into this heavily male dominated environment without a rector, when we would usually work side by side but I think that the court assessor and I always know what is coming up and students need to trust that I can do this and that I can represent them. My main priority is always going to be students and the student experience.
This was the most expensive SRC elections ever. Do you think the cost of campaigning represents a threat to student democracy?
One of the ideas brought to the SRC has been a cap on spending like the QM has but I think just from an administration point of view with 45 candidates running in SRC elections this would be a problem given the time scale for counting votes. However, I think it’s important that students know that how much you spend doesn’t correlate to the outcome of the elections. That’s something we’ve tried to stress in the candidates meeting because I think it can put people off from handing in their nomination forms sometimes. We’re all students, we all have a limited budget. [In the interests of full disclosure, would you like to tell us how much you spent on your campaign?] Well, counting everything including y’know nights out to Viper, because those were part of my campaigning strictly speaking, I spent £350-400. Nowadays campaigning is all about social media though and that’s something that doesn’t cost a lot of money.
One of your proposals as VPSA was to move Raising and Giving Week (RAG) from a week long slot in February to a yearlong series of events, which some have criticized. How do you feel this decision played out and what will be your recommendations to your successor?
Our total money raised wasn’t greatly affected; this year we raised £6000 compared to £5500 last year. I think you should always try new things. Attendance at RAG week was poor the previous year partly because you can’t expect students who are busy to attend multiple events in a week so it was decided to change to a year long thing. In terms of the future I think there is scope to run RAG week on top of running it throughout the year. I worked to establish a RAG brand (orange and pink) and a RAG committee and I think that by the end of the year the committee were working much more together (sic) and the branding was being used much more effectively. I spent my time working on putting those together so I think that next year they will be able to run a week of events alongside other activities throughout the year and we have a lot of good ideas from other RAG weeks across the country that we can try to implement.
The development of the Western Infirmary site is set to get underway in the next couple of years. How will you be working for the benefit of students on this issue?
The Campus Development Framework will come before the University court in October which will give us a general idea of the makeup but there has already been a series of consultations set up in the SRC welcome point. This was an opportunity for students to have a look at the plans and leave their suggestions on comment cards. We’ve also had representatives from Estates and Buildings come to give talks to the SRC council, so they can give comments and feedback. In terms of what I’d like to see included; overcrowding is a major issue; there are a lot of clubs and societies that would benefit from more space to carry out the activities that they would like; more socializing space and more study space as well. [Socializing space administered by the University itself?] Well, yes. There are certainly issues with the University in terms of clubs and societies; central timetabling has placed quite a lot of restrictions as they’ve prioritized teaching time because space is so limited.
Talking about specifics, I know that the Mature Students Association could use more space to carry out their activities. They provide services for a welfare group and they just don’t have the room to carry out their activities as they would like.
You mentioned the SRC council earlier. Do you think the council in its present form is too large and unwieldy to be an effective decision making body?
No, I don’t think it’s too large. Each council member is line managed by a sabbatical officer and because we’re full time we have a lot more time to help them deal with issues. Making council smaller would mean a loss of representation to a certain school or welfare group. We’ve just added another council position specifically with regards to Mental Health, which was just passed at our last council meeting. This system ensures that all the areas for representation are covered and the system of line management means that issues feed through to the appropriate sabbatical officer.