Candidates have now been released for the Student Elections 2018, and as such my time at AUSA draws closer to an end, so I have put together an outline of some of the key things I have worked (and am currently working) on this year, representing student interests’ on issues of housing, sustainability, community outreach, transport and more. If there are any campaigns or projects you would like to get involved with please drop me an email on email@example.com or get in touch via facebook (/AUSACommunities) or Twitter (@AUSACommunities).
Over the summer months, following work I had began in January/February of last year, I led on a successful campaign to lobby Aberdeen City Council not to introduce an HMO Overprovision policy. This proposal sought to limit the number of HMO properties available in the Old Aberdeen, Froghall/Powis/Sunnybank and Garthdee areas, which if approved would have had a detrimental impact on students’ ability to live affordably within the city. On average, HMO properties are considerably cheaper to rent than 2-bed and 1-bed flats within the city, and they give the opportunity for students to live with a number of their friends. I submitted organisational representations on behalf of AUSA at each stage of the process, gained local press coverage, and mobilised hundreds of students to have their voices heard in the public consultation, wherein the vast majority (over 96%) of students called for the rejection of this policy. Following on from that, I lobbied councillors and provided a deputation to the Full Council meeting at the end of August outlining the impact this would have on students. At the meeting, the Council resolved not to introduce a policy at this time! You can find out more about this on my blog post here: https://www.ausa.org.uk/blogs/environment/2017/08/25/Aberdeen-City-Council-Votes-Against-Implementing-HMO-Overprovision-Policy/
Rent Guarantor Scheme
Since the tail-end of my first term as Communities Officer, I have been working to get the University to act as a rent guarantor for students. This is an issue that predominantly affects International Students, who often struggle to find a UK-based guarantor required by their landlord, but also affects home students from low-income backgrounds who do not have access to a guarantor. I put forward a proposal to the University, researching schemes at other institutions to prove the effectiveness of the scheme, and the lack of risk to the University in implementing this. I have attended a variety of meetings and successfully lobbied against proposals to introduce a ‘default fee’ within the scheme (this would simply defeat the purpose of the scheme), as well as securing a reduction in the initial fee. The proposal I have tabled, and since worked with the University to develop, is going through a final approval process, which should hopefully result in a pilot scheme being introduced for the academic year 18/19. Keep an eye on my blog and Facebook/Twitter for updates on this.
Cut the Rent
I have continued the push to Cut the Rent in University accommodation, preparing campaign materials for Freshers’ Week, launching a new petition form, organising meetings with students, formally writing to the University highlighting student concerns on this issue, and lobbying the University in various meetings. The University have agreed once more to freeze the rent, which is of course better than it being increased, but still simply not good enough. At the Student Experience Committee last month, I held the University to account over the lack of transparency in how the levels of rent are decided, and put forward a proposal for the institution to introduce a Rent Review Group as has been established at other institutions across the country such as Warwick and Goldsmiths. This proposal included meaningful student representation – not just a single token student representative amongst a sea of University Managers as is so often the case. The University have said they will look into similar groups at other institutions and I will be continuing to lobby on this. We have been consistent in our messaging that the first and foremost concern of the University when setting the rent prices should be the welfare of its students, not its ‘competitiveness within the local market’ – however, the University is failing to be even be ‘competitive’ as it so claims. Private sector rents have fallen dramatically over the last couple of years, and private student accommodation providers such as Liberty Living and Ardmuir have slashed their prices in response – with Liberty offering an early bird discount of £60 per week for a standard room, and £65 per week for an en-suite. This discount has been available for a number of months and is not far off half the cost of what the University offers in its halls of residence. Following from the week-long camp-out of Elphinstone Lawn in March last year, it is clear that we need to build back the forward-facing and direct-action focussed element of the campaign in order to win a meaningful rent cut. I will be working with students over the coming months before I leave office to plan out actions moving forward to achieve this. In terms of housing issues across city, I am looking at re-establishing a local Living Rent branch in Aberdeen along with community activists, in order to tackle illegal fees, poor conditions, and high rents. Further guidance on illegal fees (as well as new Private Tenancy legislation information) will be provided in the soon-to-be updated AUSA Accommodation Guide also.
In my manifesto I pledged to continue working to support staff, and I have continued to maintain a close working relationship with the University College Union, UCU, following our campaign ‘Stop the Job Cuts’ last year, where we successfully prevented a number of compulsory redundancies within the School of Medicine, Medical Sciences, and Nutrition. This term, UCU have undertaken the largest industrial action seen on University campuses following proposed cuts of pensions that could leave staff up to £200,000 worse off in retirement. These cuts to pensions would have a devastating impact on the quality of students’ education, and are symptomatic of a broader marketization agenda that has resulted in underfunded mental health services, unaffordable student accommodation, increased tuition fees, and decreased student support. Students and workers are natural allies, and I have worked to support UCU in their strike action, creating resources for students on the AUSA website such as FAQs, a list of ways to support, and a draft letter with which to lobby our Vice-Chancellor to come out publically against these cuts. After campaigning from students and staff, Principal Iain Diamond signed a joint letter with our local UCU branch calling on Universities UK to re-open negotiations and to protect defined benefit pensions. Further, I have worked with student activists to co-ordinate the Aberdeen Students Support the Strike campaign, assisted in organising a solidarity fundraiser performance night which raised over £650 for the local strike fund, and have stood in solidarity with striking staff on the picket lines. Their working conditions are our learning conditions – if you haven’t already, check out the Aberdeen Students Support the Strike facebook page, and the UCU Aberdeen page where you can find details of pickets and Teach-Outs! It’s essential as many students as possible support our staff in this dispute: their livelihoods and our education are at stake.
I conducted research into, and drafted a report on, students’ experiences of working alongside studies. Our survey showed that: many of those with student loans have all of this money going towards living costs, and as such have no choice but to work if they want to fund anything else; those who received no/little funding (EU/International students in particular) stated frustration with the lack of options for funding available to them, again leaving them with no choice but to work; just over 1/3rd of students work over the University’s suggested maximum hours of 20hours per week; the majority of respondents found balancing studies and part-time (or even full-time in some cases) work difficult; nearly 1/3rd of students have required an extension due to working – and of these students, 45% stated they had not been provided with adequate support on extensions and allowances; almost a quarter stated their timetable was not flexible enough to manage a job whilst studying; 27% are on zero-hours contracts; the vast majority (86%) are not in trade unions; a number of respondents cited negative impact on mental and physical health as result of working while studying. The report provided a number of recommendations for actions moving forward, such as addressing root causes of why students need to work in the first place, such as the cost of living (in particular, rent – as often the largest expense) as well as a more robust attendance allowance and extensions policy for student workers, and working to get students involved in trade unions and workplace organising. I worked with the local branch of Unite to speak to students during Freshers’ Week at the Volunteering and Employability Fayre, and to provide drop-in sessions for students to discuss issues they were having in the workplace. Moving forward, we will be doing similar drop-in sessions in a stall format in order to reach more students. I am working on a proposal on extension and attendance allowance for student workers, as well as a comprehensive guide on trade unionism and the importance of organising in the workplace – particularly as students are more likely to be in precarious and low-paid work.
Drugs Harm Reduction
One of my manifesto commitments was to introduce drug testing kits as part of a harm reduction campaign, to change the narrative around, and approach to, student drug use on campus. I have built links with Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) alongside members of the Communities Committee, in order to ensure we have the necessary information on the kits themselves, as well as the suitable information to provide to students on drug harm reduction, including resources from The Loop and Vice on ‘Safe Sesh’. I have secured funding for reagent kits to be introduced within AUSA Advice, and will be launching the harm reduction campaign along with kits in a few weeks’ time!
Free Education Demo
I supported and resourced student activists to attend the National Demonstration for Free Education in November organised by The National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, which called for the abolition of tuition fees, living grants for all, and an end to campus cuts. Aberdeen students joined over a thousand fellow students and education workers on the streets of London to demonstrate our collective power and build towards a vision of a fairer education system: one run democratically in the interests of students and staff.
Hate Crime Reporting
I have been working on establishing AUSA Reception as a Third-Party Hate Crime Reporting Centre alongside the University and members of the Aberdeen Law Project. In addition, working with the University to provide an online form for students to report, as well as information on different ways of reporting hate crime to be put onto both the AUSA and CluedUp websites so that students are aware of the different ways to report. Also in the planning stages of running a discussion/panel event on how to tackle Hate Crime on campus for the end of the month.
Phase 1 of the changes to the Students’ Union Building involved the initial stages of AUSA taking ownership over (part of) the Ground Floor, following an agreement reached between the University and the Acting President in June 2017 and I attended a number of meetings and discussions about this. Bookends was relocated to the former International Centre and four ‘Stalls’ down the corridor across from it were created, housing both the Corner and Swap Shop, and creating two bookable stalls for students to promote campaigns and events, try out running new initiatives, or have society bake sales etc. Phase 2 (i.e. AUSA occupying the full ground floor) planning was put in place, and we ran focus groups last semester to determine what students would like to see out of the space currently occupied by the InfoHub, Union Brew, Seating, and ‘Glass Box’ Computer room. There is a clear lack of student social space and the layout of the Ground Floor currently is confused – this will be changing over the coming months to provide some more social space and, with AUSA eventually taking over the space in its entirety it will enable us to much more easily provide microwaves, additional water fountains etc. in this area. However this space alone is not enough for a whole Students’ Association: we need more bookable space for societies and groups to meet and host events. A longer term plan for the future of the SA premises is certainly needing developed.
Climate Challenge Fund
I led on an application to the Scottish Government’s Climate Challenge Fund for £160,000 to help fund Sustainability Projects on campus, putting forward a proposal for a project called ‘AberGreen’ that covers a number of different sustainability issues such as transport, waste, food, and energy efficiency. Working with Vice-Chair Communities Kevin Mathew and relevant staff members, we submitted a massive application to this fund – the main body of which was a few thousand words longer than my dissertation! This project would enable us to hire a full-time staff member as well as three part-time staff to support sustainability initiatives on campus such the Communitree Gardens project, Shared Planet, BeCyCle, VegBag, The Corner and SwapShop, as well as funding for workshops, renovation, and materials. Should the funding application be successful, we would be able to massively expand the scope and reach of these initiatives, involving both students and the wider Aberdeen community in environmental change. We will be finding out in the coming weeks whether or not this application was successful!
In addition to applying for more funding to help boost Sustainability initiatives at Aberdeen through the Scottish Government’s Climate Challenge Fund, as the Chair of the AUSA Environment and Ethics Committee I have worked with student activists on the committee to review AUSA Environmental policies, represented student voices on improved recycling provision within University catering and services, co-ordinated GoGreen week which included different events that highlighted the political nature of Climate Change and in particular its disproportionate impact on frontline communities in the Global South, as well as the re-launch of the Fossil Free divestment campaign. I also worked with members of the Fairtrade and Sustainable Procurement Steering Group to organise a programme of events for Fairtrade Fortnight which is running currently. Further, the University secured funding for more bike racks with great work from BeCyCle which are now in place and I built a budget into the Climate Challenge application for racks/pumps so should the application be successful these will be expanded even further to improve cycling provision across campus.
9U Bus Service
I have been working with the AUSA Foresterhill Convener, Toni Grimaldi Alcina, to look at the issues students face with the 9U bus service, meeting with the University to discuss the possibilities of altering the service and developing a survey to gather feedback. Changes are definitely possible with this service, and we are this week launching a survey to get some data on the problems students have with the service, and the extent to which they face them (whether that is reliability, timing of service, routing at peak times, lack of weekend service, capacity etc.). You can fill in the survey here: https://ausa2.typeform.com/to/x1HN7Q. Please share widely!
I chaired the elections committee for the AUSA by-elections in September 2017 which saw a decent number of students running to be on standing committees and, by extension, student council. Turnout does remain low for these elections, however, and we are always looking into ways we can try and boost engagement. Following recommendations provided by the independent Senior Returning Officer in the previous year’s Leadership elections, we have altered the timeline of the March AUSA elections to include a longer online campaigning period so as to give students more opportunities to engage with (and challenge) candidates, and vice-versa. This extended period will also allow more time for societies, sports clubs, and student groups to consider which candidates, if any, they would like to endorse in the elections and engage members in the process. We pushed the elections back a few weeks from its original timescale in order to allow for any potential changes to the Officer structure at the Annual General Meeting (AGM) to be implemented with immediate effect in these elections (as if any motion had passed to be realised the year after, it would not necessarily be implemented due to the democratic review set to take place for the next academic year as outlined in the constitution, which includes within a review of all Officer positions). I am currently working with the elections committee to help oversee the elections process for the AUSA Student Elections 2018, and have provided a number of workshops and training events for candidates/potential candidates as well as running drop-in sessions for candidates running in the elections.
I attended and contributed to a number of meetings preparing for Freshers’ Week over the Summer months, and worked on arranging a number of events. During the week itself I worked at a number of events such as the Local Students Event, Welcome BBQ, Saturday and Sunday Registration, Principal and Sabb Welcome, Monday BBQ, Pub Quiz, Societies’ Fayre, Volunteering and Employability Fayre, two Night Bus shifts, and the Recharge/Pancake Brunch events. I led on both BBQ Events, the Tuesday Pub Quiz (which had over 43 teams!) and the Pancake Brunch, preparing briefings, risk assessments etc. I also delivered induction presentations outlining what AUSA does for new students, and additionally delivered presentations at the Freshers’ Week Volunteer training sessions in the lead up to the week. We had some great materials for Cut the Rent and engaged a large number of new students in the campaign to fight issues around unaffordable housing on campus, and I worked with a local trade union branch to promote TU organising to students as part of the Student Workers campaign.
I have also represented students on a number of University committees, liaised with the local council to look at ways to engage students in the City Centre Masterplan, worked with the Education Officer to feed into the University’s Articulating Excellence plan, underwent training on a new volunteering database which is now live, ran a campus collection for a local foodbank during the Christmas appeal, and more. So, that’s an overview of some of the things I’ve been up to this year!
Also - please all vote in the upcoming AUSA elections and have your say over your new Sabbatical, Executive, Liberation/Section, and Council representatives! Voting opens 19th March – 22nd March, and manifestos are available online now at www.ausa.org.uk/elections!