In the lead up to the Union elections on March 21st and 22nd, Brig has been talking to the candidates running for President. Today, Dan Vevers had a coffee with Dave Keenan to discuss his manifesto, campaign and plans for the Union’s future.
Who are you and why are you running for Union President?
I’m a third-year sociology and social policy student and I’m running for Union President for several reasons. I want to see a more transparent and accountable University, because most of us will go through our four years at Stirling without once coming into contact with the people who make major decisions about our place of learning. So I want to propose semesterly meetings.
I want to ensure that all Union staff are paid a living wage by spring 2017. I want to set up a mental health campaign called ‘Speak Your Mind’ which is going to encompass all students but in particular focus on men, because in the UK men are twice as likely to commit suicide. We need to start opening a dialogue on campus, talking to each other, start breaking down barriers and stigmas, and I’ll be looking to get students on board in actually shaping that campaign, because it’s not finalised yet – it should be shaped by students, by their experiences.
I want to pilot a student foodbank, because I’ve seen a lot of posts on Facebook and social media recently where students are saying they can only eat one meal a day – I was speaking to a couple of students yesterday about this as well. Quite frankly, no one should go hungry.
I want to see a bus shelter up at Queen’s Court. That was one that came from interactions with students, who were saying they were sick of having to stand in the building and run for the bus, or stand out in the rain.
And then, of course, rent. Rent is a hot topic on campus right now. I think it’s fundamentally wrong that students have to pay over and above their student loan to live on our campus, so that’s why I’m going to make a promise to students that I’ll fight tooth and nail to ensure that we get a fair rent agreement for 2017-18.
Tell us a bit about yourself and what first got you involved in politics.
I got involved with politics when I was 13 years old, and it’ll be funny for a lot of people to hear this but actually I was a member of the Scottish National Party for two years, and I got involved in politics because I realised that something was fundamentally changing in Scotland. I joined two years after the 2007 Scottish General Election.
But then I had grown up in Dundee, grown up with parents who were on disability benefits, which were facing the wrath of Iain Duncan Smith and the DWP, and I quickly realised that it wasn’t about nationalism, it was about something different, and I wanted to try and not just fight for my family but fight for other families in that position.
Then I came to University, joined the Scottish Socialist Party, and then subsequently left after our conference in 2015.
You didn’t agree with the SSP decision to join RISE [a new left-wing alliance campaigning in the upcoming Scottish elections]?
I personally don’t agree with the RISE thing, I see it a little too much like left populism, but that’s a debate for another time.
That’s fair enough. You seem to have already got quite a bit of “old-fashioned” campaigning under your belt in this election, in terms of going around campus and actually talking to people. What’s your take on how people are feeling not just about your campaign but about Union elections generally? And do you think your confidence and prior experience as a campaigner give you an advantage over your rivals?
I think it might give me a slight advantage but this is a learning process for all of us, and I’m learning quite a lot from this process too. This is the first time I’ve actually stood in an election of this scale, so it’s been a really good experience.
The thing I’m getting from a lot of students that I’m speaking to is that I feel that the people who’re going to be voting for me are people that have never engaged in these Union elections before. I feel that people are responding well to my campaign because I’m touching on issues that they actually care about.
So I’m kind of hoping that out of this election, even if I don’t win, that I’ve actually managed to engage a big part of the student body who wouldn’t necessarily vote in Union elections.
You talk about the University paying staff a living wage, but it has also been a serial offender on casualization and zero-hours contracts for research and teaching staff. What would you do as President, and what can students do, to show solidarity with our staff?
This is an interesting question. Well, I’m fundamentally against zero-hours contracts. They’re exploitative. That’s something we have to campaign on on campus, because I know that the Union actually use zero-hour contracts for some of their staff as well. The problem is, quite a lot of students find that quite flexible, but the contracts are still fundamentally exploitative for workers.
What we ought to do is actually start raising this issue on campus, start a dialogue, start talking to people who work at the University, see how they feel about this, and support the UCU (Universities and Colleges Union) in the decisions they take to combat zero-hours contracts.
On transparency and accountability, Brig reported yesterday on how last year’s remuneration committee minutes – in which Stirling’s Principal was awarded a 5% pay increase – were redacted, while the previous year’s had been released in full. Is the University becoming less transparent?
I believe so, yes. I think they’re hiding a lot of things from us, and I think they actually really showed their true colours at the Fair Rent Now! protest. None of them came out to speak to us, none of them were willing to actually come out and face challenges from students. And I think they’re actually starting to build a wall around themselves, to protect themselves, because they’re running scared now.
Talking of our Principal, Gerry McCormac, you will have to work with him, co-operate with him and compromise with him if elected. Might past statements you’ve made, particularly on his pay, make this relationship rocky at best?
It could or it couldn’t. But if I have a completely healthy relationship with Gerry and there’s no issues, that means I’m not really doing my job, because if I’m elected as Union President I want to challenge Gerry, I want to challenge senior management, and to hold them to account. So while I want to have a healthy relationship with Gerry, and actually keep dialogue open for the course of my Presidency, I’m never going to not stand up for students – I’m never going to risk what students want to maintain a healthy relationship with him.
And can you guarantee that no matter how much he tries to get you on his side, has you over for tea, wines and dines you, you will be able to resist his charms?
Nice short answer. Let’s talk about fair rent. Current President Andrew Kinnell has campaigned hard on this all year, raised awareness and been part of the Rent Review process every step of the way. The deal we got is better than what we had. Do you really think you could get a better one?
Yes, I really do. And you have to have that belief in the first place to actually go out and secure a better deal. I mean, although the 2.5% increase on some of the properties is below the market rates, and although we’re getting this £50k discretionary fund, which might only help around 100 students on average, I believe we should be doing more. And I don’t believe that the University has bent over backwards to help students, not at all. This £50k is essentially just buying out students – ‘Alright, okay, we can’t really do this for you, but here’s a little bit of something to keep you sweet.’
But I think I’ll be able to do more, because I’ve already organised a protest on campus, I’ve already got students talking about this issue, taking an interest in it, and actually going and fighting for our interests. It’s not just going to be a case of me sitting in a board meeting or a committee meeting with them that’s going to win it – it’s got to be the students standing alongside me too.
With Andrew being a “Fair Rent” President, and then your new Fair Rent Now! campaign launching right before a deal was about to be struck, and now your Presidential campaign, and Craig Forsyth’s for that matter – you said earlier that the Uni may be starting to build a wall around itself. Is there not the risk that if the Uni is backed into a corner on this, year after year, eventually they might just turn around and say: “That’s it. You’ve had your lot”?
I think it would be very, very silly for the University to do that, and that would put them under even more pressure, and it would actually give students and the Union leverage in taking forward the argument for fair rent.
Let’s talk about Queen’s Court. There is already an indoor bus shelter, as you pointed out in your manifesto. It’s got seating, glass walls, vending machines, the whole shebang. My question isn’t why should we build a new bus shelter, but if you think there’s any chance that the University would be willing to pay for one?
Well I’m hoping so, that I can actually go out and convince the University to pay for a bus shelter. I think it’s just common sense to have something there as well, because a lot of students came up to me and said we should get a bus shelter at Queen’s court, and I asked them why because initially I didn’t see the reason for there to be as we have the indoor shelter. But if you’ve got the buses coming in like the 63, noone’s standing at the bus stop, noone’s getting off the 63, there’s only 2 of you standing in the building, you’re not going to make the bus. A lot of students have to go out and run to catch the bus and sometimes will miss it. And a lot of the UL’s have a habit of driving away even when students are approaching the bus stop. I think we need to build a bus shelter so we can have students there, so they can get on the bus and ensure that no one misses their bus.
Would an easier, cheaper solution not be to just talk to the bus companies?
Well, I’d be more than happy to open a dialogue with them too, because I think it is a big issue with drivers who just drive off, but I don’t foresee a bus shelter being too expensive.
And you honestly think, given the Uni’s tight budget, that this is money worth spending?
I’ve been listening to students and I have to say yes. It’s not going to cost too much, it’s just a bus shelter.
This is one is one we’ve been asking all of the candidates. All of this year’s candidates for Union President are white men. Is this a problem, and if so how do we change it?
Yes, it’s a problem. We see that throughout our society, it’s pale, male, stale. But I can’t come up with the answers on how to change that, because I’m a white man. We need to start opening dialogue with students from minorities and other backgrounds to actually see why they’re not standing in Union elections, what obstacles are in their way, how can we make it more accommodating and accessible for students from minorities to stand for elections.
You said this at the Hustings as well, that “It’s not really my place to do anything, because I’m a white man”, and I understand that argument. But is it not the case that if you just say “come talk to me about it” you’re not actively doing anything to fix the problem? You’re just waiting for people – who haven’t thus far got involved in campus politics to the extent we’d hope – to do things that they so far haven’t chosen to do.
I understand what you’re saying, that’s a very fair question. But I think what I said at the Hustings is I’d facilitate that discussion and actually open up a platform for them to put their views. And then from that – I didn’t mention this at the Hustings but I’m quite happy to elaborate now – once we actually get those ideas then it’s time to start doing something. I want to encompass all students in shaping that campaign, to make sure that we make our Union more accessible.
Now, last semester you launched a society called United Against Austerity. We even gave you column inches on Brig to promote it, as you’ll remember. From where I’m sitting, it doesn’t seem like the society did anything. Should students be concerned that campaigns you take up on their behalf won’t be followed through on?
No. I was trying to set up a society, and there wasn’t the appetite for it, so we left it at that. Whereas this Fair Rent Now! Campaign – we set it up at the end of January, we’re now in March, we had our first protest, and we’ll be taking more action again in the near future and our numbers are swelling. And I’ve been a committed campaigner throughout my whole political life, I never give up. But that was just one society which wasn’t going to be able to lift off the ground unfortunately.
You’re a passionate guy with strong political beliefs and principles. Are you sure that you’re ready to compromise to the extent that you might have to in this job? To throw your weight behind campaigns that students support which you might not necessarily endorse, or might even oppose?
Yes, or I wouldn’t be standing. I know that this role requires neutrality, I know this role requires me to represent every single student on our campus, and that’s why I’m doing this. I might have my manifesto points that I want to put forward based on what I’ve listened to from students, but fundamentally I’m going to represent every student on this campus, and I’ll do that to the best of my abilities.
You recently protested at a demonstration against a Polsoc event hosting an Israeli diplomat. The protest was perfectly peaceful – but the original intent of the organisers was to shut down an event and no-platform a speaker organised and hosted by a Union-affiliated, and very popular, society. Do you think, as candidate for Union President, it was appropriate for you to be there?
Yes, because I was there in a personal capacity, and I was putting forward my point of view. I mean, I wasn’t necessarily involved in the organisation of the protest, I didn’t really agree with storming Logie theatre and trying to shut down the actual talk itself, but I believe that I was quite within my right to stand outside the building and protest the fact that the Israeli official was there.
If you were Union President, and this event had come up on your watch, would you have tried to cancel it?
No. And I say that for the same reason that I didn’t call out Andrew for not cancelling it, because I understand that Andrew’s in a job where he has to be neutral and represent all students. So that’s why I’m criticising them for doing it, that’s why I turned up to the protest myself in a personal capacity to do that. But say for example if there is enough voices in the student body who want to put forward a no-platform policy for Israeli ambassadors in the future then I’d be happy to facilitate that, because I understand that the Union already has a no-platform policy for the BNP.
On general principle, you support no-platforming, don’t you?
Yeah. I mean it depends on the situation.
Should societies be worried that your respect for their autonomy will only extend up to the point that it chimes with your personal politics?
Again, I’m not going to be in this job based on my political beliefs and my ideologies, I’m standing as a student, for students, and I’m going to facilitate anything based in the student body, and I’ll never stand in the way of clubs and socs because that’s not my job. I’m there to support them and that’s what I’m going to do.
Thanks Dave. Finally, tell us about what, in an ideal world, you would have liked to have accomplished in your first 100 days as Union President.
First of all, I want to see my ‘Speak Your Mind’ campaign set up, which is going to involve students getting on board, getting them talking about it, shaping and moulding the campaign. I kind of want to kick this off in time for Mental Health Awareness Week. I want to start dialogue on building a bus shelter to see if we can actually get the funds for that. I want to start talking to Professor Gardner, who’s our Vice Principal [of Education] to see if he’s up for doing his ‘Ask John’ thing again on a semesterly basis. [‘Ask John’ was a forum for students to ask Professor Gardner questions on academic issues, including changes to semester dates.]
I want to start questioning the Uni to make sure that Union staff are paid a living wage.
Most importantly we’ll have to start opening serious dialogue with senior management and the JPPRC (Joint Policy, Planning and Resources Committee) so that we actually start seriously looking at a rent reduction. Students shouldn’t be parting with a 5-star premium to live on our campus.
So I think the first 100 days is just laying the foundation, laying the groundwork for what’s going to be a very tough year ahead.