VP Education does exactly what it says on the tin.
They’re the people who have an effect on the learning experience of students during their time at University, and we should elect them based on their ability to help us learn in a better way.
Natalie Smith is this year running for VP Education, and her opponent is the incumbent, Matt Adie. Not an easy task, given that he has past experience of the job and is particularly well liked.
From meetings with her, it is fair to say that she is a nice, personable girl, who seems to have a steely determination to represent students, that is emphasised by the fact that she has spent the last few years as a faculty officer for the language department.
You know, the people that constantly pester you on Facebook.
I spoke to Natalie in Underground today, to get her thoughts on a few manifesto points.
Natalie stated in her recent video interview that it was important that the Union represents everyone. When asked if she feels that underrepresentation was a current problem, she said: “Yes, I do think that there are certain people within the Union that are under-represented. I think that international student voices are underrepresented, which is one of the reasons why I built that into my manifesto.”
Speaking of the video interview, there was a lot of stuff that didn’t make it into the videos due to time constraints, so something had to end up on the cutting room floor. What was her favourite colour? Her favourite thing to do on a lazy Sunday? What was her favourite musician?
(For the record, we can reveal here that her favourite musician is X Factor 2005 winner Shayne Ward, for some reason.)
I decided to pick up one of those questions from the cutting room floor and ask if the elimination of mandatory field trip cost would have a negative effect on the quality of the trips.
“No, I don’t think so. The thing is, I do want to eliminate the costs where I can, but that isn’t to say that I’m going in expecting every hidden cost to be removed. I understand that some of them will have to remain, and so I want to make sure that there is some sort understanding for the students going in, that these courses are coming up.
“So, for instance with expensive field trips, students should know that they’re coming so they can set aside money from the first semester of first year for it.
“Also the fact that this field trip is mandatory to graduate with a certain degree title, I don’t think that’s okay. Because if you’re taken by surprise at the end of your degree and then you’ve worked three and a half years, put your heart and soul into it, and then suddenly you can’t leave with the degree title that you came for.”
One of the main points from Natalie’s manifesto is increasing the amount of support for survivors of sexual violence.
When asked more specifically about what she would do to offer support, she responded: “The current structures, where you can report it across the University, are quite messy.
“What generally tends to happen is that people will be referred to Student Services, they’ll try to put things in place, but a lot of the time that’s it.
“There’s no consistency throughout the departments in terms of what they should be doing. One department will accept what another department says at face value. Another department will ask for proof in various ways.”
“I’ve spoken to students who had to get letters from charities, saying what had happened to them. Saying that they’d actually been in touch with charities to seek help before any arrangements in terms of exams and seminars could be taken into account.
“That’s a lot of hassle for someone who is already struggling mentally.”
Following on from mental health, Natalie states in her manifesto that she would confer with “appropriate services” to expand mental health care in the University. When asked what these services were, she said: “Student Services, or the revamped Student Hub. I have spoken to Lynn about implementing certain things. I have also been in touch with the mental health society.”
The Lynn that was mentioned is Lynn Maher, who the Academic Representation and Development Co-ordinator.
But I digress. Natalie continued: “It’s about communicating to the right people. But also making sure that everyone has the same information.
“Part of what I wanted to do with mental health assistance is with the ARUAs.
ARUA stands for the Agreed Record of University Adjustments, which is an outline of adjustments that tutors should make to an individual’s learning experience, to better support their needs.
“I know that work is being done on making all assessment methods more inclusive, but until that happens, there is still this discrepancy between people being given and they’re not taken into account, they’re being disregarded,” she explained.
“Members of staff are calling people lazy because they have a mental illness. They need some accommodation so that they can still get the work done.”
According to the most recent financial statement, the university finds itself at the bottom of a £7m deep hole in terms of the deficit. Given that Union funding comes from the university, this may result in cuts.
There is also the issue of the proposed sports facilities redevelopment, which is rumoured to be about £17m.
Given this, I asked Natalie if she thinks the financial situation could hinder her plans to repair some of the University’s rooms. “The university is a university. It is supposed to facilitate learning, so it does need to be making sure that there isn’t water coming in through the ceilings. I don’t think that’s in any way unreasonable.
“With all these redevelopments coming, I think it’s important that students say ‘look, if you’re going to be doing all this maintenance anyway, make sure there isn’t water coming through the ceiling.
“There’s rooms in Pathfoot where there are just 2 square metres of carpet torn up. It’s ridiculous.”
Amen to that. There’s nothing worse than trying to read a book about the Spanish Civil War while simultaneously trying to stave off trench foot.
Natalie’s manifesto reaches out very particularly to international students, whom she feels are underrepresented at Stirling. I asked her how she would increase engagement with international students.
“What I’ve been doing is talking to people. It seems so straightforward but it makes such a difference,” she told me.
“I’ve been up talking to some of the INTO students, for instance. They had no idea that the Union even existed.
“Some of them didn’t know they were allowed to join sports and clubs.
“They just had no idea what the Union was, and what it could do for them.
“I met with 30-40 people, they were very enthusiastic. They were excited that suddenly someone was interested in what they were doing, and what they could bring to the table as well. I really think just making sure that you’re setting aside the time to actually speak to people, it’s a lot of the work.”
In her interview last week, if I could plug our friends at AirTV one last time (#mediasocieties), Natalie said that the educational environment has to be accessible to everyone. So I asked her if she thinks this is a problem currently.
“A lot of people like to think of themselves as very progressive and they’ll say ‘yes, everyone should be able to participate’ but when it comes down to it, if you look at the details of what’s put in place, a lot of people are falling through the cracks.
“The work needs to be there to ensure that everyone gets to be involved.
“At the university, there’s still going to be an over-representation of…” she trails off, thinking of how to phrase her next move.
The silence went on for longer than a person should be comfortable with, so I decided to help: “White people?”
I realised almost immediately that may have been a really bad thing to say, if that’s not where she was going, and I may have made a perfectly innocuous statement seem a little racial.
“Well, yeah, white middle-class people.” Thank the lord I got away with that one. “Or white middle-class interest being privileged above others.
“So, even if the class has a diverse range of people involved, what the structure is trying to achieve will still be a reflecting a minority of that people.
“But it’s about not only making sure that people show up but making sure that people’s voices are listened to and making sure that these voices are reflected in a more dynamic way.”
Now we get on to the real politics, the kind of stuff that CNN asks people. What would you do in your first 100 days as VP Education?
She said: “One of the big things is some sort of information package to the INTO students because they need to be able to participate in University life, on this side of the bridge, not just over there in the castle.”
Although, they are moving from a castle to an old car park, so that’s progress I suppose.
“I would also like to have begun the support for survivors of sexual violence,” Natalie added.
“Something it would be important to establish early on as well is the practical side of the study space. I haven’t spoken about that very much in the interview, but study space is that is important to deal with.
“People are struggling to find space to work on their dissertation, or just do reading for a class. So, I’d like to begin very early on looking at the practical elements of that.”
A busy first 100 days there. The rest of the year will be spent playing table tennis in the Atrium and listening to Shayne Ward’s Greatest Hit album, which is more of a single if you’re being pedantic.
Natalie has talked a lot about inclusivity, and in the spirit of that, I thought it fair to ask her what she would like to INCLUDE from Matt Adie’s manifesto if she were to be elected.
“I feel like there’s definitely overlap. Some of the stuff he’s talking about in terms of timetabling,” she said.
“Some of the international students I’ve spoken to have said that on Fridays at 12, they would like to observe prayer.
“But then they can’t because they have class. Especially with the INTO students, their attendance is monitored, so if they do observe prayer instead of going to class, you get marked as absent.
“If you get a certain percentage of absences, then they can revoke your visa.
“So, in that regard, I think timetabling, but then bringing in the inclusivity element. Having spoken to people I know that is quite an urgent issue, and that is something that needs to be taken care of.”
That concludes this interview, which I have dubbed ‘Craig and Nat’s Banter and Chat’.
I’m assuming that Natalie doesn’t approve of my title.
Voting opens Monday, March 13, at 9am and closes Tuesday, March 14, at 6.15. Make sure and vote, or McDonald’s workers will do unspeakable things to you Mayo Chicken. Although they probably do that already.
Hustings are tomorrow (March 7) at 12pm in the Atrium, we’ll be covering that for you, so feel free not to stop when you see one person addressing a group as you’re going to get a steak slice from the bakery, we’ve got you.
Although Alt Hustings will be on Thursday (March 9) which I assume will be more to your liking. But then, I don’t really know you.
Featured image credit: Natalie Smith/Facebook