Brig talks to Union President candidate Astrid Smallenbroek

21 mins read


Here we go. Strap yourselves in. It’s time to talk to someone who wants to be the head honcho.

The top dog. The tip of the spear. The Steve Bannon to the Union’s Donald Trump. The Union President.

It’s their job to represent students to staff, to the NUS and to anybody else who wants a go and thinks they’re hard enough.

As President, you’re given a seat on University Court – a panel of university officials where all the decisions are made. It’s a little like Mock The Week, only not funny. So, entirely like Mock The Week.

Astrid Smallenbroek has decided to take up the mantle of running.

Astrid is a fairly unassuming character, but she is much fierier than her small frame would have you believe. In our interview, she brought an energy that perked me up considerably.

Her manifesto says that she would like the university and the Union to make concrete commitments to international students, particularly post-Brexit.

When asked what particular commitments should be made, she said: “I think that they need to make sure that international students feel welcome. I’m not entirely sure how we put that in place, but I think that it’s all about accountability.

“So, the Vice Chancellor and the Vice Principal sent out an email after Brexit saying they’re highly committed to making sure everybody is still included, and that Stirling’s voice is heard in negotiations about Brexit.

“I think it’s key we say, ‘How are you going to do that?’, then have a concrete plan of how that’s actually going to happen. So, it’s not like, ‘Well we did something’, or, ‘We did this tiny thing’, so it’s actually going to make an impact.”

In a recent interview with AirTV, Astrid said she would like to “basically get rid of” the newly revamped Student Hub. She did not, however, go into specifics.

When asked specifically what she would replace it with, Astrid rolled back her bold claim: “After speaking a bit more to the staff in the Students’ Union, I think the best option would be not to entirely scrap it, but to change it so there’s still that level of confidentiality there, and that you can still walk in and say, ‘I want to speak to this person’, and you can just go and speak to that person.

“I think a big problem with it is people can’t just go in and see the people that you want to see.

“You possibly have to go and stand in a line of people to say, ‘I’m having a mental breakdown so I need to see Accessibility and Inclusion Services’, or, ‘I’m having financial issues, I need to see Financial Support’.

“I understand the university has put a lot of money into it, so they’ll be hesitant to scrap it completely. But I think a viable option would be to see how we could include confidentiality in the Student Hub.”

In her manifesto, Astrid states she wants to make the equalities steering group a success.

The steering group is aimed at promoting equality within the Union, as well as helping any university liberation groups to pursue their goals.

It took over from the Equalities Zone in November last year. So, it changed its name, like P. Diddy. It’s the University of Stirling’s equivalent to P. Diddy.

To make it a success, Astrid said: “I have a couple of ideas surrounding this: I know the Union is currently undertaking work to make sure that equalities are basically in everything they do.

“I’d like to see the university do the same; I’d like to integrate into people’s contract there are real consequences if you’re not adhering to the Equal Opportunities policies.

“Also, I’d like to find a group of committed people. Put them on the steering group, then have it staffed so there’s some continuity there.

“Obviously, the Equalities Officers will be sitting on the steering group, but then get two or three more students who are dedicated and can have valuable input into the steering group.”

Astrid has spoken of how she would like to improve the structure and status of ALS.

You know the ALS? The ones that helped you up the stairs in Geddes in first year after you were dared to drink a VK through your eyeball while Fubar’s weird fake Jager was poured down your throat? Yeah, those folks.

“The ALS’ are currently not strictly employed by the university, they’re technically volunteers from what I understand, but obviously they’re getting free accommodation.

“The issue here is that a lot of ALS, when there are issues, have been hesitant to come forward to speak about them because they’re scared of getting kicked out of accommodation, or they’re scared of being reprimanded by the university for doing that.

“Ideally I’d like to see the ALS being fully employed by the university because then there’s that accountability there.

“If you work it out, ALS are working on about £2 an hour. That’s absolutely ridiculous. I don’t think that’s a fair deal for them.

“If they’re going to employ you, then they should be topping up that £2 an hour to make it at least minimum wage I think.”

Before we move on, think about something: How many times have you been in the library, and you spot a computer across the room, only to dart over there, beating your rivals to the punch, to find that the computer has an “Out of Order” sign on the keyboard?

Loads. I bet it’s loads.

Astrid says that she wants to fix that, but you can’t fix it without cash money dolla. When I asked her if it could be too expensive, she replied: “I think for most of the computers, it should be doable, it just needs to be that somebody is assigned to make sure these computers are working on a regular basis.

“I think if the university is serious about having an Equal Opportunities policy, they need to say, ‘If you can’t buy a laptop, then there are computers’.

“I would argue you’re discriminating against students that aren’t able to buy a laptop and therefore aren’t able to study.”

One thing that I think we can all relate to is coming to uni, only to find the entire place is packed to the gills with people, and there’s nowhere to go.

Astrid has proposed the Union create a website or an app, that shows people where is busy and where is free in the university.

This presents the possibility for the Computer Science department to design an app that could be used by students.

I asked Astrid if the app would be designed in-house, or if it would be put into the private sector. She stated that it would be “done in house if possible”.

In his AirTV interview last week, Astrid’s opponent Searlas said he doesn’t want to promise the hiring of another counsellor, because it may be something which doesn’t come to fruition. This happens in every campaign, at every level of politics.

I asked Astrid if this was a worry for her: “No. Basically, the guidelines say there should be one counsellor for every 3000 students; currently, we have one for every 6000.

“So if the university is serious about tackling mental health issues, given that one in four people experience mental health issues, I think they really need to buck up their ideas.”

Astrid went on to say that the money is there. The truth is, it may not be. The university currently has a £7m deficit, with a rumoured £17m redevelopment on the way for sports facilities.

The sad truth may be there just isn’t enough money to hire one counsellor, never mind spending the money to get two, which would meet the guidelines.

When I told Astrid this, she replied: “I think the university needs to prioritise where it’s spending its money.

“I think it’s definitely doable, it’s something that I’m extremely passionate about. I’ve seen people go in and out of counselling, and have seen them be treated poorly and not accessing the service when they need to.

“If the university is serious about counselling, which is a tactic to stop things from getting worse, waiting six weeks in not going to help anyone.

“In the long run, it’s actually going to save them money if they hire one because there will be fewer students facing more extreme mental health difficulties.

“It’s definitely doable, it’s just a matter of convincing the university that this is a priority for students, and I think I’d be able to do that.”

Brace yourselves. Here it comes.

The issue that is talked about in every single campaign. The issue that rears it’s head every few months like a like a whale leaping out of the water, only with less subtlety and much, much more irritation.

A new rent deal has been struck, we’ve written about it extensively, so check those articles out here and here.

The last two years have seen two different presidents make two different, but similar deals.

I asked Astrid if the last two years have meant that a rent deal is unlikely to happen for a third.

“No. I think there is still more to be fought for. I think a rent freeze on the older properties, after speaking to Union staff, is definitely something that’s achievable.

“More money into the Accommodation Enhancement Fund is definitely something that we can negotiate with the university if we show that the money is needed for more students.

“I have a plan of how to show it to the university by doing research into whether the fund is being advertised adequately, as well as how many students are still struggling to pay their rent. So the university can’t then turn around and say, ‘Well, only 10 people have asked for this fund’.

“The big problem with the current fund is that it wasn’t advertised properly. We just have to hold the university accountable and ask if they’re advertising it properly.

“It ties in with counselling as well: Universities want to be seen to give their students a good overall experience, and I think that mental health is one part that can be improved on, but also accommodation.

“You want students to come to your university, obviously, to make money. One way of doing that is looking good. How do you look good? By having good mental health provisions, but also making sure that, if you can’t afford accommodation, then you can still go to university.”

In terms of rent, one thing which has been emphasised over the past year is the negotiating tactic the Union President should approach the uni with.

Last year, Dave Keenan was elected as the ginger Che Guevara, promising hope and change like we haven’t seen since Mandela’s walk to freedom.

Eventually, our humble comrade Keenan had to hang up the megaphone and placards, and take on a more statesmanlike approach.

He told me in an interview he knew almost immediately his plan of rent reductions wasn’t feasible.

Opposing Astrid, Séarlas seems to be similar to Keenan in his passion and exuberance for fighting against the man. So, I asked Astrid how she would tackle the deal.

“I think having seen Dave work this year, I know that he got elected saying, ‘I’m going to fight for this’ – similar to Searlas: Being a bit ‘AAAARGH’ about it.”  (That is an actual quote, she actually did that in this interview. Truth be told, I was a little scared).

“I also know Dave said in one of your interviews that tactic wasn’t effective. The university responds well to evidence, not anecdotal evidence but actual evidence.

“I’ve done sociology for the past four years, I’m well equipped to do research. I can give this to the university in a structured report and argue the points of what students need and what they have to do.”

Astrid says she is looking to work with the Stirling Council on issues of housing and bus routes.

It may be difficult for a Union President to get a councillor to take them seriously when they raise issues like this. I asked Astrid if this was a worry.

“The student population makes up a big part of the population of Stirling, so yes, they should take us seriously.

“We should have a say in what happens in Stirling because we make up a big part of that population, and I think they will take us seriously.”

Given that there’s a council election this year, and the administration could go through monumental changes, I asked Astrid what she would do if she were not to be taken seriously by the council.

“It would be time then to sit down with a councillor and ask them why they aren’t taking us seriously, and what we could do to make them take us seriously.

“But also, why are they not listening to a large part of Stirling’s population? Because that’s quite frankly ridiculous.”

Sticking with the housing theme. Astrid talks about increasing the number of LGBT+ approved landlords. For which she says landlords will have to go through a training course, which will take only a few hours, where they will be taught how to not cause offence to people in the LGBT+ community.

After completing the course, their flats will then be put on a special page on the Stirling Digs website for approved landlords.

In the spirit of unwavering cooperation, I asked Astrid if there was anything that she would take from Séarlas’ manifesto that she could implement if she were to be elected.

“I know that he has his point about the trade union referendum. I would definitely take that on board – it has potential. But I think we would need to get more student engagement to make that work. It’s something I would like to work on.”

I asked Astrid (in the most presidential way possible) what she would like to do in her first 100 days in the job.

After counting out when the 100 days would expire, she replied: “My number-one priority would be the Student Hub, counselling – anything that I’m able to achieve for students coming in so we can make it as smooth as possible for new students.

“You also have a lot less student engagement during the summer, less feedback, so I will be able to get all the reports done to show the university why we have to get things done for the incoming students, and why it will make a difference.”

So there you have it, your first Union Pres candidate of the year.

In the interest of balance, Searlas’ interview will be done later in the week, and will be winging it’s way to a computer near you very soon.

Remember to vote in the upcoming election, or Wetherspoons will put their prices up and we’ll all blame you for it.

Voting opens Next Monday (March 13) at 9am, and close the following day at 6.15pm.

Hustings are tomorrow (March 7) and Alt Hustings are Thursday (March 9), so come along for some rabble-rousing mudslinging. But, if you can’t make it, we’ll be there every step of the way.

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