VP Communities candidate Jamie Grant talks to Brig

 

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Photo: Jamie Grant

 

You should know how this goes by now, we talk to the Union candidates, so you don’t have to.

Although you should talk to them. They’re lovely people.

That’s no different for today’s interviewee, PolSoc President Jamie Grant, who is running for VP Communities..

Jamie is a political maestro, his manifesto is packed with initiatives and programs with swanky names like OPEN and CONNECT, because everyone loves acronyms.

Jamie is also one for talking. His passion for the issues that he wants to tackle led to what would usually be a 15-20 minute conversation actually taking 40 minutes, and I get the feeling that we could have gone a lot longer.

I’d like to think that’s because I’m a wonderful person, but I suspect it’s because Jamie really likes talking about his manifesto.

As well as PolSoc, Jamie is also currently the Union’s Communities Officer, making him the second of the VP Comms candidates to hold this post, as well as Alasdair Ibbotson.

Jamie states he wants to create housing committees who will be responsible for things such as inter halls competitions.

I asked what he hoped to achieve by this: “Hall committees are not a new thing, I was talking to one of the former presidents of a hall, a good 30 years ago, at a fundraiser.

“He was saying that his responsibility was nothing too formal: Organising socials trips, inter-accommodation competitions, things like that. Especially in the newer accommodations; because they’re all ensuite, it’s easy to be isolated. You don’t want to come out of your room, don’t want to interact.

“My idea would assist in that; it would be mentioned in the freshers’ pack. The ALS have meetings with students anyway, so it would be brought up; you get volunteers, you would have an informal committee structure, then they take the lead on organising socials.

“I think it’s immensely beneficial because it provides that semi-structure, so it’s not going to fall by the wayside, but, at the same time, it’s not something as rigid as a society with elections and presidents.

“It’s to try and get them integrated into a committee lifestyle, then hopefully from there into the Union or clubs and societies. It’s beneficial socially, and for the Union.”

Jamie says in his manifesto he plans to commission a housing report, that will be available for students in 2018, so they can better decide what housing avenue is correct for them.

I asked him why this was needed, “as I mentioned a lot before, when I was first year there was a PDF document that you were given when you were accepted, and you scrolled along this shitty table, and you looked for what you could afford and what you couldn’t.

“It could be so much easier, have the information there, students can make their decisions there. So it’s not the case that they think that campus-based accommodation is the only way forward, they could always go private.

“So, include average private sector prices in there, along with hidden costs along and advice when it comes to deposits and landlords, so students have all the options on the table for them and they can make the best decision for their own budget”.

Grant went on to state that the information is out there, and it is just a case of compiling it. He also says that he hopes it will be ready by December 2017, or January 2018 at the latest.

Grant also states that he would like to create the role of housing officer within the Union, which he states would be put forward at the next General Meeting, if he were to be elected.

“The housing officer is something that I’m quite passionate about. With the new rent deal coming in, that’s going to be a lot on the VP Communities plate.

“I know that other candidates are proposing bigger ideas when it comes to housing, and I think that’s a mistake because of this rent deal that’s coming in place. It needs to be settled, it needs to be implemented and it needs to be regulated to make sure it’s upheld.

“To add a massive project on top of that is just asking for trouble.

“Having a housing officer on exec would be a great idea, because it means that one student would be responsible for the housing committee pilot, they can feedback to me how they’re doing.

“It also means that they can help the VP Comms take the lead on housing issues, sit in on rent deal meetings, and basically be the housing assistant.

“I will admit that Communities Officer, does have some responsibility for housing, but it’s such a vague, ‘jack of all trades’ role, that it’s really just a junior VP Comms.”

Grant also takes a different view when it comes to housing in some ways. He states in his manifesto that he wants to work with Stirling Council to to come up with a long term housing strategy.

I asked him what he hoped that the Council would be able to do: “I spoke to some councillors, and I was very naïve in thinking that the City Deal we had coming in would have adequate scope for us to explore funds.

“Unfortunately, that’s not the case, because everyone is going after this pie.

“The housing provisions within that deal are going to vulnerable people first: Vulnerable families, vulnerable protected groups. The council wants to build more council housing, that’s their priority.

“The councillors spoke to me recently and said that it’s really on the uni to start building accommodation if they need more accommodation.

“Even though most of our students live in private letting in the city, I think that it’s the university’s responsibility to get as many people living on campus as possible, and that does mean pursuing a long term housing strategy about where we can build, how expensive it will be and what students can afford.

“I want it to be accountable, and that’s an important point to stress, because sabbatical officers change every year and because you’re only at university for four or five years as Dave was mentioning at the GM, there were students sitting in on those rent deals made in 2010 and 2011 before the new builds.

“Those rent increases in the contract were agreed, but there’s really a poor record on why. Did the students negotiate it down? Did they do nothing? Did they make things worse?

“No one knows and those students are now gone, so there’s no accountability there. By pulling in local council, who sit for five years, the university and the Students’ Union, we can get a discussion going; a roundtable about what the long term plan for student housing would be.

Grant goes on to talk about how more on-campus accommodation would free up space in the private sector, which means people could move out of council housing and also frees up more council houses. He described it as a “win-win-win”.

That’s a lot of winning, I really hope we don’t get sick of all the winning and say, “Jamie, we have to stop winning, we’re so tired of winning”, although I imagine he will say “no chance, we’re going to keep winning. Big league”.

Jamie asserts in his manifesto that students should know where the money in the Union is going, and so he proposes that the Union should be financially transparent. I asked what that financial transparency would look like.

“The way the finances work at the Union, is very convoluted. It’s very difficult to trace where the money is going and why.

“It has been the case in the past that we’ve been sitting in a Communities Zone exec meeting, and we don’t know how much money is left in the grant. So clubs and societies applying for it had no idea if the money was even there to begin with.

“So financial transparency, to me, would be crucial – again this could take the form of a report, a campaign, a website, video whatever.

“Some sort of information dissemination that shows where the money is going into the system, whether that be through commercial services in the summer – people renting out accommodation in the summer – that money goes back into accommodation services then back to students.

“Whether it’s you purchasing a pint in the Union, how much of that £3 pint goes back into clubs and societies, how much goes to the university, how much goes to staff costs, I’d love a financial breakdown of that.

“The issue being, because commercial services, residential services, the Union are all different segmented institutions, they all have their own financial reports, they all have their own way of doing things.

“That’s my job as a facilitator, to gather all this information – and it will take time, I’ll be honest about that – so students can see the benefit of it.

“Maybe the pint costs 50p extra at the Union than it does at Spoons. If they make that link between the 50p extra on the pint, and the £50 travel grant they get given to go to a competition, they will be able to make that connection and see that we need to get the circular economy going.”

The first of Jamie’s politically savvy acronym programmes has been dubbed CONNECT. I’m not entirely sure if this is an acronym, or if Jamie just leant on the caps lock and never noticed, and doesn’t want to lose face.

CONNECT is intended to be an initiative that links up clubs and societies with their respective academic departments, to provide a better experience for members.

I ask how the programme will benefit students, Jamie said: “At the moment, there isn’t a formal link between departments and societies, it’s really based on personal relationships, and hoping that you have a good committee that are friendly enough with their professors.

“I’d like to try to formalise that structure, in a similar way to the hall committees, so there is a channel of communication there.

Jamie states that the link to the department will be established through the respective faculty officers.

The risk with this programme is that students who are not in a society that have these links will be detrimentally affected by the fact that their peers are getting extra curricular face time with tutors.

I asked Jamie if there was a risk of leaving some students behind. “It’s always very difficult when you put an academic emphasis on clubs and societies, because it is a win-lose scenario, where people in the club may have better academics than people outside the club.

“The argument that I would put forward for that would be, with clubs taking on some of the workload, informally teaching students. For example, if you’re part of Brig, and you’re struggling with a journalism essay, you can speak to your peers, maybe there’s someone who’s done the module before and they can help with that.

“That actually decreases the workload on seminar tutors and the module coordinator, so there’s more time to spend on those students who perhaps might not be in Brig.

“I would encourage all students to join a society if possibl; certainly the societies that I’ve been part of I’ve been able to get help through informal links, through older students being able to give me some pointers.

“It’s a valid concern that if you put too much emphasis on clubs and societies, then people can feel left out, that’s why my manifesto tries not to fall into the trap, as other candidates have done in the past, of focusing on clubs and societies.

“I posted a wider community aspect, so my community led initiatives are open to everyone, not just clubs and societies.”

For all of Grant’s political acumen, his manifesto is vague on environmental issues, simply stating “Plan for sustainability on our campus, reduce our carbon footprint and promote environmentally responsible development.”

I asked for his specific environmental programs. “At the moment, as part of my OPEN programme (which we’ll come onto soon, so hold on to your frillies) I’d like to see exactly what the Union is doing about environmental issues.

“It seems to me, that the environmental officers always do a great job, but it seems like the whole Union could be behind them.

“There will be one-off campaigns – Earth Hour, Sustainability week, recycling week – but there doesn’t seem to be a long-term plan when it comes to environmental initiatives.

“Me and James had a really good conversation about it, and he mentioned it at the Hustings, about solar panels, and the university’s approach to renewable energy.

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Credit: Stirling Student Union – Just as Jamie reaches to pull out a love poem he wrote for James.

 

“I know, because of the way that the campus is structured, it would be difficult to put wind turbines in, but I would like to see what their thoughts are on solar panels, because they’re quite affordable in quite a holistic sense.

“In these long term plans, we’re talking 20-30 years here, it moves beyond the remit of just the VP Communities for a year, and moves to this long plan of: What’s the university thinking? How can we help shape their thinking and keep the accountability to students?

“Maybe in a desk drawer somewhere, in the bowels of some godforsaken room in Cottrell, there is a plan for solar panels, or a wider sustainable project of replacing the [light]bulbs or something.

“But I don’t know about it, the uni don’t know about it, the students don’t know about it. So we need to match up that thinking on that.

“Maybe the uni is miles ahead on this, and they’re implementing a plan in a couple of years, or maybe they’re so far behind they haven’t even thought of it.

“So it’s my job to agenda set, and make sure it’s carried forward, more than come up with ‘we’re going to blow the whole budget on one solar panel’ because it’s more than that kind of scope.”

Student Support Services has been a hot topic in this campaign, the waiting list for a counsellor is a purported six months, the change to the Student Hub has left the area completely lacking in confidentiality and there have been proposals by candidates to either scrap it and start again, or to move it to the Union’s jurisdiction.

Jamie said that he wants to promote Student Support Services, but I asked him if that would do more to overwhelm what is an already drowning institution, and also asked if there should be more done to fix the problems that exist before heavily promoting its use.

“I approach this issue humbly, I’ve never had to engage with Student Services. There was a time last semester when I felt quite down, in quite poor mental health and even the thought of approaching Student Services put me off, because I had heard about the waiting times and the reputation preceded it.

“When it comes to Student Services, from an outsider’s point of view, has peaks and troughs in demand.

“As you can imagine, when it comes to exam time, students are feeling more stressed and more mentally fragile, there’s going to be a greater demand on Student Support Services.

“It’s unfeasible for the Union to turn around and say ‘right, at that peak time, there’s thousands of students needing help, you need to have counsellors that are able to deal with those thousands of students, because at other times of the year – maybe the summer or just after freshers’ week when everyone’s hungover – those counsellors would be idle, and that wastes more money.

“Rather than going in wholesale with a sledgehammer and smash it up, or trying to carve it out, and we’re going to move to this or that jurisdiction, you go in with a sense of ‘I’m ignorant of this situation, I want to find out more.’

“Maybe there’s an issue that Student Services have and they’re not being listened to. So sit down with those stakeholders, listen to what they have to say.

“We already know what the students think in terms of it’s a poor delivery, there’s not enough counselling but maybe there’s a wider issue there that we’re ignorant of.

“I like to approach these kind of things in a listening mode, rather than thinking that I know best.

“I’m not a mental health professional, none of the other candidates are mental health professionals and I think it’s dangerous to move into this very sensitive territory and think that we know better than the professionals. We’re not Michael Gove after all.”

It has now come time for our second foray into the land of acronyms, as Jamie takes us deep down the rabbit hole of his OPEN programme.

When I spoke to Jamie, he spoke at length about the ins and outs of this initiative. Unfortunately, due to space, and my own sanity, I will not attempt to transcribe this portion, so I’ll just tell you what he is proposing based on what he told me. If I get anything wrong, please forgive me Jamie.

The overall programme is based at boosting engagement with the student body. Jamie believes that all the problems in the Union, be they housing or rent, he believes that all these issues would be made better by students engaging with the Union.

Each letter in OPEN stands for a certain stage in the programme, like the Christmas Alphabet. Which makes me wonder how fun Christmas in Grant household must be.

The O stands for organise, which is a look at the policies within the Union, and assessing if the policies and initiatives deciding what is best placed with each sabbatical officer.

The P is for persuade, which is aimed at teaching student of the benefit of engagement with the Union.

Jamie wants to frame the debate around engagement differently, because the current yardsticks for engagement are usually clubs and socs membership, attendance at GMs and other such things.

He believes that buying a pint in the Union is engagement – which means that I should be made King of the Union – as well as volunteering and taking part in study support sessions.

The E is for Educate, which is the attempt to show students what the Union actually does. Jamie points to the fact that the Union are responsible for feeding, watering, housing, class sizes and many other points.

He also believes that it is a chance for the Union to be educated in what students actually want.

The final part is networking. Jamie wants to meet with sabbs from other unis and discuss with them what their engagement is like, and how they’ve tried to boost it. He also says that Stirling has a fairly high average for engagement, so could take a leadership role in increasing engagement across the board.

It’s at this point where Jamie and I had a bit of a misunderstanding. I launched into our usual final tap dance of asking what he would take from his opponents’ manifestos – Jamie thought I asked him what he thought. It was hilarious. You should have been there, you would have shit out your own toenails with laughter.

It did however, become quite an engaging answer. So I left it in.

“So, I would say that Scott was the heaviest on policy, he had a very well thought out plan of how he was going to achieve things.

“You have to be careful not to take the manifesto on face value, because there’s only 500 words, so some points that might seem vague have already been explained.

“I think James’ heart’s in the right place. I noticed that he only has 8 manifesto points, compared to my 17, to Scott’s 13 and Alasdair’s is just a bit strange – it’s all over the place. James has the heart in the right place, and he has the passion, but passion isn’t everything.

“I know that the dichotomy is shaping up is that James is the charismatic heart, and I’m the rational head. I’ve heard a few people say that, that they don’t know who to vote for.

“For James, it would be quite easy for him to refine his manifesto a little bit more, and once he’s in the job, to sit down and hammer out what he wants to do.

“My fear is that the job sweeps you up. I’ve seen that. I’ve seen two sabbatical officers in this role in my time here, and the job does sweep you up.

“Unless you go in with a crisp, clear plan on what you want to achieve, the job will sweep you up.

“Before you know it, your training over the summer will be done, you’ll be planning freshers’ and your manifesto is sitting at the bottom of a desk drawer.

“I’m happy to go on the record and say I’d be happy to lose to James, I’ve only become friends with him in the last few weeks, but he’s a really good guy, and he’s said likewise to me. So we’re both happy to lose to each other.”

I had to take a little minute to deal with the lump in my throat after that. It was allergies okay?!

Jamie then moved onto Alasdair’s manifesto, and wasn’t as glowing.

“With Alasdair it’s a bit more tricky.” He said, before discussing how he and Alasdair have been good friends for a long time, working on different projects together as well as both being in PolSoc early in their university career.

“I don’t think his approach is the best. With the Tenants’ Union, as we heard on the radio, the funding is a problem.

“£9,000 from grants, maybe it’s achievable for a year – but year on year? It’s not feasible, no charity is going to sign on for that amount of expenditure.

“The more charities that you involve the more fragile this house of cards gets.

“The last thing I would want is for people to sign up to this union, they’re under this protection for year, they make life plans around that and it falls apart.

“I can see his point with the subscription model where you pay a little money and you get rent off. But the whole idea of his tenants union is to get landlords up to the standard, not even rent reductions yet, and that will take time.

Jamie then discussed the fact that the rent deal is still to be implemented, and that between the union and the rent deal, Alasdair’s time would be stretched thin, and thus smaller issues would fall by the wayside.

“Then his third option was cutting Clubs and Socs ball, cutting Union initiatives, it’s an unfeasible thing. So that’s his first flagship policy sunk.”

A lot of what Jamie has said, was explained in the interview that Alasdair did with Brig earlier in the week, so in the interest of balance, please have a look at that as well.

He moved onto Alasdair’s proposal for moving Student Support from the University to the Union, along with the funding pot for the service.

“I think Alasdair may have been reading into my manifesto too much about networking and seeing what other universities do.

“University support is always contextual, different Unions have emerged in different ways, and you’ve got to be very sensitive to how these organisations are set up.

“When the university pays thousands and thousands of pounds on a rebrand of the Student Hub offices and trains its staff, if it’s unsuitable say it’s unsuitable and work with them to make changes.

“Don’t then say to those staff members, I’m going to change your job role, I’m going to take your whole department and move it under the Union, which is already stretched.

“Not feasible, he didn’t speak to people in the Union about it, he didn’t talk to people in Student Support.

“When I asked him about his consultation period, he tried to weasel around it saying that there was a consultation period built into the policy.

“If he’s saying October for the tenants union then when is this consultation period going to be?

“If you’ve put that on a piece of paper, without even doing the basic homework to see if it’s feasible, then why in hell should anyone trust what you’re saying?

“Yes, his heart’s in the right place, he’s seen this practice at other universities and thought it was applicable.

“But there’s a big difference between networking and thinking it’s a good idea and wholesale taking an idea and cramming it into the jigsaw that is Stirling.”

Again, Alasdair goes into detail about this plan in our interview, so please check it out.

Given that Jamie came up with a better question than mine, we’re not even going to bother asking that one, so let’s all act like it doesn’t exist.

Our usual coup de gras is as always, what would Jamie do in the first 100 days of his time in office?

After a period of us trying to add up how long 100 days would be, like the Chuckle Brothers, Jamie said: “I would hope to have the housing report almost complete. The GM on the 20th of March is when I’m wanting to propose my housing officer, so I’ll have a policy prepared for that.

“I’d like to have spoken to stakeholders in the city, the students will be away, so I feel like I will have a lot of free time to be able to talk to them, hopefully some of them in person.

“The council will be over in May, so there will be a fresh administration in for the next five years, start building up links with those people, ask them about the housing strategy.

“The faculty officers are recruited soon, so I’ll be able to get in touch with the faculty officers, talk to them about the CONNECT program and chat with the new presidents and start making those links.

“There’s a wide scope to have a lot of stuff done, even by September.”

Make sure to vote folks, or Dusk will never open that pizza shop, and you’ve only yourself to blame. Voting opens at 9am on Monday 13 March and closes at 6.15pm on the following day.

The results will be announced in Venue shortly after the polls close and there will be copious amounts of horrific jokes from the electoral committee, as they desperately try to make it fun.

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4 thoughts on “VP Communities candidate Jamie Grant talks to Brig

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