Those of us who just arrived back at Stirling a couple of weeks ago to start the semester might be surprised that this year’s Sabb officers are already nearly a third of the way through their tenure.
But it’s true – it’s now been over 100 days since I and a few other writers for Brig stood in Venue at its warmest and most humid to learn who were going to be the top bananas at the Union for the 2017/18 sesh.
That night, the newspaper that we sent away to be printed had Astrid Smallenbroek’s face plastered across it. She had just been announced as the new President of Stirling University’s Students’ Union: in other words, the most senior banana of the lot.
It was another two-and-a-half months, however, before she officially took office. By then, most of us had started the summer break, and the last thing we wanted to think about was university politics. The furor had vanished, but the Sabbs’ work was just beginning.
But what work can there possibly be when there aren’t even any students on campus? A fair amount, as I found out when I met up with Astrid at Starbucks.
“Over summer, you kind of get to grips with your role – you kind of learn all about what the Union actually does. So, on the surface, every student knows what the Union does in terms of clubs and societies, module representation, maybe some of the environmental projects.
“But when you speak to each of the coordinators – that’s the full time staff at the Union – you learn that there’s a lot more to it and they do a whole variety of things that I don’t think the average student really knows about.
“We’ve also clarified our main priorities for the year, as well as our group priorities, and then made a start on all of that. So, seeing where you can pick up links and see who in the university or outside of the university you have to speak to, and starting the ball rolling on all of those things.”
When I ask Astrid what those main and group priorities are, she produces a small notebook in which all her notes from her many meetings are kept.
She lists her personal priorities (“equality and diversity and inclusion; housing; study provisions, so kind of study support, and mental health, obviously”) and the three sabb group priorities: the student experience (“basically anything that affects you as a student at the University of Stirling, making that the best that it can be”), inclusion (“just making sure that everything the Union does is as inclusive as it can be”), and local and global community connections (“getting our name out there, making sure people know who we are”).
It goes without saying that you can’t spend 100 days just getting a ball rolling – no ball is that difficult to move, and if it is, it probably isn’t worth the effort. So, what’s actually being done about these priorities?
Let’s start with “equality and diversity and inclusion”. This issue featured heavily in Astrid’s campaign manifesto, memorably leading to the only question she was asked from the audience at the Union President debate before the election: “are you favoring international students over Scottish ones?”
It was an oddly charged question, given Astrid’s position as an EU student from the Netherlands, but one she handled pretty well by saying she favored no particular group of students, but acknowledged that international ones might need a bit more care.
The issue was also raised by my erstwhile colleague Craig Paton in his interview with Astrid back in March. Discussing the Vice Principal’s email reassuring students after Brexit, she said that telling international and EU students they would always stay included was fine, but the University should have “a concrete plan of how that’s actually going to happen”.
So, do we have a concrete plan yet? She seems quite glad that I’ve asked this, saying this is something she’s “quite excited about”.
“the Union has secured funding from UKCISA (UK Council for International Student Affairs), basically to do a year-long project to look at how Brexit is affecting the current international student population. That includes wider international students but also EU students.
“And then, within that project, we’re going to be looking at what provisions can we put in place, but also what provisions can the university put in place to support those students, what are they needing?”
Then there’s the manifesto promise of improving “representation and progression of minority ethnic staff and students” by getting the University a bronze award in the Equality Challenge Unit’s (ECU’s) Race Equality Charter. First of all, what on earth does that mean, and second of all, where are we with that?
“It’s a sister award for the Athena SWAN awards. So, the Athena SWAN award is something that universities do to ensure that there’s a good gender balance on, within their university, but more in an academic sense.
“The ECU Equality Charter is kind of the sister award to that, but it looks at race rather than gender. It’s trying to make sure that, within kind of the academic staff and everybody, there’s enough representation in there, in terms of different ethnic minorities.
“It has come up at one of the equalities meetings within the University, so it’s something we’re discussing. It’s a discussion that’s taking place at the moment, so we’ll see where that goes.”
We then moved on to housing, one of the more pertinent issues of the moment. Astrid was the voice of students during the accommodation shambles last month, a hectic and unforeseen crisis that tested her presidential mettle.
In dealing with that situation, Astrid turned to one of her predecessor’s most notable legacies – the Accommodation Enhancement Fund, secured by Dave Keenan earlier on this year.
“For the students who got offered the Glasgow accommodation, I made sure it was highlighted that those students would be paying a lot more than they might have budgeted for, so they can actually apply for the Accommodation Enhancement Fund to cover that cost.
“There is a cap on how much you can get, but because we acknowledge that this was something that was unaccounted for, that cap’s been removed.
“But then obviously there’s the issue of, is that money really meant to be spent on things like travel costs, because you’re now being allocated to Glasgow? So, any money that is going to those students will be put back into that pot. We’ve made sure that those students are accounted for, but that’s not disadvantaging anyone else from applying to the fund.”
And what’s being done to make sure something like last month’s chaos doesn’t happen again?
“We are on a group that decides who gets priority to accommodation, so we’ll be meeting soon again to review what happened, see how we can improve, and then see how we can ensure that something like this doesn’t happen again.
“But I think the university has made it very clear at kind of the highest level, so on court, that this isn’t a situation that can happen again. It’s not acceptable.”
So, on to mental health. Astrid made this a major part of her campaign, and it may be one of the main reasons why she was so successful. Much was made of the fact that the university is currently languishing with only one full-time mental health counsellor, and she promised to change that in the face of some skepticism.
“The Student Support Services has actually reallocated some funding and hired another part-time counsellor because they did acknowledge that that was needed, and that the money was better spent on another counsellor rather than all these other little bits and pieces.
“I’m also hoping that by the end of this year we’ll be able to make a case to the university management that more monetary resources need to go into Student Support Services.”
That’s alongside two other projects to combat the University’s problems with student mental health: the Being Well Doing Well survey, which the Stirling Students’ Union is conducting alongside some other Unions from around Scotland and which Astrid is hoping will “highlight how prevalent our mental health problems are, in terms of other universities”, and a new way of looking at the University’s Wednesday afternoons.
“We know that Wednesday afternoons are usually advertised as kind of sporting afternoons, but I’m really keen to move that towards looking at Wednesday afternoons as free time to look after ourselves and make sure that we’re all having good mental wellbeing, whether that’s through sports, through clubs and societies, or crafting, or even just going and taking a walk around the loch. Let’s just make sure that that’s something we’re all doing.”
Having talked through her main priorities and her plans for the busy two-hundred-and-a-bit days to go, I was curious about how her own expectations for the role had changed since she got into office.
No matter how many committee positions and executive officer roles you hold, you’ll never be prepared for the sheer amount of faff being President entails. Astrid describes it like it’s a maelstrom of meetings, student engagement, speeches and many, many, many emails.
“This role is very heavy in terms of going to a lot of meetings, and sitting on a lot of committees, and it’s an all-encompassing role rather than focusing on one particular kind of part of university life.
“At times, as Union President, you’re kind of all over the place, in the sense that you overview everything. So, it is extremely important that you are at those meetings and make sure that students’ views and students’ interests are being represented. But, it does take time away from the things that you’ve put on your manifesto.
“I think I am still hoping to get most of it done, but I do acknowledge that it might not all get done this year. But I am hoping to work it on a model of everything that I do is sustainable so that, if I don’t rerun, it can just continue going on, and it’s kind of embedded within the Union.”
So yes, a faff, but someone’s got to do it.
Brig will do its best to keep you updated on Astrid and the rest of the Sabb team’s plans and projects over the next 100 days and beyond. Stay tuned.