6 Months In
With December and Christmas rolling around, it’s now the beginning of my sixth month in post as the VP Welfare at Strath Union and I realised I’ve not spent much time reflecting on all that I’ve been doing – and some of the achievements – since being elected. So, if you’d care to indulge me, let’s look back on what I’ve been up to for the last five months, and let’s look forward to what progress I’m still hoping to make.
I was elected on a platform of creating a safer and more supportive University community for all – and all my work up to this point has been in aid of achieving this aim. My manifesto included the three focus areas of Mental Health, Sexual Health, and Student Employment at Strathclyde. In working towards improving support in these areas I’ve taken several steps – working internally with Union Staff to review and revamp the services we provide to ensure more students can access training and employment opportunities that are better suited to them, looking to work with these students to find and create these opportunities. For the area of Mental Health, I have been working closely with the University’s Disability and Wellbeing Department to ensure that student voice is consulted and implemented in all facets of the Departments work. One of the key areas of work on this that I have been carrying out is a review of the implementation of the Student Mental Health agreement that was created and signed by my predecessor Benn, along with his fellow Sabb colleagues – this process is ongoing, and I will be sure to update you all as this develops. Finally, regarding sexual health, my work in this area is still developing. Due to organisational factors within the University, joint-working on this project area has been delayed until they were able to commit the staffing and resources to this project – I am hoping that this will be moving in full force come Semester 2 and I can provide you all with a comprehensive update once the plan is in place for this.
My work, however, has not been limited to that which was outlined in my manifesto. Since starting my post it seems that barely a week has gone by without some larger project or campaigning issue popping up that took precedence over my longer-term campaign work. To begin, we at Strath Union moved into our new space on Richmond Street only one week before launching our Freshers’ Week – this of course had its trials and tribulations, as I’m sure you are aware if you were listening to students and staff alike throughout September. For myself this meant engaging with students, staff, and student volunteers during Freshers’ week to ensure that we at the Union were providing the best experience for new (and returning) students that we could. I may be biased, but we did a good job of it.
It was around this time, however, that we at the Union noticed a concerning trend in the Student Housing market – with students coming to us as early as the beginning of August noting their difficulties in finding housing. It was this issue that took most of my resources and efforts this semester. Once the issue was identified I set to work in doing all that I could – and all that the Union could – in ensuring these students had safe and secure accommodation for the year ahead. This largely took the form of lobbying the University to implement more immediate solutions for those students in most desperate need. I arranged meetings with the University Executive on multiple occasions to discuss and monitor the Student Housing Crisis as it developed and worked with them to ensure provisions and protections for students – including the implementation of a flexibility policy for all students whose studies were affected by their living situation. This provision has given countless students the adjustments they need to still engage with their studies even while being in a living situation that would not be what they would have ideally wanted. With limited resources and capital there was only so much we could do in providing support for these students throughout this situation, so my work then turned to ensuring that a situation like this will not happen again. Working with the University, a monthly meeting of Union and University colleagues was created to look at trends in the wider Student Housing market and spot possible issues; working to develop ideas and solutions to mitigate the impact that these will have on students. Further to this, Benn and I have been working with University Estates and University Accommodation Services in reviewing what Strathclyde currently has to offer in terms of Student Housing and seeing what recommendations can be made for possible future development and redevelopment of these offerings – more on this is sure to follow.
I would be remiss to mention my work on Housing without mentioning the ongoing work in lobbying CAVentures around the issues with their Novel Students: Bridle Works property. Come the end of September, several students were coming to the Union seeking support about issues they were having with Novel – issues that have been covered in news media to some detail. After noticing this becoming, a trend, I set to work to see what we could do to further support these students as a group. Working with my colleagues in the Strath Housing Action Group, we began to organise campaigning efforts including flyer drops, picket-protests, and reaching out to other organisations for support in our efforts. This included working with Glasgow City Council’s Deputy Lord Provost Christy Mearns in sharing student’s worries and concerns to increase our lobbying power. However, the scale of the issue was growing rapidly throughout this time, and it quickly became too much for us to handle. We began to seek support from the National Union of Students to help us campaign and lobby from a stronger position – especially with this issue affecting students from across Glasgow, not just those studying at Strathclyde. With the support from NUS, we were able to engage with several students who had suffered while staying at Bridle Works and were able to draft and send a list of demands to the accommodation provider. This situation is still unfolding – with Novel/CAVentures to still provide a response to our demands and I will be sure to update you as soon as I hear more! Whilst this campaigning is ongoing, however, I have been working with our Advice Hub to ensure that those students who need support from the Union during their time at Novel are being provided with the most up to date and relevant information and support – including providing mediators for any possible disputes for students looking to leave their contracts.
Come the end of October, Glasgow was in full swing with preparing for the hosting of COP26 – and we at the Union were no different. We were lucky enough to host After the Pandemic and Better Futures – two climate-focussed NGOs – in our space for their COP26 program so a lot of my time was spent preparing for the difficulties that hosting two weeks of events can cause and encouraging students to engage with the program on offer to them in our space.
I have also been working in a number of smaller areas that weren’t covered in the scope of these larger ongoing projects, including working with the Mature Students association to ensure their facilities and operations are as best as they can be; working with the Union’s Widening Access co-ordinator to improve opportunities for students with care responsibilities; working with the Department for Mechanical Engineering Management in starting a new Widening Access reach-out project; re-starting the Welfare Committee to ensure that all of the elected officers with Welfare remits are working together to improve student experience across the board; and various other much less glamorous roles and responsibilities that comes with being a member of the Union Exec – if I had a penny for every hour spent in a University working group meeting over the last few months I’d be filthy rich.
Looking forward there is still much to be done. Including the projects that are ongoing that I have already mentioned up to this point, there is several items that deserve a mention as goals I would like to achieve come the end of my term in June/July. First of this being looking to explore further what the Union can offer in terms of Student Housing – with co-operatively owned Student Housing being very successful across the country (and including Edinburgh), I will be exploring the feasibility of this as an investment for the Union to commit to, improving the accommodation on offer for Strathclyde students. I will also be attending both NUS Scotland and NUS UK conferences in the new year, at these events I will be aiming to campaign for stronger democratic processes and fairer representation of Scottish Students in the National conversation. Though I feel most of next semester, much like this semester, will be spent tackling and campaigning around issues that I am yet to foresee – and won’t realise how big these are until I do a retrospective much like this one.
Find out more about what Lewis is up to by coming along to Student Parliament 4 and checking the dedicated VP Welfare page.