Vice-President Education Candidate: James Ferns

James Ferns

What is the biggest challenge that Strathclyde students face and how would you tackle it?

I think there are a lot of individual small problems and often candidates will say that exam bunching is a problem, or x, y, z is a problem, but what I’ve tried to this year, is look at what the root causes and I believe that a lot of the problems at Strathclyde, or within the entire higher education sector arise due to unbalanced student-staff ratios. Staff often feel that they’re overworked and they can’t do all the things that students ask of them. We need to fix that, it’s all connected to student-staff ratios. So having more staff. There are loads of issues, timetabling, exam bunching and the stress attached to it, just really basic stuff around flexibility. Another major thing is access to academic staff. People can’t just walk into offices and informally chat with their lecturers anymore, it’s something I’m really concerned about at the moment. The University is leaning more towards open plan layouts, which means that because of the noise disruption they don’t really want students to access the open plan academic working environment. What they’ve done to take that away, they’ve just discouraged student access, you have to formally book an appointment with your academic. That has basically destroyed that informal flow of student traffic. And I’ve been talking to some academic staff and they’ve said that the best teaching they ever got done was in those little informal moments when a student just comes up to them and asks a question. Formalising that means that students who are maybe more shy or extremely stressed aren’t quite prepared to make a formal appointment. They might be prepared to knock on their door, and maybe they won’t, but it’s there, they share the same space. I think sharing the same physical space with just your academic is important. It means students sense that they’re also in the same academic work environment as their lecturers, there’s a space for them to contribute to the University. So I think formalising that relationship is something that is highly problematic and I really want to work on next year.

What has the Union executive done well this year and what could be improved on?

I don’t want to be big headed and say I’ve done well. But no, the executive has done well this year, they’ve done a lot but the one thing that student unions in general need to do is defend decisions and be prepared to make tough, potentially controversial decisions. I mean, we were elected to take a stance. The one thing that we did this year that I’m really proud of is that we were supportive of the lecturers strike. I think it’s really important that student unions are supportive of their cause. For me, it’s not just about lecturers getting paid more, it’s about the entire future and the entire direction of higher education and the wrong direction, in my opinion, that higher education is going down. The kind of neo-liberal marketisation commodification of education. Students as customers, that’s quite worrying. I’m quite proud that the executive took a stance on it. Another thing I’m really happy about is the campaign that our VPDA Roza ran for asylum seekers to get scholarships. It’s such an ambitious project but I think it’s amazing that we are doing it. Another thing I’m proud of is the peer support system I’ve been working, I’ve had massive support from Kwaku, Josh, James Reid, Roza through it and I’ve got a lot of support from the University as well, they’ve been really helpful. And of course, the independence debates, they’ve been highly successful. But I do think that we need to take more principle stances, we have to actually point out when the University is wrong and take a hard stance on it and when the University is right, we should be completely on board with them. It’s this floating around in the middle, I think that’s something common across the whole sector and student unions, this idea that we have to be neutral. We aren’t neutral, we represent students, which means that sometimes we have to take a stance that is in opposition to the University. The thing is that the University knows this and recognises that we’re a critical friend and knows that sometimes, we’re going to disagree with them. And quite frankly, they’re OK with that. I’ve disagreed with the principal over a couple of major things but we still get together and we still work together. Peer support is definitely an example of it, the principal has supported it completely, while we disagree over other issues. So, it’s just recognising that we can disagree and that it’s actually good to disagree.

Why should students actually bother to vote, especially if the position is uncontested?

Well, it just proves our legitimacy to the University. Say I’m taking a motion to the University on a policy on student homelessness. If I’ve been voted in by five students then the University can, quite rightfully, say: ‘who is this guy? why should we listen to some randomer’ but if I’m voted in by 10,000 students then it gives me massive credibility and legitimacy so they will need to address the issues I bring to them, whether it be timetabling, student-staff ratios or student welfare.} else {