This article first appeared on DUSA Media.
About six months ago, the Exec – the seven student-elected leaders of Dundee University Students’ Association (DUSA) – took office with ambitious plans. Now that they are more than halfway through their terms, we sat down with them to talk about their experiences, successes and lessons learned. In the final installment of our series, President Iain MacKinnon talks about DUSA’s budget, the challenges of getting students involved, and lad culture on campus.
“Better communication and engagement with students” is one of the things you promised in your last campaign. How would you rate yourself on that?
Quite highly. Last year’s Exec did a lot with the University behind the scenes. I wanted to do a lot more with students and I think my Exec has been more open and approachable.
You said you’d work for “more involvement in national campaigns”. Are there any achievements in this area that you’re proud of?
We’re not a member of the National Union of Students (NUS), so perhaps we miss out on some of their big campaigns. Although we did run a few concurrently with them, like Tim [Hustler-Wraight, DUSA’s Honorary Secretary]’s campaign on payday loans.
I’m in contact with the NUS Scotland’s Women’s Officer. They’re running a campaign on “lad culture” on campus. I’m involved with the Feminist Society and I’m really keen to do something on that.
Do you see that as a particularly big problem in Dundee?
No, I think we do quite well on that. I was Honorary Secretary for two years and I didn’t see many cases come up in [disciplinary panels] that involved students doing something inappropriate to someone of the opposite or the same sex. I think that if any student, male or female, had an issue [in the Union], they would speak to customer safety, who would deal with the issue then and there.
Can you walk us through DUSA’s budget? I think many students don’t know too much about that.
DUSA’s overall turnover is about £5.5 million to £6 million. We usually run close to the line between deficit and surplus, because we’re a charity and don’t make money for dividends and things like that. Our senior managers have taken a pay freeze for years, and the Exec earn £17,500, so we’re not exactly paid tons.
Last year, we had deficit of over £100,000. It was one of our worst financial years for decades. When we realized we were running into financial issues, we took action. We made one of our senior members of staff redundant, for example. We also expanded Mono, which we paid for out of our cash reserves.
Despite the deficit, we don’t have to go to the bank grovelling for money. We have the cash reserves to pay for that. This year, we’re up a few tens of thousands so far, so that’ll make up for it. When we’ve got any money left over, it goes into the reserves.
How does the University support DUSA?
We get just over £500,000 from the University every year for everything we do. It’s one of the lowest subventions per student of any big union in the UK.
Do you think that’s a fair amount?
In all honesty, I’d like to see more. We got what amounted to about a ten-percent increase last year to pay for two new positions: one to help with policy support for the Exec, and another position to help with societies and volunteering.
We’re getting help from the University in other ways, though. The [former bank branch next to the Union’s main entrance] is being turned into a student support hub at the moment. We’re getting offices in 18 Airlie Place because currently some of our staff are in [the Union] and others in Cross Row, across the Library. And the shop is being expanded as well.
We greatly appreciate that, but I think it’s important that we keep pushing for more.
Can you explain how DUSA is involved in student representation behind the scenes? All Exec members have said that takes up a lot of time…
A heck of a lot of time. I added up how many committees I sit on in DUSA and in the University, and it’s over 50.
The University is committed to having a student on almost every committee or working group or sub-committee on campus. As President, a lot of them fall to me. I sit on the University Court, the highest governing body that deals with big financial decisions, University strategy responses to government documents, and things like that. Along with the rest of the Exec, I also sit on the Senate, which is the highest academic body.
Then there’s a whole host of other committees like learning and teaching, finance and policy, the “5 Million Questions” group, two recent appointment panels for the new head of admissions and student recruitment and the new head of international operations…
Do you think you make a difference on these committees?
I think we do. Any I sit on, definitely. There are members of the University staff who are very focused on the student experience, like the new vice-principal for learning and teaching [Professor Karl Leydecker]. He’s keen to get student input on everything and has created a few new committees himself, all with a student on them, and that’s fantastic.
Are students from outside the Exec or the Student Representative Council (SRC) involved in these committees?
Not yet. We’re currently looking into trying to get school presidents more involved in committees within their schools and in their colleges. Most school presidents already sit on their school boards and learning and teaching committees. But Dundee’s structure involves colleges as well, and it would be great to see school presidents involved at that level, too. The University seems to agree with this, so hopefully we’ll see some progress there this year or next.
You’ve said you wanted the Exec to be more accountable. How is that going?
So much of what I do is behind the scenes and students don’t know and don’t care about it. The Exec present updates at every SRC. I could write articles for The Magdalen or dusamedia.com. But if no one reads them, what’s the point?
Students are obviously not getting engaged enough. Either you come to University for the degree and that’s it, or you get involved in some societies, go out for drinks in [the Union], and that’s where your involvement with DUSA ends. Students only come to us if they need us for an appeal or with a housing issue.
So many things happen on campus because of student representation, and students don’t realize that. How many students about to get [financial support for students from England, Northern Ireland, and Wales, who have to pay £9,000 per year in tuition fees when coming to University here] realize that I helped to get that? How many students realize that the Library is now open until 2:30 AM every day because student reps fought for it? If we get 24-hour Library access over the next exam period, how many students are going to realize it’s because the SRC is fighting for that?
If I go out and say, “I was on a committee about student services yesterday, and we talked about how the timetabling on campus is crap” – how many students are going to care that I was there pushing for a better timetabling system? Many students want that. But when we get it, how many are going to realize that it was myself, that it was Kayleigh [Watson, the First-Year Service and Facilities Rep] on the SRC, that it was Stefan [Tomov, DUSA’s VP of Engagement] pushing for exam timetables to come out earlier?
But students just don’t question the University enough. If you don’t get your reading list until Freshers Week or even Week 1, if you don’t get your timetable until two or three weeks before the exams – why can’t the University improve there?
A big thing last year was the crappy WiFi in the Library. Students just accepted that. When the SRC took the issue to the Library, they told us they hadn’t had any feedback saying that. So we started a petition, took it to the University, and now WiFi in the Library has been improved. [Editor’s note: The interview with Iain was done before the latest round of WiFi issues in the Library.]
We need students to come forward and take ownership of their education, whether they pay fees or not. For most of them, it’s their University for four years of their life. They need to take control of it by standing up more than they currently do. I’d love it if every day I came into my office with a bunch of complaints from students that I could take to the University.
Is the fact that most students don’t pay fees part of the problem?
I worry about using that argument. If I go to the University and say, “This student pays £9,000 a year but they only get four contact hours a week, which means each tutorial is worth however many hundred pounds”, then you create a tiered system. You’ve got Scottish and EU students paying nothing, RUK students paying £9,000, and internationals paying upwards of £10,000. What if the University starts treating students who pay fees better? That’s not the way we should be looking at it. Scottish students should be expecting just as much. They may not be paying fees right now, but they’ll pay taxes and they’re spending thousands of pounds to live in Dundee.
The University judges itself to a certain extent – although it won’t come out and say so – on league tables, on National Student Survey (NSS) scores, etc. If they’re going to improve things, they need students to stand up. So if a student has an issue, speak to your student reps, speak to an SRC councillor, speak to a school president, speak to me.
Talking about standing up, what’s your take on the staff strike?
It’s a difficult one for me. Personally, I find the idea of staff getting a pay cut in real terms for the past five years terrible. They are here to support students and if they’re having a crap time at work, they’re not going to be able to provide services to the best of their abilities. So we as students should be supporting our staff.
If I’m representing a student, however, who has had their exam cancelled or moved, then I can’t stand up and say I completely support the strike.
For me, the blame doesn’t rest on the staff members who are striking, or even on Dundee University. The problem is that pay negotiations happen on the national level and that the unions and the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) are not coming to a deal. From what I gather, UCEA have just stuck their heels in the ground and said one percent is what staff are getting, that’s it, so the staff have had to resort to industrial action. The blame rests on UCEA for not coming back to the negotiating table.
Have you pushed the University to lobby UCEA to do that?
Yes, especially after the SRC motion [in support of the staff strike]. It was good to have the student council backing staff. Although my main concern is making sure that students aren’t penalised – be that students whose exam is cancelled or moved, or the student who refuses to cross a picket line. I have lobbied the University to say that if you don’t want to cross the picket line, you shouldn’t be penalised. At every level, we would support these students for what is a personal, a moral choice.
What can students expect for the rest of your term?
A lot of the next semester will be taken up with the elections [for the Exec and school presidents in February] and referendums. We’ve also got a big bunch of political campaigns. DUSA has been confirmed as a polling station and that’ll be used for the first time for the EU elections. Then the independence referendum is coming up in September and we’ll be working towards that.
I also hope I can get the lad culture campaign up and running, with or without the NUS’s help. I’d be really keen to start running more campaigns as President, so if students have any ideas, I’m happy to help them.
I already know that a lot of my time will be spent in meetings, and that’s terribly dull and boring. We also want to review academic tutors and advisers, for example, because the system just doesn’t work in Dundee. That will take up a lot of my time as well.
Are you running for re-election?
Yes, I’m running again. I’ve enjoyed the last year and would love to continue working for students, even if the pay’s not fantastic.
DUSA Media is part of DUSA, but you knew that already. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.