Category: Journalism (page 2 of 4)

Football-free fun: Berlin’s French-German Fest;

This article first appeared in The Local Germany.

Konrad Adenauer and Charles de Gaulle signed a reconciliation pact between France and Germany in 1963. Berlin’s first French-German Festival happened the same year – and yet Felix Reimer isn’t sure this sugary Volksfest was quite what the two statesmen had in mind.

If Adenauer and de Gaulle ever hoped the spirit of friendship across the Rhine would ever weaken national football allegiances, they were to be disappointed.

Not one person The Local talked to at Berlin’s annual French-German Volksfest on Wednesday afternoon had any doubt Germany would beat France in the World Cup quarter final on Friday evening.

Football, however, barely played a role at this, the 52nd event of its kind in the German capital.

In fact, it may be one of the biggest World Cup-free zones existing in the city at this moment.

But that didn’t stop the hordes of day-trippers descending.

Roll up for your free space mouse

“I like this, this is fun,” a showman assured those entering the fairgrounds.

He sold lottery tickets at the “Lucky Post” and had a special offer: For buying an XXL lottery bag, containing 60 individual tickets, they would also get a free space mouse.

The space mouse, a stuffed toy, looked like an unfortunate cross between a high rodent and a character from the US adult cartoon series “South Park.”

Numerous places offered hamburgers, hot dogs, candyfloss and every conceivable type of wurst. Crepes and frog legs were also available to fans of the French cuisine who looked hard enough, although typical German fairground fare dominated the food options.

With little connection to France apparent, most people seemed to be there for the various rides.

Visitors streamed from bumper cars to a roller coaster with a massive Marilyn Monroe statue, or queued up to hang upside down at 48 metres in a giant 360° swing.

One merry-go-round took those who dared up to a height of 60 metres.

On the ground, their screams were barely audible.

From Bavaria to Brittany

At least two ghost houses tempted visitors in from the bright sunshine.

The “Valley of the Kings,” featuring decorations in the style of ancient Egypt (where French revolutionary leader Napoleon Bonaparte had spent some time, after all) seemed to be people’s favourite.

The ghost train “Dance of the Vampires” was quieter, despite offering a spooky train ride.

The “French village,” advertised as a festival highlight, was not so easy to find.

Arranged around a wooden windmill with an ale house on the ground floor, its fake half-timbered facades could have represented any region from Bavaria to Brittany.

Ultimately, it was the clichéd French music blaring in the background convinced your reporter he was in the right place.

The festival takes place on Berlin’s official fairground on Kurt-Schumacher-Damm. It is easily accessible by car via the A111 motorway separating it from Tegel Airport or by bus via U-bahn stations Jakob-Kaiser-Platz or Kurt-Schumacher-Damm. Entry costs €2, rides are extra.

 

Berlin’s refugee protest: ‘This is a police siege’

This article first appeared in The Local Germany.

Police have sealed off an area of Berlin for almost a week after part of the Kreuzberg district became the centre of the city’s latest conflict between refugees and authorities. The Local meets those affected by the ongoing operation.

On Monday at midday, the atmosphere on the corner of Kreuzberg’s Ohlauer Straße and Reichenberger Straße was tense but quiet.

Police continued to block access to a former school, the Gerhart-Hauptmann-Schule, where around 40 people are holed up on the roof of a building which has been occupied by refugees for 18 months.

Inside the cordoned-off zone, streets were empty and many businesses closed.

Only residents who could identify themselves were allowed past police checkpoints. A driver claiming to own a small business in Lausitzer Straße had to turn his car around after a loud argument with several police officers.

Klara Iraki, who lives nearby, complained that she had been prevented from visiting a friend in Reichenberger Straße. She told The Local she did not understand why authorities wanted to move the refugees out. “The school has been empty for years,” she said.

Iraki was also sympathetic of the refugees’ situation. “They were already traumatized when they came here. I don’t like how they’re being treated,” she said.

Posters and banners in the area were critical of the authorities. One poster demanded to let the refugees stay in the school.

Another attacked the Green Party, which leads Kreuzberg’s local government -“Green Politics: Eviction, corruption, divide and rule,” it said.

A third banner, lowered from a window in Reichenberger Straße, proclaimed: “The problem is called racism.”

That view was shared by protesters sitting outside the Falken-Apotheke, a pharmacy just a few metres away from the police cordon. Part of a crowd of about 40 people, they said they had been there every day since 900 policemen blocked the streets last Tuesday.

“The police operation is excessive,” said Conny, a member of the group who would only give her first name. The others agreed, while a young girl drew in a colouring book at their feet.

Conny questioned why police did not rule out clearing the refugees on the roof by force. “They [the refugees] will jump if there’s an eviction,” she said.

Racist police?

The protesters also repeated claims made by the refugees in a statement on Sunday that some police officers had shown racist behaviour.

“They were watching us from another roof and waving, not only with handcuffs, but also with bananas,” the statement said.

Petra and Thomas, two employees inside the pharmacy who preferred not to give their last names, were also critical of the police’s behaviour.

Petra described an incident last Thursday when four people toppled a barricade outside the pharmacy.

“Police immediately got their batons and teargas out,” Petra said.

Most days, she felt the protest resembled a funfair. “There are families with buggies, not radical people,” she said.

“I would understand it if it were a dangerous situation,” said Thomas about the massive police presence. “But this is being treated like a siege.”

Both noted the effect the cordon had on local businesses. They had been unable, they said, to buy breakfast or lunch from their favourite snack bar across the street.

The cafe, located 50 metres behind the barricades, appeared deserted on Monday, its blinds closed and chairs stacked up in front of it.

Meanwhile, at cafes in surrounding streets, customers sat outside and enjoyed the sun.

Green Party MP Hans Christian Ströbele, who represents Kreuzberg, continued his mediation efforts on Monday.

He spent several hours inside the school on Sunday with a proposal from the local council and returned to hear their response, he said on his Facebook page.

“We hope for an agreement” with the authorities, said a man who gave his name as Muhammad Ali.

He told The Local he spent some time inside the school a few months ago after coming from Sudan, via Italy, to Germany. He returned to Berlin to support friends who were still in the building.

Asked whether he was optimistic a long-term solution would be found, he shook his head.

Another protester, Omar Amadu, had his own doubts: “This democracy is not a real democracy,” he claimed.

Amadu said he came to Germany six months ago from Niger, crossing the Mediterranean from Libya to Italy, and has since lived in Berlin without documents.

Berlin’s top police officer told state lawmakers that police would only oust the refugees from the building if asked to by local authorities. But the head of the local police union has demanded the immediate clearing of the school.

Police cleared the vast majority of the around 200 refugees in the former school last Tuesday and Wednesday.

On Tuesday, President Joachim Gauck, meanwhile, called for a review of the European Union’s refugee policies. “A common European refugee policy not only has to protect European borders but also human lives at European borders,” he told an audience at the Evangelical Academy in Berlin.

Gauck did not specifically address the situation at Gerhart-Hauptmann-Schule.

First round of staff cuts to hit Life Sciences, Medicine and Dentistry

The University’s senior management has informed staff that a review of undergraduate teaching in the College of Life Sciences and the College of Medicine, Dentistry and Nursing will likely mean cuts to staff numbers.

University Secretary Dr. Jim McGeorge said in an email, which was sent to staff today, that the University Court had approved the review last month.

DUSA Media first learned about the impending staff cuts to both colleges after the Court met in February, but agreed to hold the story until the University had informed staff.

Back then, McGeorge told DUSA Media that the Court expected “a reduction of around ten staff” as the result of changes “to modernise and re-develop the Life Sciences, Medicine and Dental undergraduate degree programmes.”

McGeorge also confirmed to DUSA Media that the Court had agreed that “a reduction of between 80 and 120 academic staff posts is required” across the University, a number that had been reported earlier by The Courier. He cautioned, however, that “the precise target number will only be established when the further proposals come to Court in April.”

In his email to staff, McGeorge said: “The Colleges will establish a consistent approach to management and delivery of all teaching and scholarship for biomedical and life sciences undergraduate teaching across the University, including the delivery of MBChB [Bachelor of Medicine/Surgery] and BDS [Bachelor of Dental Surgery] science teaching.”

He said the University hoped staff in both Colleges could be reduced without layoffs, including through the voluntary severance scheme the Court approved last month. “Full details of the scheme are to be finalised after consultation with the campus unions,” McGeorge added.

McGeorge also told staff that changes in other areas “will be subject to consultation through Senate and School and College Boards, and also with the campus unions.”

Student reps slam University over staff cuts

The Student Representative Council has called on the University to explain what consequences it will have for them when up to 120 members of academic staff are cut.

An SRC resolution said that “the University’s communication on the issue has been nothing short of disastrous” and that “students are left in the dark about the consequences the cuts will have on their education.”

The resolution went on to state: “With five to ten percent of academic staff positions on the chopping block, consequences are inevitable. The University has failed to tell students which schools will suffer the most, whether entire courses could be shut down, and how an already overworked academic staff is expected to serve students.”

A University spokesman reacted by pointing to the Court’s statement made last week and Principal Pete Downes’ presentation during a special SRC meeting, and said there would be a letter from the Principal to staff and students today.

The spokesman added: “As already explained in the University’s previous statements, detailed plans surrounding the voluntary severance scheme will be taken forward to the next meeting of Court in April. Staff and students will be made aware of those plans as and when they have been fully developed.”

In a separate motion, proposed by Psychology School president Martin Béll, the SRC called on the University to provide graduates with life-long email addresses. Current @dundee.ac.uk email addresses are usually closed six months after a student graduates from the University. SRC reps and the University’s IT department will work together on the issue in the near future.

The SRC met on Tuesday right after DUSA’s annual general meeting. President Iain MacKinnon updated students on his Exec’s activities since taking office in July. MacKinnon also presented a report on DUSA’s accounts for the year that ended on 31 July 2013, which showed DUSA made a loss of £113,000. He said DUSA is expected to make a surplus for the current year.

After issues in previous years, this year’s general meeting had been overhauled. The quorum was reduced significantly, and unlike last year, when the meeting banned selling The Sun in DUSA premises, the meeting did not discuss any motions, as these will now be decided upon during next month’s referendum process.

Like the SRC, DUSA Media is part of DUSA, but you already knew that. The author is an SRC member and proposed the staff cuts motion.

Dundee students vote against Scottish independence

In a mock referendum held on Tuesday, students at the University of Dundee voted against independence.

Students were asked the same question that will be on the ballot for the official referendum in September, “Should Scotland be an independent country?” 319 students participated in the mock referendum. 58.6 percent (187 students) said “no” in response to the question, with 40.4 percent (129 students) voting “yes”.

DUSA President Iain MacKinnon said in a statement: “It’s great to see so many students engaged in politics at the University with hundreds voting in this referendum. The vote was a lot closer than many people expected and shows that there is still a lot to play for. I hope that the students who voted here today continue getting involved in politics and, for those who are able, vote in the real referendum in September.”

Students were given the chance to cast their vote in DUSA’s foyer during the day. The mock referendum, which had been advertised across campus in the past few days, was part of DUSA’s efforts to raise political awareness among students. Dundee City Council were on hand on Tuesday to register any students who had not yet done so.

DUSA Media is part of DUSA, but you already knew that.

Union calls for protest against University staff cuts

In reaction to proposed staff reductions at the University of Dundee, the Dundee University College Union is calling on staff and students to lobby the University Court. The Court is scheduled to discuss the plan, which the union calls “divisive and ill conceived”, during its meeting later today.

DUCU president Janice Aitken said in a statement to DUSA Media: “It is clear that his proposal is not in the best interests of students, who have already noticed the significant reductions in staff available to teach and support them.”

She invited students to join staff the rally at 1 PM in front of the Bonar Hall.

Aitken said there were better ways for the University to improve its finances: “One way could perhaps be to re-examine the College structure that is very heavy on highly paid senior managers who do not directly contribute to the quality of student experience.”

She also said the union had written Court members to express its concerns. “We are also asking for a much more transparent examination of the finances in the University in terms of why staff costs are being blamed for the lack of surplus even though spending on staff has gone down considerably over the last few years,” she added.

DUSA has not yet taken an official position on the issue, although many SRC members questioned the plan when University principal Pete Downes addressed the council last Tuesday.

DUSA’s president, Iain MacKinnon, declined to comment on the rally.

MacKinnon, who as president of DUSA sits on the Court, said: “I will be at Court on Monday ensuring that the [University’s] senior management team properly justify any actions which they are proposing, and making sure that they are sincere when they state that the student experience will not be affected.”

MacKinnon said he and Marija Tasevska, the independent member of Court, will ensure that the Court hears students’ concerns.

Citing ambitious plans, Downes defends staff cut plans

This article first appeared on DUSA Media.

University principal Professor Pete Downes has confirmed the University will set up a severance scheme to reduce academic staff and defended the losses as necessary for Dundee’s 25-year plan to become Scotland’s leading university.

“We are proposing that we open a voluntary severance scheme for academic staff,” Downes said. “And we’re also proposing a small change management programme in one area of the University, which will lead to a small number – probably no more than about ten – [of] staff losses.” He added, “It would be disingenuous to say that it’s our intention that that’s where that ends.”

The Courier reported earlier this week the University was looking to cut 150 academic staff. While stating that The Courier’s article contained “inaccuracies”, Downes said it would not be appropriate for him to discuss how many employees and which academic programmes will be affected by the plans.

The University Court, the governing body responsible for staff and finance matters, will consider the scheme during its meeting on Monday. Although the Court might issue a statement after that meeting, crucial details will likely not be available until April.

Explaining why the University’s senior management considered the cuts necessary, Downes said: “We always envisaged that [the vision] would require us to do some quite difficult things … in part financially, to support investment in the most important areas of the University.”

He added, “The aim and purpose of what we’re trying to do is to ensure that the University can invest in its future.”

Downes, along with Professor Karl Leydecker, the vice-principal for learning and teaching, and Dr. Jim McGeorge, the University secretary, addressed a special meeting of the Student Representative Council (SRC) on Tuesday night. Originally scheduled to update student representatives about the University’s progress in implementing its vision, the meeting was overshadowed by The Courier article.

In his presentation, Downes focused on the University’s efforts to improve the student experience as a key part of the “Transformation” strategy. He said the institution already benefits from the “excellent reputation” of Dundee University Students’ Association (DUSA), and that both sides are working to further strengthen their partnership.

Downes said the University wanted to increase the subvention with which it supports DUSA, and was working on improving the availability of timetables. He also said further investment in the Library and more space for DUSA’s Premier shop were among the plans for the near future.

In the discussion following the presentation, student representatives were mostly critical of the University’s plan to reduce staff. They pointed out that current students are unlikely to benefit from the long-term vision while feeling its drawbacks now, that prospective students could shy away from accepting a place at Dundee in the light of recent news, and that many staff members already put in extra hours to get their work done.

Downes defended the plans, saying that the cuts would be accompanied by reviewing whether curricula could be simplified and workloads redistributed. “There are clear areas where [the University’s] performance is significantly less than … the other institutions with which we compare ourselves.”

“If we look at the income that our staff generate, and divide that by the number of academic staff, we are a long way below our nearest competitors. So we’re being unproductive in certain respects,” Downes said. He singled out research income and attracting students from overseas as areas in which the University was below the benchmarks.

Leydecker added, “There are some areas where we don’t have enough staff. We need to be able to release some resource to make those investments and improve the student experience and the support environment that we have. We can’t do that at the moment because we don’t have the headroom to do it.”

The two Court members elected by students – DUSA President Iain MacKinnon and an Independent Court Member Marija Tasevska – did not comment during the SRC meeting. Both are bound by the body’s confidentiality rules.

DUSA Media is part of DUSA, but you already knew that. The author is an SRC member.

Psychology dean Trevor Harley to step down

The dean of the School of Psychology, Professor Trevor Harley, has announced that he will leave his post at the end of July. “I’ll still be here, but just doing more of what I want to do: writing, research, comedy, public awareness of science and psychology… the list could go on and on,” he said on the school’s Facebook page.

In an email to DUSA Media, Prof Harley said his decision, which he had announced internally a few weeks ago, was not related to yesterday’s news about University staff cuts. Asked whether he would stay at the University, he said: “Definitely staying here (unless another institution comes along offering me much more money for much less work, of course).”

Prof Harley said his biggest success as dean, a position he held for eleven years, was “hiring many tremendous new staff, who are young and energetic, from ethnically diverse backgrounds, and increasing the number of female academics in the School.”

Explaining his work on his staff profile page, he said: “I work primarily on the psychology and neuropsychology of speech production, and the representation of word meaning. I focus in particular on lexicalisation, the processes whereby we turn thoughts into sounds.”

In addition to his academic work, Prof Harley is known for his standup comedy, including a gig during the Fringe in Edinburgh last year.

Martin Bell, Psychology’s school president, said: “Psychology students will be greatly saddened to see him step down as dean. He has been a fantastic figurehead within the school who makes a real effort to engage with students from the very beginning of their degree, a rare quality which has inspired the admiration of everyone that has studied here during his term.”

Asked about the timeline for appointing a successor, a University spokesman said the process would start shortly.

‘Students need to take ownership of their education’

This article first appeared on DUSA Media.

Iain MacKinnon, DUSA’s President

Iain MacKinnon, DUSA’s President

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.

‘I wanted to promote students who also run a business’

This article first appeared on DUSA Media.

Zuchaela Smylie, DUSA’s Vice President of Communication and Campaigns

Zuchaela Smylie, DUSA’s Vice President of Communication and Campaigns

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 sixth installment of our series, Vice President of Communication and Campaigns Zuchaela Smylie talks about an upcoming mock referendum on independence, student enterprise, and the role of student media.

You promised in your statement to “provide a gateway to student involvement in important social political issues affecting them”. What have you done in that regard?

The first thing to increase student involvement was the Big Education Debate, which was a joint event between DUSA and the University. The main focus was what independence could mean for higher education in Scotland, which obviously is a big issue to students. This doesn’t just affect students from Scotland but also those from the rest of the UK, the EU, and around the world. If Scotland becomes independent, it’s going to affect everyone, with fees, immigration laws, etc.

Since then, Iain [MacKinnon, DUSA’s President] and myself have been working with the “5 Million Questions” group [an initiative by DUSA and the University to hold debates on topics related to the Scottish independence referendum in September]. We have been giving them the views of students and advice on how they can get them involved.

We managed to secure the Union as a polling station, which is great for students – particularly those in halls – who may not know where their local polling station is. It means that they have this central hub where they can vote. We’ve also had the electoral commission here and will have them again, and they’ll be offering advice to students and give them the chance to register themselves to vote.

Then we’re having a mock referendum on independence the same week as the Exec elections [in February] to gather what students’ attitudes are. It’ll be a paper ballot, very similar to the real thing.

You also said you would want to encourage “student ideas and employability”. How is that going?

That’s been hard to implement and it’s currently in the initial stages. The Big Education Debate took up a lot of time and so did [DUSA Radio’s 55-hour] Marathon Radio Show.

I noticed that there were a lot of students who had their own businesses on the side, whether it was offering a service or a product. Students often find it hard to get part-time jobs while they’re here. So when I was thinking about my policies last year, I wanted to help promote students who also run a business.

The first idea I came up with was the Winter Market [in December]. We had a few stalls for students to sell their products, and we hope to turn it into a semi-regular thing. I would also like to create an online student business directory, where any student can register their business.

You also talked about “reinvigorating the student media systems and advancing their social worth and recognition”. How have you helped DUSA Media?

I was lucky enough to be blessed with a great team. I can’t take any credit for that but I think they’re all doing great.

This is dusamedia.com’s first year and it has definitely taken off. The Magdalen is doing great. There have been some controversial articles, but all in all, the magazine has definitely been improving a lot this year: The new design and the new logo are phenomenal and the front covers are getting better with every issue.

Perhaps the biggest boost has been in DUSA Radio, which was non-existent toward the end of last year. One my ways of raising awareness for that was through the Marathon Radio Show, which was done in coordination with this year’s RAG [raising and giving] effort.

I would like to push DUSA TV in the second semester, that’s something we’re going to talk about.

There’s been some controversy about one of our articles last semester. In light of that, talk a bit about how you understand DUSA Media’s role on campus.

It’s important that DUSA Media represent student views. Now, students don’t necessarily agree on everything. I think people should be able to express how they feel as long as it’s within the law and their remarks aren’t racist or sexist or so.

DUSA Media is funded by DUSA. What are the pros and cons of that arrangement?

I think it’s a good solution. It means there’s a budget set aside for the media, which provides a sense of security for DUSA Media’s work, and it provides continuity for the outlets. It also means there’s a balance of what you guys want to do and what DUSA needs you to do, like working with the Exec and promoting the Student Representative Council (SRC).

Some people may feel that they have to be more sensitive about what they write and those who want to be extremely controversial may feel that they don’t have the freedom to do that. But I don’t think that that’s necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes, when things are independent, they fire out of control.

Your title is VP of Communication and Campaigns. We already talked about the campaign side, what’s the communication part about?

Each week a member of the Exec writes a post for the Exec blog. I oversee those and make sure they’re put on the website and the Exec board in the Union.

We have been concerned with how hard it is for people to access things like the Exec page on DUSA’s website. Other student associations make it a lot easier for students to find that sort of information. We are working on improving that for the Exec, the SRC and student representation in general.

I will say that perhaps the communication side of things has not been my strongest point so far. I’ve given myself a kick up the backside and we’re communicating more on social media about what we have done, what we are doing right now, and what we will be doing.

You said in your statement is that you would like to organize better website designs for societies. How that’s coming along?

That’s something I have not even looked at. It’s probably something that is not realistically implementable for me. I didn’t realize how many different campaigns and other things I would have going on.

Another point you mentioned was mental health awareness. What are your plans for that?

Katie [Jowett, VP of Student Welfare] and I had been planning various mental health events. We had hoped for it to be a yearlong campaign but unfortunately, due to other commitments on both ends, that wasn’t feasible. It was a lot of work, we had a very short time for planning… But there will be something next semester. It’s an issue that’s really important to me on a personal level and something I would really like to focus on.

What’s the thing that surprised you the most since taking office?

The wide range of things I’m doing. One minute I will be sitting in my office planning the next campaign, the next minute I’ll be down riverside taking part in a Sports Union charity event, and after that I’ll be sitting in an important University meeting.

I also didn’t think I’d be having a radio show with Jade [Rea, DUSA’s Deputy President]. I’ve really enjoyed taking that up.

Are you going to run for re-election?

I’ve been considering it for some time and have decided that I will be running again.

DUSA Media is part of DUSA, but you knew that already. In addition, the VPCC directly oversees the work of all DUSA Media outlets, including dusamedia.com. The Interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.