Interview: Ali West, candidate for director of representation

Photo: Maria Faciolince

The director of representation, along with the Association president, is responsible for representing student interests to the University and external organisations, including the government. They are helped by the Students’ Representative Council in their activities, and they in turn control the SRC’s discretionary fund.

Read our analysis of Ms West’s manifesto here.

Why are you running for director of representation?

Why am I running or why am I running now? Alright, there’s several reasons: director of representation is a position which works for education and welfare, which are things that I’m passionate about. It’s a position that I’ve been intending to run for since I was a first year. Why am I running now? And I would like to make this point: there are four sabbatical positions, and three of them are contested. Of the three contested positions, there is one woman running. It’s me and Fay Morrice running for sabbatical positions who are women.

I think that that’s not representative at all. I think it’s important that we have women in sabbatical positions.

So would you not run if other women were running?

I’m not sure I would have run this year. I fully intended to run, but perhaps not in fourth year. In fact, I had been thinking of it this year and then decided to – very much last minute decided to – do it for that reason. I also didn’t want to see a position be uncontested. Or to see two positions be uncontested. That would have been unprecedented, I believe, in the Association. That wouldn’t have been very democratic.

And now that you are running, what are your main policies?

I have several. One of the things that I found most interesting – I’ve been speaking with some of the school presidents, and one of the things that I found was most interesting was the wide variety of ways that different schools do things. We talk about people’s academic welfare, or people’s academic schools, we tend to talk about them in a certain monolithic way. And the fact is, that that’s just not the case. Every school is different and I think it’s really interesting to look at the challenges in implementing school policy: things like fair entry into Honours, things like late penalties, and representing students’ interests fairly, while also making sure that the needs of different departments are being met. So one of the things that I would like to do is work with the University to ensure that everything is as consistent as possible.

The other thing that I’d like to look at is merging what the school presidents do in terms of academic representation. Perhaps merging isn’t the best word, perhaps integrating more with what the student officers do, because I think that student welfare is in terms of… and the projects that the Union runs, and academic welfare and academic representation in the face of what the school presidents do are inextricably linked. If you’re not doing well, if you’re not happy, if you’re not healthy, then you can’t possibly do well at school. And so I think it’d be good if the two sides of the Union coin, in that sense, were more merged, and did more, and interacted more together, because right now I think the Union’s a little bit like… an octopus, with school presidents over here, and officers over here, and not everybody knows exactly what the other people are doing.

In terms of student welfare, and projects around that, I’d really like to see things happen, like a sexual health week – which we didn’t quite get around to this year. I would like to see things like a Zero Tolerance Policy that we now have at the Union expanded into a charter that we have throughout the town. And there are other things.

How do you think that your role as an SRC member for gender equality will help working for the Association?

I think it’s sort of twofold: I think that having held that position and having had that particular lens has made me more aware of certain things. And I would like to work – and obviously seeing as that’s quite dear to my heart, I’d like to see more projects orientated around that, they have a lot of things at other universities which work towards more gender equality.

At the same time, I also think that I have my experience as a student officer in general, which is not just member for gender equality, but also, in my second year, sitting on the SSC and SRC as the Association community relations officer has given me a lot of insight into how the Union works specifically, and the different practical mechanisms and things like that, which can be quite interesting to work with if you’re not overly familiar with them.

What have you achieved, then, in your two previous roles? What have you tried, but failed, to implement, that you might be able to as DoRep?

There are a couple of things: as a member for gender equality, I was very lucky to have a group around me, and one particular sabb, and it was for that reason that we were able to get the Zero Tolerance Policy, for example. There’s also a lot of interest in gender equality in general, just at the moment, and in my role, I was able to foster a lot of that whilst not being directly responsible for that, which I was totally ok with. As long as something’s being done, it doesn’t have to be me who does it.

As director of representation, I would be able to foster more student projects: things like the Zero Tolerance charter, like Sexual Health Week, could actually happen. I’d actually have the ability to access the resources to make those happen.

Specifically what weren’t you able to do as the community relations officer or member for gender equality?

I can give you an example of Sexual Health Week: it was something that I wanted to have happen from the very beginning of the year, and it just, we just had a group together, there were representatives from different committees, and, unfortunately due to scheduling conflicts and due to problems finding speakers and things like that, it just didn’t happen. I feel like if there was time and dedication a little bit higher up earlier on, it could have happened. And it could happen.

So there wasn’t the dedication there this time round?

I think that it was… there was definitely interest, I just don’t think that it was… made a – you’re trying to box me in, I don’t want to say anything bad about Teddy.

OK. I was going to ask: how do you think Teddy has performed? What would you do differently?

I think that Teddy has performed extremely well on the academic sides of things. When I spoke to Teddy, he told me that he has days which he spends entirely in College Gate working with the administration and working with various departments, and he’s done some amazing things, especially around – especially in that arena. However, one thing that I would do differently, and this I think stems from a different interpretation of the DoRep role: I think that it is fundamentally a Union role, and that you do have to remember that. Even though it has a heavily academic remit, I think that it also a heavy welfare remit, and a heavy focus on things like student mental health and I think that, maybe because of the level of dedication and amazingness he has addressed academic things, that hasn’t quite gotten the level of attention that I would like to give it.

What is your opinion on the Union here being affiliated with NUS?

I think that my personal opinion and my opinion as a sabb should be taken as different things. My personal opinion is that I worked on the ‘Yes’ campaign last year, and if I were eligible, I would work on it again. At the same time, I think that it’s important to maintain the democratic process in St Andrews. If a referendum was called, I would as a sabb obviously be completely officially unbiased. But my personal opinion is that to have greater representation in national matters, especially with the Immigration Bill, there have been some great resources for gender equality this year through the NUS, things like that, it would ultimately be in our best interests to, if not affiliate with the NUS, then at least, to take some of the things that they are offering us, because it gives us a much wider national voice. I do understand that the referendum failed last year, so I do want to make the clear distinction between my personal opinion and my opinion as a sabb.

Do you think that St Andrews needs a larger national voice?

It could only benefit us. St Andrews has this image – it’s a bit of a cliché – of being in this little bubble, or on a rock out on the North Sea by itself, and we are a little bit different. In some ways that’s great, and in some ways it means that we end up being a little bit left behind. An example of that is that we didn’t have a Zero Tolerance Policy until this year. That’s a national campaign and it’s something that, in my opinion, we ought to have had a long time ago. To have a measuring stick, something to compare us to, I think it’s important that we look outside of St Andrews, in order to gain insight into best practices at other unions and universities.

What do you mean by ‘greater transparency’?

I mean several things by that. First of all, in terms of transparency, I mean that in two ways: I would like to see more mechanisms of accountability for sabbs and student officers, I would like to publish a mid-year report to track our progress, instead of waiting until election season when everyone wants to gloss things over! I also want to publicise the SRC open forum. I’ve been on the SRC for two years now, and I sat on the meetings in second year, and to my memory – there may have been meetings that I missed – I don’t remember anybody turning up to the open forum. I think that that’s something which is really important. You need to be able to have a discourse with your representatives, you need to be able to be present at the meetings, you need to be able to know that that is where you can go if you have an issue to raise.

At the same token, I would like to make very clear how the Union runs. When I was in first year, I didn’t know what a sabb was: I came from the US, which has a different system, and I think that lots of people in my year didn’t. My getting involved in student politics was the result of some complete flukes, who I ended up meeting, who I ended up befriending.

But that’s not right, what I want is for freshers to be informed from the outset: maybe via a video – though not like that one that went viral, I don’t sing! But just from the outset an information campaign to say that this is how your Union works, this is who your sabbs are and this is what we do.

In terms of a more equal union, I would like to start a gender equality subcommittee, like the subcommittees which are more specific, more activity-based. What leaps to mind are LGBT and the Postgraduate Society. I would like to use that, I feel that that’s the best way to start, to have an umbrella organisation for a lot of societies that we have, other things that work towards gender equality.

I was gender equality officer this year and found myself liaising a lot with different societies, particularly the Feminist Society. I think that their work could really be ramified if we had a subcommittee specifically designed to help women into politics. The fact, again, that I am the only woman running for a contested sabb position is ridiculous. There are a number of reasons for that, but I think that one of the ways that we can make our Union more equal is to encourage women to join and participate.

Why do you think that you are the only female candidate in a contested position?

I think that there are several factors. There’s a certain amount of self-selection that goes on. I think that it’d be hard to deny that women in politics – as a blanket generalisation – tend to have more trouble in politics, tend to be scrutinised more closely, and tend to have more mud thrown at them than men do.

Also, at the very first candidates meeting, I walked in with my team and saw that all of the other candidates, except Fay, were men, but that their campaign managers were women. I don’t think that that’s a bad thing at all, but I don’t think that there’s a tendency to self-select more towards the role of the helper, the organiser, than that of the candidate. I would like to see more women actively participating in student politics as candidates.

That might be an oversimplification, but I think that there are various factors which make women generally less likely to go into politics, this is a very general issue.

What would you do to try and reinstate a reading week into semester one?

Asking for reading week in semester one is going to be an uphill battle, partially because of the way that the University does its calendars. The University calendar is set sometimes years in advance, certainly before elections are completed, so I think what happened to Teddy was that the calendar had already been set and it was basically immovable. So what I propose to do if that is the case – and I will do everything in my power to ensure that it is not – but if it is the case, I think it’s important that the University recognise that they take student representation into consideration before they make decisions like that. We need a break. I think we all agree that we could do with a reading week, or a consolidation week of no classes, or something like that. It’s vital for student mental health, wellbeing and academic wellbeing as well. So, essentially, I’m not going to shut up about it.

It’s a bold claim to say that the lack of a reading week damages our mental health. Can you justify that?

Well I think it’s pretty self-evident, even if it’s just from speaking to my friends. I believe that last year there was – and I’d like to make it clear that I haven’t confirmed this with Student Services and am remembering this from an SRC meeting in second year – but I do believe that their requests for counselling had a significant uptake. That’s against what the University should be fostering as a healthy, intellectual climate for students. Convenience for marking and timetabling shouldn’t be put in front of student health.

More generally, what could you do as DoRep to improve the Union’s current approach to mental health?

First of all, I think one of the biggest problems isn’t the lack of dedication on the part of student societies and Student Services, one of the biggest problems is the lack of visibility. When you’re suffering from a mental health problem, especially if you’re depressed or anxious, it can be very difficult to seek help.

One of the reasons that mental health problems are so insidious is that nobody talks about them really, and they make you have a lot of difficulty advocating for yourself. One of the very basic things that I would do would be to compile a list of all of the societies, all of the services we offer – counselling, helplines, Nightline, things like that – and put it in one place, very prominently, on the Union website. Have each one have a very clear description of what they do and how they can be contacted. I think that’s a really basic step and I think that it would really improve lots.

What are your strengths and weaknesses as a candidate?

I have a lot of experience, I understand how the Union works. I’ve sat on both the SSC and the SRC, and I’m very passionate about what I do: definitely a hack! It’s very hard to keep me out of this building.

At the same time, I am a very strong advocate, I’m not afraid to be a little bit… forceful isn’t the right word, but I’m not afraid to be a little bit controversial, a little bit angry when I need to. One of the things that you have to do, as director of representation particularly, is get your point across. I’ve done a lot of listening, even before I decided that I was going to run for this position. I made it my business to contact the Association, to contact business, to contact Lorna Milne and talk to her about what they saw as issues, what they thought could be improved.

Do you think that you are disadvantaged by the lack of time you had to prepare your campaign?

Mildly. Ultimately, I’m going to run the best campaign that I can: I’ve got a wonderful team behind me and I’m very proud of them. I’m excited about the week, I’m most excited to put policies out there and to make my presence known and to make it a really vital dialogue and debate.

You’ve said that you’re only running because no other women are. Are you a protest vote?

No, absolutely not. I believe that you’ve misconstrued what I’ve said: I decided to run this year, instead of next year, as was my original plan, because I think that it’s important for women to be running. At the same time, I’m not a protest vote, because I’ve got my own policies, I’ve thought them through and I’m very passionate about the role.

Do you have a message to the voters?

Educate yourself on how the University runs: know your rights, know what you want to do, know what you want accomplished, and then look at the different policies of every candidate, for every position. Take the time, read through the manifestos and then make your decision. Make sure it’s an informed one.


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