Students around the world: Scott from Scotland

Scott Wilson
© Scott Wilson
We think we know Scotland from its whisky and bagpipes. But how students are doing in this northern part of the United Kingdom is as mysterious as the Loch Ness Monster for us Belgians. 

Disappearing faculties, censorship and tuition fees are issues we are familiar with at the VUB. Scott Wilson studies at the University of Glasgow and is chief editor of QMunicate, one of the student newspapers of the Glasgow University. QMunicate is part of the Queen Margaret Union (QMU). There is also another student union, which is called the Glasgow University Union (GUU). The GUU was originally the male union, while QMU was women’s union, founded in 1890 for the new intake of female students, though the unions opened up their membership in the seventies. In addition, there is also a sports union and a Student Representative Council (SRC). What the student unions stand for is ambiguous, but for Scott, the QMU is more oriented towards music and activism, while GUU is more traditional and prestigious, attracting more law and science students.

What is the role of the Student Representative Council?
Scott Wilson: “It is frustrating because sometimes I am not really sure what they are doing and I think they don’t know it either. Students can vote to elect the members of the SRC, but only a small proportion participates. There are 250 000 students at campus and only a 15 per cent turnout. I think ‘student politics’ is the idea that a group of students makes choices for the benefit of students in general, so it is important to know what they stand for and to believe in the process. A lot of members of the SRC are accused of being nothing more than career hunters or just being young politicians. For them, the university operates as a test ground before making the step towards politics later on, which makes it hard to get excited about them. For me it’s hard to care about someone who is spending a lot of money on a campaign to get themselves elected, but don’t realise much during their term. I am naturally weary of politicians. You have to be a bit of a wanker if you go in politics, so I think that also implies being head of a student body. One time, there was this SRC president who claimed in public to be opposed against something, but in reality he supported the upper management. That’s just not done. It doesn’t inspire you to vote; it doesn’t inspire anyone to think these people represent students.”

QMunicate published an article about the UK Government which is boycotting the boycott against Israel. How is that possible?

“I think our government, which is a centre right government, is quite friendly towards Israel and they will do what they can to protect their relationship with that country. Personally I think you should be able to boycott and protest if you want. If you personally choose to boycott Israel, that would not change a lot, but it is strange to me that the government can get involved in the morality of our own choices. I am not sure if they get punished either. So if you are a small business and you choose not to stock things from Israel, does that mean straight away that you’re going to get targeted because you do not have their products? Or you may not have those products anyway and then suddenly the government looks at your business, realising you do not stock Israeli products and therefore assumes you are boycotting Israel and thus breaking the law. Since this came into being very recently, I’ve not heard about a case where penalties were imposed.”

Each year, we have an Israeli Apartheid Week at our university. Would that be possible in Scotland?

“I hope so. We invited an Israeli speaker to speak at our student union a year ago. When that happened a lot of protesters showed up supporting Palestine, which is allowed: it is a democracy, after all. You are allowed to protest and we don’t want to prevent people from exercising that right. I don’t know the Israeli Apartheid Week, so it’s not something that’s happening, at least not in Glasgow.”

“You have to be a bit of a wanker if you go in politics, so I think that also implies being head of a student body.”

But the university wouldn’t prohibit it?

“I don’t think the University of Glasgow would censor something like that, but in the United Kingdom  some universities ban certain speakers on a frequent basis. Last year a feminist, Germaine Greer, caused commotion because, in spite of her feminist beliefs, she does not believe in the concept of transgender. A lot of people protested against her speaking at universities because they believe she is a danger to the modern feminist movement. Personally I think that a university should be a place that makes debate possible and where you are challenged academically and morally. Then you are forced to ask whether the opposing opinions are dangers to you own, and might generate an interesting and productive discussion. I would like to have people show up and challenge them rather than not having them show up at all. Your opinion develops by being challenged more than being surrounded with people thinking the same way.”

Are you free to write whatever you want at QMunicate? 

“We are sponsored by QMU, so our articles have to fit in the framework of the union. We are lucky the president of QMU used to be a chief editor of QMunicate and he would never intervene because he wouldn’t have wanted that to happen during his term.”

But you would never write something critical about the union? 

“The majority of students in Glasgow have more or less the same mind set so there is not a lot that happens to push the boundaries out in terms of controversial. As a chief editor, you have to look for subjects that interest them and that we agree on. I do not expect somebody to walk in and say they support Scottish students paying tuition fees, because nobody thinks that way. It could be on the table, but nobody is going to support it.”

Also in the UK language faculties are threatened with extinction. How come? 

“I think it comes down to cuts in the university funding. But then you look around and wonder why the money is going to the wrong places. The QMU, for example, receives about £200 000 a year from the university to help us fund ourselves. Meanwhile, the principal of the university earns more than that every year. So if you look at that you wonder how other partners are being treated. I think the focus goes towards things that are classical, prestigious, and more lucrative, such as law and science faculties. They receive more money than the arts faculties. So the priority is on retaining the prestige of the university and I suppose that when it comes down to it, the UK government want to see students taking science subjects.”

So the government is trying to push the students in a certain direction? 

“I think the general mentality says that young students should focus more on the sciences because there are greater employment opportunities. But the question then arises whether it is the responsibility of the university to get you a job or to enable learning.”

“If universities here were free for all British students, and they didn’t mind moving, you can imagine a huge wave of British students.”

Glasgow University
© Scott Wilson

Are universities subsidised by the government or do they have to get their means elsewhere?   

“Most universities are privately funded. I believe that’s why tuition fees are a huge source of income. But the state will fund the university to an extent, like all educational practices in Scotland. The state mainly focuses on getting the poorer students in universities; they’re proud of their free tuition system. However, there are plenty of articles to suggest that free tuition fees actually benefit the wealthy more than it does the poor. So, they are focusing on getting kids straight from school to university, and if you need college to boost your grades, it’s arguably more difficult. The Scottish school system works in a way that you must apply to go to university and they will accept you based on your grades. If you are not accepted, you can go to college, build up your skills and proceed to university. Traditionally, students from poorer backgrounds get lower grades at high school level and thus need this extra time in other areas of education. Now college funds are being cut because the government is prioritising universities, which is not good for social mobility, the government is prioritising the upper echelons.”

“In Scotland we don’t pay intuition fees- an external body does. The tuition fees for Scottish students are £1800 per year but students from other parts of the United Kingdom, who want study in Scotland have to pay between £7000 and £9000, depending on the university. It makes you wonder if universities are focussing more on students from the rest of the UK because that provides a huge income.”

Students from other countries in Europe do not have to pay intuition fees neither. Are UK students bullied by the Scottish independence debate?

“I think students from other parts of Britain tend to move away from home more then Scottish students. We don’t have many intentions to move far away when the university close to us offers whatever we want to study. Also, universities in the UK are far more expensive then Scotland, which makes it illogical for us to move. If universities here were free for all British students, and they didn’t mind moving, you can imagine a huge wave of British students. There aren’t that many universities in Scotland, either. I believe there are about ten universities of which there are three or four in Glasgow, and that is already a lot in one place. I would worry that if tuition fees were free for students in the rest of the UK and not in their own regions, that everyone would come and take Scottish university places. Because universities are so money driven, I would not even blame them for prioritising those students, because they make over three times the amount of one single British student. It is not fair, but you can see why it would be a worry.”

September 18, 2014 there was a referendum in Scotland. Was this commotion on the university? 

“Most universities were silent about it. I can imagine the top of the university not wanting independence, because a lot of their funding comes from the combination of Scottish and English students and that would be a worry for them. There were rumours that they were not even allowed to take a stance, as it’s not fair for lecturers to influence their students, but still there were some who were open about their opinions. One of my old English lecturers voted yes, but the university was neutral. The debate thrived amongst students though, and I don’t think anybody would want the university to pick sides. We even had our own mini referendum on campus, which mirrored what was happening in the country pretty well. There were also debates, so students were really engaged and the university motivated and encouraged students to take part in the debate, but nothing was really forced.”

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