Jack Davey sits down with 2023-2024 Association President to discuss the campaign, presidency aims, and why he’s not a “vegan communist”
The newly crowned Association President, Barry Will, arrives at the Student Union with an extra spring in his step. Having won the election by more than a thousand votes, Mr Will was thrilled to have gained such a decisive victory. In an exclusive interview with The Saint, Mr Will spoke about his plans for next year.
Mr Will said the result was a “massive mandate for change”. He prefaced the interview by praising the two other candidates running for the position as Students’ Association President, Juan Pablo Rodriguez the incumbent president, and Stella Maris. Mr Will said, “Both ran really good campaigns which included parts in their manifestos of important issues that will become part of my work. I also want to thank them for their commitment to students at St Andrews over the time they have been here”.
The big promise in Mr Will’s campaign is his plan to stop rent increases in halls and cap further increases for the 2024-2025 academic year. The Saint asked him how he would plan to achieve this.
Mr Will responded, “The vote shows that the students of St Andrews are deeply unhappy with the cards they’ve been dealt here. It gives us as a Student Association two options. The University can change their tone and address the housing crisis differently – they can reduce rent in student halls and work with us on the HMO ban. If the University doesn’t work with us, we will reinvigorate student politics and get people engaged again in student campaigns to hold the university accountable.”
Mr Will’s hopes for a newly mobilised Union begged the question: how would the Student Association act in hypothetical campaigns against the University? Mr Will said, “It would be acting as a Union. It would be doing its job effectively, demonstrating the power of its members. There are unions across the country just now striking and delivering demands in opposition to their employers and if we don’t get our demands met sufficiently, we will do the exact same.”
Such “direct action against the University” brings to mind the vociferous work of the Campaign for Affordable Student Housing which Mr Will founded and has been instrumental in running as its Director. CASH’s campaigns then seemed an obvious comparison for Mr Will’s approach to campaigns as student association President.Will pushed back against this, “Our Union is certainly not CASH, hopefully what I do bring from CASH is experience campaigning and experience in the housing sphere. We can use that to put pressure on Fife Council.”
Mr Will underscored the importance that “the Union is certainly not CASH.”
The crucible of Mr Will’s election promises will be when he is in the room negotiating with the University about rent increases. His soon to be predecessor in the role as Association President, Juan Pablo Rodriguez, told The Saint last week that whoever stepped into his shoes would face a “shower of reality” when they realised the true, potentially limited position of the Association President.
Mr Will however, did not flinch at the idea of being in the negotiating room saying, ”The University is about to get a shower of reality. I’ve been a negotiator with powerful organisations and institutions for quite a long while now. There has not been a mandate like this in so long at St Andrews. If the University genuinely cares about their students and what’s in the interest of their students, they will recognise this mandate and change their tone in the negotiations.”
What then would be the line where the activist President would permit an increase in rent? Mr Will was not willing to give specifics but did hint that a “fully comprehensive package” for students facing a rent increase would be necessary before he signed up to any upward change in rents. He added, “Rent increases wouldn’t be seen as a failure if alongside that we are able to get comprehensive support for students.”
He refused to accept current increases in inflation as a suitable metric to peg rises in rent to, with a firm riposte to the University’s of inflation borne financial pressures. Last week, the University of St Andrews told The Saint, “Rents in halls and managed accommodation will rise next year, by approximately 8%, to address major increases in energy, material and maintenance costs, and general inflation.
It is standard for Accommodation Fees to increase in accordance with CPI (consumer price inflation) each year. Accommodation fees are set in consultation with elected student representatives. When the discussions began in October last year, CPI was at 11% and forecast to increase further.
The Student President [Juan Pablo Rodriguez] negotiated to bring the increase down to 8.3%, with a lower rise in Whitehorn Halls of 5%.
Despite this, Mr Will said, “The cheapest bedroom in halls of residence has increased three times faster than inflation since 2006. Students need a break.”
Following disagreement between sabbatical officers over the response to strikes this year, The Saint asked Mr Will how he would get his radical agenda passed by his fellow officers.The election winner was bullish about the prospect saying, “Some people in the campaign have come out and said I’m some rabid activist but that’s genuinely not the case. I’m committed to collaboration and cooperation, and the other sabbatical officer will see that when they come into office. As a team leading the Union we should all recognise what this mandate says, students are unhappy and we need to be working together to find a solution”.
Beyond the Housing crisis in his election campaign Mr Will was committed to idening access to students including creating additional grants, as well as alleviating some of the cost of living crisis by subsidising more food options at the Union. How would Mr Will pay for this increased spending?
According to Mr Will, "There has been a Union strategic plan to get a bigger block grant and I hope, before I take charge, the current representatives are able to get a bigger block grant.” This seemed difficult given Will’s adversarial approach to the University, but he was confident in his power to achieve this. He added, “Students aren’t happy, they deserve better. This is our University; this is our institution students deserve to be able to assert their own power over their institution.”He continued even more stridently, “The University should be listening to us right now. This should be a wake up call for the university. Despite being the number one academically, the student experience is clearly underperforming.”
Whilst Mr Will may be hoping for success from those currently negotiating the Union’s grant, he was critical of their previous work in negotiations. Mr Will said, “We just need better negotiators.” Again, when pressed on how campaigning with the Students Association would differ from that of CASH, he raised the importance of SRC motions. When pushed on the political weight of the rather esoteric following of the SRC amongst students, Will acknowledged this but said, “SRC motions before the University haven't been listened to but there has just been a big shakeup”.
Furthermore, he promised that “I will go in and the University is going to listen to this. I’m not going to argue from day one, I will be cooperative. But if they don’t, then we will hold the University accountable.”
The soon to be President’s strategy to cut the gordian knot involves placing the negotiators at the tip of a spear of student support. Of previous negotiators, Mr Will claimed, “Tactics have been the fatal flaw; the big issue has been the Union hasn’t been consulting students on issues.” Will instead put forth his “new, much needed approach of having the entire student body behind the negotiators”.
As part of getting students more involved in student democracy and behind him in negotiations, Mr Will was keen to improve voter turnout in Union elections. He lauded the increase in the headline turnout figure this year of 28 per cent but agreed the turnout of 19 per cent for the presidential election was “pitiful”. Despite this, Mr Will told The Saint that he hoped to see a 30 per cent headline turnout and a 24 per cent turnout for Presidential elections “at the end of my time”. This would be achieved by student-led campaigns to get people reinvigorated in the political process.
One pledge in his manifesto which drew controversy was his desire to move towards a plant-based menu in halls. Will was quick to do away with any concerns that he was a “vegan Communist”. He told The Saint, “ A plant-based campus is one that prioritises plant based options, as part of getting to Net Zero by 2035 this has to be a part of that. I want there to be a focus on mitigating and managing our emissions. I‘m not vegan, I'm pescatarian. I used to be vegan so for me vegan and plant-based mean two very different things. For anyone who’s worried they are going to have falafel stuffed down their throat whilst I’m in office, that certainly is not the case, that’s not my intention.”
Finally, before I released Barry back to his post-election libations, The Saint asked him a few quickfire questions.
The Saint: Corbyn or Sturgeon?
Barry Will: As I’m Scottish, it has to be Sturgeon.
The Saint: Dame Sally Mapstone or Juan Pablo Rodriguez?
Barry Will: Juan Pablo
The Saint: St Andrews or Dundee?
Barry Will: St Andrews
The Saint: Will or Kate?
Barry Will: Kate
Photo: Barry Will