President Elect Sharan Atwal on Making Widening Participation a Priority at EUSA
Updated: Mar 16
Illustrations by Megan Le Brocq
The University of Edinburgh has been embroiled in a tumultuous period. Barely out of the global pandemic, the student population has been disastrously affected by the cost-of-living crisis and now events have culminated in the largest strike action ever to hit the UK, affecting a staggering 2.5 million students across the nation. As the dust settles, the university is facing a mounting criticism over its ability to address the pressing concerns of its student body. The challenges for those taking up roles of leadership have perhaps never been greater. I had the pleasure of sitting down with Sharan Atwal, who has just been elected the 2023/24 EUSA President’s Seat, so I was naturally fascinated to hear her motivations for taking on the responsibility as we delve into her vision for the upcoming year and her strategies for reuniting the student body.
Sharan's mission is to level the playing field for Widening Participation students at the University of Edinburgh by offering subsidised bus passes and reinstating the University's bursary. But her core motivation she attributed to her experience gained from co-founding Tackling Elitism, a student group that advocates for equal access to education and representation of the underrepresented. The University of Edinburgh is currently ranked the fourth most elitist University in the UK, even surpassing Oxford and Cambridge. Now that she will have the EUSA presidency platform from June, Sharan believes she “can speak and lobby for a lot of change that I think would be helpful to a lot of students.”
These policy promises could not have come at a better time; just last week a report in The Telegraph revealed that one in ten University of Edinburgh students classified as 'disadvantaged' attended a private school where fees were at least £40,000 per year. As a founding member of Tackling Elitism, Sharan is all too familiar with these issues, and she is passionate about seeing change at the University – ‘I've been heavily involved campaigning already as a student through Tackling Elitism’ working directly with ‘‘charities and … senior staff to actually create change and I've done this as a student because I just feel so strongly for it’’. With her personal experience, Sharan brings to her presidency an ‘‘understand[ing] [of] how important it was to use my voice’’ (sic) against inequality.
In the President seat, Sharan aims to build on the changes she has already initiated and the relationships she has formed with the University's Sabbatical officers and Widening Participation team. Talking about her manifesto and campaign from the previous week, Sharan notes: ‘‘I think if I could sum up my campaign - so most of it is just actionable points like it’s things that I will make happen it's not expanding things, improving things or developing things it is creating things that don't exist already.’’(sic) Her actionability is impressive, and her candidacy is characterised by policies and changes that feel constructive and personable. She vows to prioritise ‘‘Creating financial support where there isn’t and doing this on a long-term basis and making sure that whatever is implemented is implemented for the foreseeable future - in my mind the next five years at least instead of short term changes which are never usually followed up on.’’ (sic).
However it is questionable whether her ambition to bring about long-term change within a one year term is realistic; the initiative in itself is much easier said in a campaign. Now that Sharan has been elected, how does she feel about the one-year turnaround time? Her response was filled with optimism: ‘‘I think the whole point is going in with as full force and doing as much as you can in the space of a year and laying the foundations to let other people build on it.’’
At the same time as discussing the longevity of her strategy I did press her to suggest which of her more immediate policies she hoped would be achieved within that one year term, she replied: ‘‘there’s two that I can think of from the top of my head - I feel like cost of living support and all the financial support that I want to implement, so in terms of subsidising transport and the participation grant - making sure that's in place for the next few years and then mental health days for all students. I feel like everyone seems to be struggling and are having more open conversations about mental health and how you know overwhelming deadlines in uni is, I think it’s an easy one to do that just feels a lot more personable with students and staff and having that transparency will just make sure you feel more comfortable.’’ (sic)
One issue that was particularly important for most voters this year was the candidates’ stance on the Industrial Action that has, along with pandemic lockdown, shattered so much of our study time and consistency. The reaction of the university’s most senior (and highest earning) leaders has angered large sections of the student body and has put further distance between executive leadership and the student body itself. As recently as February 18, a protest was held in Bristo Square calling for the resignation of some of these key leadership members. Sharan has a comprehensive vision for rebuilding bridges between the student body and university leaders, which she suggests have not been completely burnt: “obviously there has to be a very diplomatic element to it”; she explains that successful leadership starts with “build[ing] on our previously established relationship [to] work constructively with them’ and aims to communicate the issues and concerns that students have “very transparently and very honestly.”
Sharan balances her understanding of diplomacy with a respectful insight into where student dissatisfaction comes from in the first place: ‘‘What fuels the unrest among students is that we are shouting into the void and no one’s listening.” The key is for people in senior leadership positions to actively engage with the student community; in office, Sharan vows to “strongly encourage them to not just make statements but to actually speak to students and be on campus’’.
With Sharan’s determination to keep pushing her goals forward, there is a glimmer of hope for underrepresented students on campus: that as President, she will make widening participation a priority, and continue pushing for an end to elitism at the University of Edinburgh.
You can see more about Tackling Elitism and keep up with their work here.