EUSA Freshers' Week 2012 logoJames McAsh, Edinburgh University Students’ Association President, offers some advice to new students in a speech at the beginning of Freshers’ Week.

When trying to work out what I should say today, I thought back to what advice I would have wanted four years ago when I was new to the university. And here it is:

Think critically about how the world is, and what it could be.

Now, more than any other time in your life, you have the real potential to shape your future and the world around you.

I didn’t really do this in my first year. I drank a lot of beer, went to some classes, slept in through some classes and met a load of new people. But that was about it. In my second year I decided that I wanted more from my university education so I joined some societies, and got involved in the Students’ Association.

And I’ve never looked back.

The reason that I am here today, why I ran to be student president, is that I believe education is something to be valued, and something that needs to be defended.

But education is about much more than just lectures and tutorials– it’s also about everything around the edges. Education is a lifelong journey – it’s about understanding and improving the world.

And students of the University of Edinburgh have a great record in doing this.

For instance, in 1992, a group of students decided that the Library Cafe should only stock Fairtrade tea and coffee, which was fairly unheard of at the time. So they did exactly as you’d expect – they dressed up as a big coffee bean and collected signatures for a petition. They then took the idea to a EUSA meeting, where it was debated and passed as policy. This meant that the Student President, and Vice Presidents, had to act on it. But when they made the call to place their order with CafeDirect, the then sole importer of Fairtrade coffee, the woman on the other end of the line fell off her chair.

The order that EUSA wanted to place would have doubled the UK’s total imports of Fairtrade coffee.

CafeDirect could do it, but they needed some time. They needed to invest much more, and develop a whole host of new Fairtrade farms.

So Edinburgh students waited, and let Fairtrade grow. And that sparked a chain reaction. Other universities copied us, cafes and coffeeshops started doing the same, supermarkets began to stock Fairtrade too. And as a result, Fairtrade grew and grew.

And today it is huge, and because those students demanded that EUSA pay a decent price to the farmers who grow the beans, Edinburgh students played a small but significant part in alleviating poverty for thousands of people across the globe.

Today we face some massive challenges. We are the first generation in a century who will be poorer than our parents.

Government and universities are cutting education and research budgets, squeezing stipends, wages and pensions, while drowning us all in a sea of personal debt,

Courses and departments are being closed, universities privatised, this marketisation of education is worsening a tiered university system, keeping the rich rich and the poor poor.

Through workfare and unpaid internships, we work for nothing, to compete for jobs which don’t exist, while support for the poor, unemployed and disabled is cut.

And right now over 2000 international students at London Metropolitan University are facing deportation, through no fault of their own.

University is a public good, and your life is too big to fail – we can’t let them sell off our future.

Now is the time to stand up and have our voices heard. So that’s why we’re going to march through London with thousands of other students on 21st November – I hope you’ll come with us.

Students have had great successes in recent years. In the last year alone, Edinburgh students have achieved so much.

We won subsidised bus passes for our vet students, we created a Fair Housing Charter to protect us from dodgy landlords, and with partner organisations we derailed the government’s privatisation of education, and won a living income for students in Scotland.

But these things are only possible when people work together. So, let me give my advice again: these four years are an amazing opportunity for you to make real change in your life, in the university and in the wider community. Join a society, volunteer, or get involved in EUSA’s campaigns.

You’re at a great university, I’m sure you’re going to have an amazing time here. I look forward to meeting many of you soon.

James McAsh

About James McAsh

James McAsh is a Labour Party and anti-cuts activist living in London.