Many of NUS Scotland’s leading figures in its four decades have gone on to become major players in the world of politics, media, charity and public affairs. Spotlight Editor Alex Trembath catches up with some of the movement’s most striking characters to recall memories from their time at NUS Scotland, and to discover how those experiences have helped them to achieve excellence in their fields.
NUS Scotland President (1992–94), NUS President (1994–96)
Today a leading politician: held various cabinet roles in the Labour government, including Minister of Europe and Secretary of State for Scotland; now Shadow Secretary of State for Defence.
How did you first get into student politics?
I went to Cardonald Further Education College in Glasgow. I’d come back from South Africa in the 1980s to avoid serving in the South African army, and the qualifications I had from when I was at school in South Africa weren’t valid.
I had to go back to college to do my school qualifications, and I got involved in the students’ union at the college. When I went to university I did the same, and I ended up as the President of NUS Scotland.
You are one of a select few presidents of NUS Scotland that went on to become NUSUK president. What inspired you to run for that?
I thought that NUS nationally could get a higher profile for the education funding argument, but it needed a stronger argument, and I wanted to make it. Which is why I got them to change the policy away from free education to student contribution and a graduate tax.
NUS is one of the most influential lobbying groups in the UK, and I thought it was hamstrung because it didn’t have an education policy to lobby for. That’s why I went for it.
What is your proudest achievement as a student leader?
I’m teetotal, and I got through the whole NUS President experience without turning to drink – that was a big achievement!
I think the main thing was persuading NUS that if its education policy could fit on a placard, then it was a slogan rather than a policy. I remember going to meet the Tory education minister and realising that we didn’t have a coherent argument to make to them. The idea that the state should pay for every penny piece of further and higher education just wasn’t a coherent argument.
I don’t think there has been a quicker transition from student politics into mainstream politics than yours. How difficult was it to make the swift transition from being NUS president to becoming an MP just a year later?
Well, I got selected to be a candidate while I was still NUS President. I thought the transition was pretty difficult, because I wasn’t expected to win the Eastwood seat in Scotland. Labour hadn’t won here since the 1920s, so no-one, including me, expected Labour to win.
I think it probably took me about three years to adjust. There were these pictures of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown you saw on the telly, and here was I turning up in parliament unexpected. So yes, it was a massive adjustment and I think it took me about three years to get a sense of my way around parliament.
On that election night, when Labour won Stirling, I thought “I’m going to be the only guy who can’t beat a Tory in the whole of Scotland!” But a few hours later it turned out fine.
How did your experiences in the student movement help to prepare you for a career in politics?
Thick skin. People shouting at you. You can stand up there at a conference and have a hundred people screaming at you. It prepares you for things like Question Time, and all sorts of other things. you’re somewhat of an accomplished footballer; you played for Scotland in your youth, and you’re now captain of the parliamentary football team.
How do your skills as a political leader translate onto the football pitch?
Understanding people’s strengths and weaknesses, and working out who to put on the substitute bench!
Various staff roles at NUS Scotland 1975–83, including the organisation's first development and training officer
Today a freelance film producer and highly renowned in the television and film industry; spent many years at the BBC, where she produced programmes including Monarch of the Glen and 55 Degrees North.
How did you first come to work for NUS Scotland?
Honestly – on a whim. I fancied living in Edinburgh after visiting for a fun weekend. I applied on a whim, but, come the interview, I knew I had found a place I’d enjoy, and I did.
I knew no-one outside of NUS in Edinburgh when I first moved up from Newcastle, and it was the best place I could have picked to work; fun, political, challenging, edgy and social. NUS was, and I’m sure still is, a great place for ambitious young people, and I was encouraged to go for every opportunity going.
Were you a student yourself?
I left school at 16 – a spectacular under-achiever with three ‘O’ Levels. After I’d been at NUS for a while I realised I was ready to knuckle down and further my own education, so I took some highers at night school, and the University of Stirling accepted me to study history and fine art.
What were the main challenges and issues facing the organisation and the wider student movement during your time at NUS Scotland?
Thatcher, college closures, threats to support for education. Doesn’t sound that different to now, does it? Our campaigning then was every bit as diverse as today’s activists are – we occupied colleges, we lobbied parliament, we worked across national and international issues and causes. Anti-apartheid was the huge international issue of the day.
You were NUS Scotland’s first Development And Training Officer. What did the role comprise?
It was a mix of officer training, campaigning and representation, both in Scotland and as part of the UK regional officer network. Working mostly with student officers in their institutions and at conferences, the regional officers worked on both the commercial activities of local unions, and their welfare and campaigning work. One day we were breaking the perimeter fence at nuclear power stations, and the next representing NUS to government – a varied life.
What did you enjoy most about working at NUS Scotland?
We all grew up together, personally and politically. Anything seemed possible, and we rarely took ‘no’ for an answer – even when we were on the losing side! Realising that the smoke canister rolling around in the back seat of my car, a leftover from anti-apartheid protests against the South African rugby tour, didn’t have a pin in it and could have gone off any moment was pretty memorable…
What was your path from NUS Scotland into the film and TV industry?
Via the University of Stirling. When I left there, I began to work with another Stirling graduate, Mark Cousins, and we stumbled our way into TV via conference organising. We made a youth show for Channel 4 and it all started from there.
How have your experiences at NUS Scotland and as a part of the student movement helped in your further career?
Immeasurably. My time at NUS Scotland was akin to others’ university experience – it was where I grew politically and personally, and made friends for life.
What is your proudest career achievement?
While at the BBC I started a twiceweekly soap, River City, which is still running after ten years. That was a huge challenge. Monarch of the Glen was the first show that was commissioned under my tenure at BBC Scotland, so it will always have a special place in my heart. In film – the other half of my BBC job – working with Lynne Ramsay, genius Scottish filmmaker, on both Ratcatcher and Morvern Callar was a highlight.
What is next for you?
I’m no spring chicken, but I’m enjoying working freelance after a long stint with the BBC, and loving the variety that brings. And maybe it’s even time to finish that PhD now…
NUS Scotland President (1998–2000), NUS President (2000–2002)
Now a prominent political advisor: served as a special advisor to Tessa Jowell, Minister for the London 2012 Olympic Games, and campaign co-ordinator for her husband John Woodcock’s 2010 General Election campaign in Barrow-in-Furness.
What inspired you to get involved in the student movement?
I was a primary school teaching student at the University of Strathclyde, and I came from a family who weren’t particularly political. But this was in 1994, and teachers were going out on strike; I came to realise very quickly that teaching was a very political thing.
I got involved in the students’ union; I was on a campus a few miles out of the city, and I felt we didn’t get the same service that the city centre campus did. I stood to be part of the student council, and that’s where it started – a genuine urge to get involved and change things.
What were the key issues that defined your presidency at NUS Scotland?
The biggest issue was, and still is, fees. Tuition fees had just been brought in, and it was the time of the Cubie Report in Scotland – that’s when they decided to back-end the tuition fees so they weren’t paid upfront.
You were the last President of NUS Scotland to become NUSUK President. What challenges did you face in your election campaign?
The other candidates I was facing already had a base in England and Wales, and Northern Ireland to a degree as well, whereas as President of NUS Scotland, I didn’t have access to all those delegates from across the country. Scotland was a chunk of conference, but it was by no means the largest voting section, so to win it you had to have support from right across the UK.
What do you think are the stand-out features of your campaign that inspired people to vote for you?
In Scotland, we had just had some success in our fight against top-up tuition fees, in that we got the back-end reintroduced – we really brought the student movement together to fight fees in Scotland.
People at the time were so annoyed with what was going on with education, as they are now, so they needed someone to stand up for them and fight.
What have you been doing since you left NUS?
When I left NUS, I went to work for Amicus, where I helped run a ‘dignity at work’ programme, about bullying in the workplace. I did that for about two and a half years, and then I went to work for Alliance & Leicester.
Somebody then told me that Tessa Jowell, who was the minister for the Olympics and London at the time, was looking for a new special advisor, and was I interested? I’d never met Tessa before, so I thought I would go in and see her. We got on really well and she offered me the job, so I did that for a year, and then I had a baby. After that, my husband stood for parliament in Barrow-in-Furness. I ran his campaign, and he won. Since the election I have concentrated on being a mum.
How have your experiences in the student movement helped you in later life?
Positive experience in the student movement gives you huge confidence in yourself. There are so many people there to train you, to advise you, to help you to become much better-equipped to achieve things.
I was so lucky to lead two organisations that were fighting for the rights of students, and I believed in it passionately. I’m so proud of myself for having done it.
Do you still keep an eye on NUS?
I think all past presidents do. When you see the presidents on television you always turn up and tune into what is happening. I think that NUS is doing a really commendable job in the face of what the current government is doing and their attacks on education. I only met Aaron Porter once, but I was really struck by how intelligent he was, and what a grasp he had on the whole issue of education. I hope the students across the country can see what NUS is actually doing for the good, because it is an amazing job.
NUS Scotland Women's Officer 2006-07
Today a senior national campaign co-ordinator for Oxfam; recently appointed Economic Justice Project Manager for Oxfam GB.
What inspired you to get involved in student politics?
A year into my degree I discovered that my institution was looking to cut the course after our third year. In Scotland an honours degree takes four years, and I wanted to complete the full honours degree I’d signed up to do.
I spoke to my students’ union advice centre and we lobbied to save the course – and won! After that, I decided to train and volunteer with the advice centre, which gave me the experience and confidence to run and be elected as part-time welfare officer. During this time I got more and more involved in other aspects of my students’ union, and decided to run for president at the end of my final year. I won my election four days before handing in my honours dissertation!
What were the main challenges and issues facing the organisation and the wider student movement during your time there?
I think the issues facing the student movement have been similar for a long time. It’s always been about ensuring access to education for all, fighting fees, protecting students’ rights to safe housing, and ensuring rights for disabled, LGBT, black and women students. The last Scottish election was while I was in office, and we used that opportunity to push these issues with politicians and win for students.
What issues did you tackle that were specific to your role as Women’s Officer?
The issues were as directed by the membership through our annual Women’s Conference. I specifically focused on the rights of student parents, and created a student parent charter for students’ unions. I also worked closely with Close the Gap on women at work issues, looking at women’s opportunities and rights at work, both while studying and beyond graduation, ensuring they were aware of equal pay legislation and their rights in the workplace.
What is your most precious memory of your time at NUS Scotland?
One of my many precious memories of my time at NUS Scotland was at my last Women’s Conference. A student I had worked closely with throughout the year told the conference that, as a member of a sports union and someone who would never previously have considered herself a feminist, she was now proud to be part of the women’s campaign and call herself a feminist, thanks to the work of the campaign that year.
What is the nature of your new role with Oxfam?
I have been working as a campaigner for Oxfam Scotland for three years now. It is my job to engage the public in our campaigning work, and to mobilise and motivate them into taking action with us. I spend time building relationships with various communities, training activists, supporting community and student campaign groups, lobbying politicians and enabling our supporters to do the same, and the occasional unusual media stunt!
I’m about to start a new role as Economic Justice Project Manager for Oxfam GB, a challenge I’m really excited about getting my teeth into.
We’re launching a new global campaign this summer, and I’ll be managing the projects in the UK.
How have your experiences at NUS Scotland and as a part of the student movement helped in your further career in campaigning?
It gave me a huge amount of experience, and I am in no doubt that it was this experience that got me my dream job at Oxfam. I found I was so immersed in it all during my time there, that I had no idea how much I was learning and developing as I went along. It wasn’t until I started at Oxfam that I realised how transferable those skills were.
What are your long-term career ambitions?
I will always be an activist. I think it’s in my blood. My passion for human rights, justice and equality issues will continue to shape my future. And I’m looking forward to new adventures in my new role with Oxfam.
This article was featured in the April 2011 edition of Spotlight. If you do not currently receive Spotlight, email email@example.com