In this interview, we talk to Ellie Gomersall, NUS Scotland’s new President for 2022-23. She took up office in July, and has previously served as President of the University of the West of Scotland Students’ Association, and Co-Convenor of the Scottish Young Greens. At UWS, she was working towards her undergraduate teaching degree in physics.
1. You took up office at an exciting time, with the sector emerging from the pandemic and perhaps tentatively returning to on-campus activities. What does that mean for the student movement?
I think this is one of the most exciting moments in the history of Scotland’s student movement. The pandemic was a period of trauma and pain, but it did teach us (and the sector) some valuable lessons that I hope will reshape education in Scotland for the better. We’ve seen education become more accessible with the rise of video calls, and we’ve seen institutions starting to reassess their assessments, with many moving away from traditional exams during the early stages of the pandemic, opening up new doors for how we measure success on courses. It’s an exciting time to be a member of NUS Scotland too – we’re undertaking a hefty piece of work to reimagine what Scotland’s student movement can look like in terms of NUS Scotland’s own internal structures – it’s potentially going to be the biggest change to how NUS Scotland operates since we joined NUS exactly fifty years ago!
It's not all sunshine and roses though. We’re about to enter the worst cost-of-living crisis in my lifetime, and student poverty and poor mental health are abysmally high. Students are in absolute crisis, and it’s never been more important that we harness the anger and fear that students are rightfully feeling just now to demand urgent action from those in charge.
2. What got you involved in student representation in the first place? Tell us a bit about your journey!
I’ve been a long-term campaigner and activist for social justice, climate justice and equality issues, but as well as that I’m also a big ol’ governance nerd! When I was in first year at university I got involved in a few different societies and liberation groups, but I also successfully applied for a position as a student trustee of the students’ association. This gave me a fantastic insight into the world of students’ associations and the fantastic work that they do.
I’m the first in my family to have gone to university and I come from a background where money has often been tight. I was working 15-20 hours a week at a supermarket alongside my studies, but it was still a challenge to pay the bills. One month I was underpaid, and it was my students’ association who gave me a lifeline in the form of hardship funding that helped me survive. This showed me both how unfairly the system is rigged against students, but also the invaluable power of students’ associations and I decided to stand for Student President - and a couple of years later… here we are!
3. You studied and were a students’ association officer right through the pandemic. How would you describe student engagement during that time of change and upheaval?
The pandemic was a really challenging time for students but it did open a lot of doors for a lot of people. The increased accessibility of studying from home was brilliant for a lot of students, and remote attendance also opened a lot of possibilities for student representation structures, with some students’ associations having a huge increase in engagement, while others saw huge drops.
I think that’s the fundamental point here – what worked really well for some students at some institutions, really didn’t work for other students at other institutions. The pandemic highlighted what we already knew – there’s no such thing as a typical student and the diversity of Scotland’s students always needs to be at the forefront of our minds, especially when we’re making decisions on a national scale.
4. So how do we respond to that at a national level? What can NUS, sparqs and others do to enable a meaningful student input in the big issues facing our sector given that complexity and diversity of experiences?
I think it makes it even more important for us to make sure our voices are being both heard and listened to. That means making sure we’re sat at the table and making sure we’re participating in the conversations that are going on, to the best of our ability. But it also means making sure those conversations don’t just start and finish in the meeting rooms – we need to be speaking to students on the ground to hear that diverse range of experiences, but we also need to be closing the feedback loop and keeping the conversations ongoing.
5. And what are your plans for education in this year’s presidency at NUS Scotland?
As mentioned earlier, this is an incredibly exciting – but also really critical – time for Scotland’s student movement. For the coming year, we have to mobilise students like never before to fight back against the cost of living crisis being imposed on us. We also need to work closely with key allies such as the trade union movement – this crisis disproportionately impacts students and workers and we will only win if we stand united and fight against this together. It’s essential that we build solidarity and all come together to demand better from those in charge – only then will we win the essential support we need from our governments and our institutions.
6. Talking of coming together, you’ve spent a lot of time over the summer meeting new students’ association officers at NUS events, and of course at our That’s Quality! residential where you made some really valuable contributions. What’s your sense of the perspectives and experiences that officers in students’ associations are bringing this year on learning and teaching, and what would be your advice to decision-makers about how best to involve them?
I’ve been really blown away by the huge passion that officers in students’ associations are bringing to our movement this year. I’m excited by the fact that many officers are bringing very different perspectives to one another on learning and teaching – this is really important and valuable to ensure that the diverse perspectives of students across Scotland are adequately represented. One of the defining commonalities though, between all officers I’ve spoken to, is a really strong acknowledgement of how the needs of students during the cost-of-living crisis need to be reflected, not just in decisions around student support and services, but also in terms of curriculum design. We know that the financial pressures of the current crisis will impact the way that students are able to learn, and that has to be reflected in every single decision our educational institutions make.
Our universities and colleges need to think very hard about how they can adapt their education provision to make it as accessible to all students, regardless of their backgrounds or circumstances. One of the most important ways they can do this is by ensuring that the student voice is represented in all of their decision-making processes, so it’s essential that they also need to think about how they might need to adapt their processes to make sure that student representatives are able to have our voices heard, regardless of our backgrounds or circumstances. Our student officers this year wonderfully represent the diversity of Scotland’s student population, with many officers having care responsibilities, accessibility requirements and other circumstances of our own that mean decision-makers need to think harder about how to ensure our voices are able to be properly represented in the rooms where decisions are made.
Thanks to Ellie for being an interviewee. To suggest a future subject for interview, please contact us.
This interview is part of a series of occasional interviews on our website with student engagement practitioners – both staff and students, and from within Scotland’s university and college sector and beyond. The interviews aim to capture the different perspectives that people have on student engagement in the quality of learning.