Interview with Alan Bissett

Published

Hannah McNeill

Guardian: What attracted you to the role as rector?

Bissett: I taught at Glasgow Uni in the English department for four years, which I very much enjoyed. I do miss the buzz of the campus. It’s a very special environment and I’d like to be part of it again.

I also think it’d be great to highlight as part of the campaign – whether I’m elected or not – various issues about equality and access, but most crucially I think I’d be an effective advocate for students at University Court and would relish the challenge of that. Apart from anything else, this campaign is an adventure and an experience, so it’s worth doing for that alone.

Guardian: What do you think you can especially bring to the role?

Bissett: I was raised working-class and I remember what it was like to feel – initially at least – out of my depth and uncomfortable at university. That I eventually overcame that to succeed doesn’t mean I’m not aware that students often feel dislocated because of their social background.

This is why the issue of equality is so important: the University management is still mainly white, privileged and male. That’s not the fault of those people individually – and I’m sure they do the best they can – but it does show that the struggle for equality is far from over. If I was elected, I would take that responsibility seriously and push for greater diversity at board level.

Guardian: How would this tie into your current work as a writer, especially with the political elements in your writing?

Bissett: It wouldn’t tie in directly. I wouldn’t be thinking “as a writer” if I was rector. But some of my work does explore themes of injustice, so I guess the rectorship and the writing would feed into each other indirectly. It’s all part of a larger social struggle for progress.

Guardian: What do you think the biggest challenges facing the rector will be? How do you plan on tackling these if you are elected?

Bissett: I think a challenge for any rector will be not getting too close to upper management. There has to be a mutual respect and cordial relations, obviously, but at the end of the day the rector is there to represent the students. It’s easy to be swallowed up by systems of power and I’d have to keep my eyes open.

One picks one’s battles as well. There’s no use me thumping the table in Court and saying “One of the lights in the student halls STILL hasn’t been fixed!” The key is listening to the students – which I’d be doing with surgeries every three weeks – and making sure the important issues are being addressed.

One of those appears to be overcrowding. It’s not good enough that second-hand “overspill” lectures are taking place because there isn’t room on campus to accommodate the large student numbers. Video link-ups are a sticking plaster, but they ultimately discourage student engagement. A solution may lie with the takeover of the hospital grounds to the south of the campus. There are challenges and opportunities in that move over the next few years; I’ll be interested to find out what those are and make sure the students benefit.

Guardian: You very quickly requested that nominations remain open to allow women to be nominated and you’ve spoken before about wanting to “effect change” with regards to gender equality across campus. How do you plan to do this if you are elected?

Bissett: Well, firstly I’d be hoping to change the rectorship selection process to achieve more of a gender balance. The University has only had one woman rector in its history and that has to be addressed.
Another priority is working with the Glasgow University Union (GUU) about the recent high-profile claims of sexism in their union. I’ve met with some of the GUU board and I was impressed with how proactive they seem about changing that culture. I’m also now aware they need a nightclub built – and fast!

Lastly, I’d like to talk to academics about trying to create an environment where female students feel as able to contribute as their male counterparts. I know from my teaching experience that female students often feel less vocal and confident, whereas the male students feel fewer such worries. I’d want to try and find out from staff and students why that is and work with the SRC’s Equality Officer, the GUU and the QMU to suggest atmospheric changes.

Guardian: Any final thoughts before the elections?

Bissett: Yes. Gender disparity aside, I actually think the students have an excellent choice this year. All of the candidates are people with integrity. I obviously understand why students would want to show solidarity with someone like Edward Snowden – he’s enormously brave and has done a great service to the human race. But there are honorary positions with which to make those statements. After the initial flurry of media interest, Glasgow Uni would be left without a working rector, representing student interests, for three years. So if people are not going to vote for me, I’d advise them to vote for Holdsworth or Obree, both of whom are excellent candidates.