NUS Scotland President, Ellie Gomersall, at the Scottish Parliament. Credit: Ellie Gomersall via Instagram

“Sticking plasters over the cracks of a broken system”: in conversation with the NUS Scotland president

By Athina Bohner

The Glasgow Guardian sits down with the newly-appointed NUS Scotland president, Ellie Gomersall.

In conversation with The Glasgow Guardian, National Union of Students (NUS) Scotland president Ellie Gomersall has addressed the most pressing issues of the day for University of Glasgow students, from the rising cost of living to mental health. 

With regards to the housing crisis, which has seen UofG students paying extortionate rents, living in emergency accommodation, sofa surfing, and commuting from Stirling and Edinburgh, Ellie Gomersall told The Glasgow Guardian: “What we really need to see is a Student Housing Strategy from the Scottish Government, because these housing shortages are not just happening at the University of Glasgow, they’re happening all across the country and they are not just happening in 2022. This year is probably one of the worst we’ve ever seen but it’s just been getting worse and spiralling. So far, universities and governments have been putting sticking plasters over the cracks of the broken system and actually what we need to see is complete reform.”

In addition, NUS Scotland is asking universities for student housing guarantees, which would “be a requirement on universities that if they are increasing the number of students that they are offering spaces to, they have a responsibility to increase the amount of accommodation that they are providing”. In fact, Ellie cites research from earlier this year that 12% of students in Scotland have been homeless at some point in their studies, which further sheds light on the wide-ranging scope of this problem. She also expressed her frustration at the delayed response to the crisis, stating that the distressing housing situation last academic year “should have been a wake-up call to universities” and hopes that now, the government “will open their eyes to finally tackle this issue that they have just been pushing off for years”.

Moreover, she raised the issue of rent controls and told The Glasgow Guardian on 6 October: “I’m really excited that today – actually as we are discussing this – the rent freeze bill will be going through Parliament. Thanks to the work of NUS Scotland, Living Rent, other students and campaigners, all student accommodation will be included in that rent freeze.” As Ellie explains, “this means that whether you are living in the private-renting sector, social housing, purpose-built accommodation, university halls – your rent cannot increase between now and March”. Nevertheless, she is deeply concerned about what will happen after March 2023 and urges the government to extend the bill until politicians are able to implement a full comprehensive system of rent controls. “The fight isn’t over yet, but I think it’s really important to show that when we do stand together with a united voice, we can win.”

With relation to the cost of living crisis, she said: “Coming to university for the first time should be one of the most exciting times of your life. Instead, because of the incompetence and lack of caring from the universities and the government, these students are now considering whether or not they can go for their studies at all.” In fact, a third of students are considering dropping out because of their current financial situation. When asked about what support students can expect from NUS Scotland over the coming months, she responded: “This winter, we’re also calling on the Scottish Government to increase student finance in line with the real living wage,” while admitting that “this is not necessarily going to happen this year.” The NUS Scotland president critiqued: “We haven’t seen any action from the Scottish Government, just words – and words aren’t going to pay the bills.”

Additionally, NUS Scotland is calling for discounts in public transport, which is particularly relevant for Glasgow. Ellie, who studied at University of the West of Scotland, recalls: “I’ve lived in Glasgow for a few years and just the cost of me getting from my flat in the southside to where I was studying at UWS in Paisley: I couldn’t get the bus, because I’d have to get a First bus into the city centre, a McGill’s bus into Paisley. There is no integration of the tickets, they’re already so expensive and it demonstrates how the current system of public transport, which should be for the public, is actually all about money, money, money.”

When questioned about her thoughts on the new Liz Truss adminstiatration, she responded: “It’s just abysmal, isn’t it? They are more concerned about curbing the rights of trade unions and giving their pals tax breaks and then changing their minds when it doesn’t suit them anymore. Students and workers are not just facing increasing homelessness rates, but I think we’re going to see deaths and that blood will be on the hands of Liz Truss and the UK Government.”

In addition to the housing crisis and the cost of living crisis, tackling the student mental health crisis is a top priority for Ellie. She expressed that “because students are currently on that cliff-edge, we really need to be investing in proper mental health services, we need to be cutting waiting times, and we need to be giving mental health the importance that it deserves.” According to the Mental Health Foundation, 74% of students in Scotland are experiencing low wellbeing, including anxiety and depression. The NUS President encourages students who are struggling mentally right now, to reach out to friends and family and check out NUS Scotland’s Think Positive hub, which has compiled a list of resources available at each Scottish university.

Moreover, she called for “urgent, significant intervention” from the Scottish Government. Ellie disclosed that NUS Scotland is in discussion with Jamie Hepburn, the Minister for Further and Higher Education, with regards to counsellor funding and a wider student mental health strategy for Scotland. She said: “I think right now, everyone is unsure of what exactly needs to be done, where exactly the money needs to be going, so if we sit down together and develop a proper student mental health strategy, then it means that we have a clear path and hopefully tackle this crisis at the root.”

The Glasgow Guardian also addressed the fact that because of recent antisemitism allegations, the UK Government suspended engagement with NUS UK – of which NUS Scotland is a devolved national sub-body. Revealed in May 2022, the allegations are well-documented, spanning several years, and have been described as “the rot at the heart” of the NUS. Ellie replied that she cannot comment in detail, as NUS is currently awaiting the outcomes of the King’s Counsel investigation. However, she conveyed that the allegations are taken very seriously and NUS will be implementing measures proposed by the report. 

Moreover, she points out that there continues to be a strong relationship between NUS Scotland and the Scottish Government and acknowledges: “I think there is always more work to be done in making any space more inclusive, more accepting, and it’s really really important that we bring all students along with us as part of that.”

Near the end of the conversation, The Glasgow Guardian noted that the University of Glasgow’s unions are not affiliated with NUS Scotland, to which she responded: “It comes down to the students and the Student Representative Council (SRC) for what they want.” She referred to the high membership fees which a number of UofG students cite as a deterring factor to the affiliation process, as “a valid concern, but really strong value for money”. Also, she indicated NUS Scotland’s successful history, claiming that free undergraduate tuition in Scotland and Covid-19 emergency funding for students would not have been possible without the organisation’s campaigning efforts. She remarked: “We are strong right now, but the bigger we are, the even stronger we become with even more wins for students.”

Lastly, Ellie revealed that NUS Scotland is undergoing a significant internal transformation over the next two years as it is becoming independent from NUS UK, which was decided at the organisation’s conference in March 2022. As much of the education system is devolved to the Scottish Government, this would see “Scotland’s student movement radically transform” through an in-depth process of consulting with all students across Scotland. Ellie Gomersall, the new NUS Scotland president, concluded the interview by optimistically declaring: “My dream student movement is whatever the students of Scotland want it to look like.”


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