A chat with John Nicolson, one of the nominees for the next UofG Rector position

Vote for me because I know and love Glasgow University, because I was here I care about it, I care about its history, I care about its reputation, I care about its future. I will work for the students and I will represent them without fear or favour.

John Nicolson is standing to be the next Rector of Glasgow University, and currently serves as the SNP MP for Ochil and South Perthshire. He is a graduate of the University of Glasgow and won the World Universities Debating Championships for the Glasgow University Union. Prior to becoming an MP he worked in journalism, being the first openly gay BBC Presenter.

In the run up to the Rector election, G-You interviewed to find out more about him and his priorities for the role.

Q: First of all, can you just give us a bit of background about yourself?

I’m John Nicolson, I am a Member of Parliament – more importantly I am a graduate of Glasgow University. I was a member of this Union [GUU], I was a board member and I was a member of the SRC so I know the university really well and I know the campus intimately – it’s changed a wee bit since I was here but the essential things are all the same. I was approached by a group of students and asked if I would run for Rector.

Q: There are many different ideas about what a Rector should be or should do – what is your personal take on what a Rector should be and should do?

Sometimes students over the years have chosen a celebrity or somebody who is ‘of the moment’ – that doesn’t work, I think mostly because the celebrities don’t know what’s involved and they never turn up and they don’t do any work. Sometimes students choose people over promise who say “I’ll be here everyday and I’ll be with you all the time” and that doesn’t work because they’ve promised and they tend to let students down. 

So, I’m being very careful with what I’m saying which is that Glasgow needs a working Rector. I think a working Rector can do a lot good for students because at the end of the day, you chair the University Court and so can speak up and be the champion for the students. What I’ve said is I will chair the Court, I’ll be here for Court days, and I will hold on those days university surgeries for students, because there are a lot of problems on campus I feel the Rector could direct attention towards.

Q: Recently we’ve seen a lot of protests from groups such as the Arms Divestment Coalition who want to see a change to the University’s investment policies, and many of them would look to the Rector for support. What would be your position on this?

I always remember going for a job when I left University – it was a job in advertising. I was asked if there were any campaigns I wouldn’t work on. I said very clearly at the time that I wouldn’t work on anything to do with the arms industry, I wouldn’t work on anything to do with animal testing, I wouldn’t work on anything to do with the tobacco industry, and so I set out clear parameters. In the end I did something else and went into broadcasting, but I remember at the time feeling very strongly about what we as a society should do in terms of the investments that we make. I think that goes for big institutions as well as us as individuals. 

When I say investment I mean putting our money into things or putting our time into things. I do think that the University has to take cognisance of what students’ views are on where to invest. This has been a debate that’s been going on in American campuses and Scottish campuses, and it’s an important debate because today’s students are the future of Glasgow University. They are the people who will protect Glasgow’s reputation in the years to come, and I think the lead that students are giving on this issue is very important.

Q: Glasgow is obviously unique in having four different student bodies, each with their own distinct roles to play on campus. As Rector, how would you support them and represent them to University management?

I think at the end of the day students no matter where they are have similar concerns. What I’m hearing is people talking about poor housing, talking about mental health and the lack of support given, they’re talking about equality issues, LGBT issues, they’re talking about student safety issues as well, talking about the lack of feedback that they feel that they get from University and I’m finding that whether you talk to the GUU or the QM, GUSA and SRC, the things they’re raising are remarkably similar.

Q: So you’d work with all of these groups to try to get change?

Obviously you’ve got to work with the existing student groups on campus, and the advantage is having been here I know exactly what each group does and how important each group is. I know how different the two unions are in terms of their background and character. I think it’s a great thing that Glasgow has two separate student unions as well as the SRC and sports, and long may it continue!

Q: The role of Rector is a traditionally non-partisan one, despite the history of politicians holding it. Would you treat being Rector as a non-partisan position as it has been in the past?

It definitely shouldn’t be affiliated to a political party, but I think the role of Rector should be political – with a small p. The issues that students are raising are political issues, you cannot talk about divestment without talking about politics, you can’t talk about mental health without talking about investment in mental health, housing likewise. These are political issues and I think it’s important that the Rector has a clear set of policies, and one of the things when I thought about doing this that people asked me was ‘when you were a student what did you care about and how different is that to what you care about now?’. 

It’s interesting – the things I cared about when I was a student are very much the things I care about now. I was at a meeting of the SRC, I was an SRC board member, and I was asked what I did that I was proud of when I was on the SRC. I said I set up the sexual harassment committee because I recognised that, well before the Me Too movement, so many students were getting harassed in the street, sometimes by other students, too often by college lecturers, and they had nowhere to turn other than the police. So I set up the sexual harassment committee so students had a place they could go and outline what had happened to them. It’s still running and I’m very proud of that.

Q: We are coming closer and closer to voting opening, so what is your brief pitch to students for why they should vote for you?

Vote for me because I know and love Glasgow University, because I was here I care about it, I care about its history, I care about its reputation, I care about its future. I will work for the students and I will represent them without fear or favour.

Q: And finally, what is your best memory of the GUU from your time here as a student?

The first time I kissed a boy!


John also spoke about his belief that the University should provide the Rector office staff to be able to deal with casework from students in a similar manner to an MPs office, and help see student issues through to a conclusion. He said that he would raise this with the Principal if he was elected, in order to help the Rector help students.

Voting in the Rector elections has been postponed to October, and the manifestos for all the candidates can be viewed at https://www.gla.ac.uk/myglasgow/students/uofgrector/

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