An Interview With Alan Bissett

The upcoming Rector elections have received a lot of attention due to the diverse and high profile range of nominees. Each candidate offers the University something unique making it especially important that students cast a well researched vote. The G-You have interviewed each potential Rector in order to find out a little bit more about how they would act if given the senior position.

Alan Bissett is a Scottish author, playwright and performer who was awarded the Glenfiddich Spirit of Scotland Writer of the Year award in 2011. Alan’s campaign focuses on being an active working Rector. He calls for limits on senior management pay and greater equality on campus. Having previously worked at the University teaching Creative Writing, Alan has lived in Glasgow for the past ten years. He answered a few of our questions about his campaign, Scottish independence and University life:

The list of previous Lord Rectors of Glasgow University is very impressive. Are there any names you would be particularly proud to be following on from if you are elected?

Yes, the late, great Jimmy Reid, who is a great hero of mine. He was a socialist and trade unionist, famous for his role in the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders work-in of the Seventies.  He warned his men that the world was watching and that they had to conduct themselves with dignity, including- famously – ‘no bevvying’.  But for me his greatest moment came during his address to the students as Rector of Glasgow University, railing against the injustices of capitalism: ‘This is a rat race, but we are not rats. We are human beings.’ That has gone down as one of the most powerful humanitarian statements in Scottish history.

Your campaign stresses the importance of being a working Rector and improving University life with a focus on gender equality and promoting the rights of ethnic minorities. How do you aim to address these issues?

I’d hope to change the Rectorship selection process to achieve more of gender balance.  I appealed to the university to do something about the all-male selection this year, but their rules were fairly rigid.  Another priority is working with the GU about the recent, high-profile claims of sexism there.  I’ve just met with some of the GU board and they really impressed me with how keen they are to change that culture, and quickly.
I’d also like to talk to academics and student bodies about creating an environment where female students feel as able to contribute and be as vocal in classes as their male counterparts.
Finally, I’m meeting next week with refugee support groups such as STAR, Amnesty International and Crossing Border to identify what the key issues are facing asylum seekers at the university.

As an active member in the YES campaign you clearly have strong political views regarding Scottish independence. If you were elected Rector how much do you think these views would influence your actions and what impact would this have on the University?

They would have no bearing at all on my role as Rector.  Obviously I’m not going to hide my support for Scottish independence, but they would be irrelevant to how I carry out my rectorial duties.  And when you think about it, after September this year, it’s not going to be an issue either way. Once the referendum is done and dusted, I’d still have two and a half years to go in my term.

What would you say to students who are perhaps put off by your political views?

I’d say that stance is understandable, but that my job as Rector would be simply to represent the students’ conerns at Court level, whether they’re Unionist or Nationalist, Socialist or Tory.  Maybe they couldn’t care less about politics; it doesn’t matter.  If someone was to come to one of my surgeries, which I intend to hold every three weeks, I’m not going to stop them halfway through a complaint they have about a course and say, ‘Hang on. How do you intend to vote in the referendum?’ That would be irresponsible.  Charles Kennedy is not someone whose political views I agree with, but if he was an effective advocate for the students then that’s all that matters.

If Scotland was to become independent it would most likely come at a time when most of us have just entered the job market. How do you think a YES vote would affect the lives of current and future students?

Well, since you asked!  I think a Yes vote would be hugely benificial to the future livelihoods of students.  They’d be engaged in the task of nation-building.  There’s going to be an intense amount of activity after a Yes vote, not least for Law and Politics graduates.  All of the pro-independence parties – that is SNP, Greens and Socialists – intend to reindustrialise Scotland.  They want to use our untapped resources – both natural and economic – to construct a green energy programme, which means meeting our energy needs when the oil runs out, which means exporting the technology and actual energy, which means a flurry of Engineering, construction, Financial and Bio-tech jobs.  The proposed Scottish Broadcasting Service will mean far more opportunities for Media, Film and Arts graduates than our current tiny slice of the BBC allows.  There are going to be incredibly exciting opportunites everywhere.  What’s a No vote going to bring?  Nothing.

I think students have to be aware that they are the first generation since World War II whose living standards will be lower than that of their parents’.  This is the long-term effect of an economic model – Thatcherism – which Scots rejected at the ballot-box again and again, but which has been foisted upon us anyway by the rest of the UK.  Scottish students have free education – where their English counterparts don’t – because of spending priorities made by the Scottish government, voted for by people who live here.  That alone should speak volumes about the effectiveness of self-determination.

What was your experience of University like and what kind of clubs were you involved in as a student?

I loved university life.  I started at Stirling Uni in 1993, and as students interested in music may know, the mid-Nineties was an incredible time to be young: the music was great (Britpop, trip-hop, hip-hop), the films were great (Tarantino, Trainspotting) and the youth was rising up against the Tory government of the day.  By the late Nineties it had all gone a bit Spice Girls, Robbie, Coldplay and New Labour – so it didn’t have a happy ending – but there was a real vibe about my undergraduate years.

I was heavily involved in a Musical Theatre group at the time.  We put on productions of Grease and Little Shop of Horrors which were huge hits on campus, although unfortunately our staging of West Side Story almost bankrupted the student union!  Factoid: my best friend in the Musicals Society, Rob Shorthouse – who played Kenickie in Grease –  is now the Press and Comms director for the Better Together campaign!

What do you think is the best thing about Glasgow University and what is the most important thing that needs to change?

One of the best things about Glasgow University is the quality of the academic staff.  Glasgow is simply a world class centre for learning and teaching.  One of the things that could perhaps change is the issue of over-crowding, which is a by-product of that success.  Video link-ups for large lecture groups is all fine and well, but if I was a student I’d feel a bit shunted out and discouraged by that. I’m sure the university are working to change it, and I’ll certainly be helping them to.
-Kate Whitaker
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