Robin Parker tells of his ascent from environmental activist to NUS Scotland President
Despite a turbulent year for the student lobby, Robin Parker is a picture of calm. In recent weeks Scottish universities have finished setting tuition fees with some disappointing results for students. While students in Scotland will not pay, Rest of UK (RUK) students will pay up to £36,000 for a four-year course from 2012.
Edinburgh and St Andrews universities as well as the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland will charge £9,000 a year. Others will cap fees at £27,000, so the extra year effectively becomes ‘free’.
The controversial move is the result of the Coalition Government’s introduction of £9,000-a-year fees in England, which have sparked months of fierce protest from students and academics. Elsewhere, colleges have been hit hard by Scottish Government cuts, with the sector expecting more than £70m in cuts to their budgets.
Sipping his mocha in an upmarket Edinburgh café, minutes away from the plush NUS Scotland offices, Parker seems unfazed by the jagged road ahead. He tells Holyrood: “What I think is fascinating about Scotland just now is that we spent a long time debating tuition fees over the last few years. It’s not a debate anymore – it’s a settled thing. Where I’m taking NUS, and what I want to see national politics centre around, is how you make access to education fairer.”
Parker has much to live up to. His predecessor, Liam Burns, is now the NUS National President, leaving an impressive legacy in Scotland, where he managed to secure promises from the SNP Government to rule out the introduction of tuition fees for Scottish students. His feisty oration is in direct contrast to Parker’s low, dulcet tones.
The 25-year-old hails from Mile End, in East London. “Put your finger in the middle of the EastEnders’ map and that’s where I live,” he quips. He admits that reading the newspapers was the closest he came to politics at the highly academic private City of London School for Boys. While studying geography at the University of Aberdeen he was involved only at “arm’s length” with the Students’ Association through his interest in environmental activism.
As a member of the People and Planet Society, his main concerns rested with delivering organic vegetables to fellow students and recycling bicycles. His presidential nomination was the result of a consensus decision by a group of students keen to make AUSA more representative. With his blonde ponytail and tiny, wire-rimmed glasses, Parker seems a reluctant operator, more at home in the leftfield than hotbed politics. But the fervor with which he describes his achievement as a student president belies a more steely ambition below a benign veneer.
“I felt like I had a lot of effect as president of Aberdeen,” he says. “Then the cost of accommodation in Aberdeen was outrageous and I felt that was something we could act on and do something about.” His campaign strategy also helped reinstate the student day ticket for bus travel. After that “first taste of success”, he saw running for NUS Scotland president as an “opportunity to keep on that work.”
He adds: “As it happened, it looked like it was going to be a very tumultuous time for education in Scotland. I saw it as an opportunity to shape education in Scotland for the next wee while, to play a leading role in determining what that looked like.”
In fact, Parker was so keen to stand, he ran against his then girlfriend, Jennifer Cadiz NUS depute, whom he beat by just over ten per cent of the vote. He blushes deeply while describing the leadership race as “eventful”, revealing an emotive crack in an otherwise measured façade.
He speaks warmly of his predecessor, Burns, despite their seemingly divergent politics. Burns is seen as a leftist union-supporting figure, while Parker often trots out the line: “I think I’ve voted for at least three parties in the last two years.” However, he deftly adds that this floating voter mentality is indicative of a “wider distrust that exists for young people”.
Parker is markedly impressed with the tartan army, which followed Burns over the border to support him for national presidency. “That’s what Liam did so well was to keep a very strong sense of unity amongst students in Scotland,” says Parker.
“I think what Liam does really well is understand and get the message across about having common goals. It doesn’t matter what you think you can achieve, but you are part of a campaign, you are part of what the NUS is about. Liam supported me for leader, which I was really chuffed about. There was never any kind of policy difference because Liam achieved so much good work.”
But Parker adds: “I think we are different characters. The way people usually describe me is that I’m a bit more of a thinker, a bit more thoughtful, maybe.” It is difficult to know whether or not this modesty is cultivated for a purpose. But what is clear is his marked shift in tone, as if gearing up for a long battle, when the conversation turns to his big passion: wider access.
He says: “The big challenge which is staring me in the face right now is around colleges. Both universities and colleges before the election were told: ‘Here’s a big cut, but weather the storm and see what happens after’. But colleges in some ways have already come under financial pressure last year, and then are being lined up for another big cut.
“Our big concern, and where the SNP made a commitment before the election, is with technical places at colleges. At a time of youth unemployment and everything that means – maintaining the number of opportunities open to people in colleges – that has to be a priority. Both for individuals who are unemployed at the moment, and also Scotland’s economic future.”
But if tuition fees are in effect a ‘done deal’, how can NUS Scotland move forward students’ interests? “There is a huge amount of uncertainty over what’s actually going to happen, says Parker.
“I’m still not sure that the UK Government really know what they’re doing. They seem to be making it up as they go along. I think the stuff in the current white paper is proof of that. Everyone has predicted £9,000 as we predicted they would. The Coalition Government is trying, through state intervention, to create a market – which is just bonkers. It’s just back to front thinking. There’s increasing pressure on the economic strategy and more and more economists are saying: ‘You need a Plan B’.”
And with the financial gap set to widen between Scottish and RUK students, we can’t afford to fall into tribalism, says Parker. He adds: “I suppose in some ways, the only way we’ll be effective in changing the system will be through pressure on the Westminster Government. That’s ultimately where responsibility lies.”
He is quick to clarify that the NUS is not a warmup act, which precedes young politicos being parachuted into safe Labour seats. He says: “I think we’re rightly proud of the fact that we give students and young people a chance to express their political beliefs. Whether that’s in formal elected politics or whether that’s in other campaigning organisations. There’s a lack of political engagement in young people.
“It takes organisations like the NUS or the Scottish Youth Parliament to get young people engaged in politics. We need to work with all the political parties and we need to make sure, while we can be a ‘breeding-ground’, it is a broad one. I think what unites it all is that we’re a progressive organisation by nature, and we’re an organisation that argues for and fights for a fairer education system. Inevitably, therefore, we’re more aligned with parties which see themselves as progressive.”
Another deft move on the chessboard by the pragmatic Parker, who pledges to re-run for a second term. “If you’re not re-electable,” he says, “then you’re not doing your job properly.”