Ellie Gomersall: Trans healthcare 'woefully not fit for purpose'
“Right now is probably one of the most exciting times ever to be president of NUS Scotland, because we voted at our conference this year to become an independent organisation from NUS UK,” Ellie Gomersall tells Holyrood. “That means that we can really shape the student movement in Scotland to be whatever we want it to be.”
She is clearly enthused by that prospect. Gomersall has been in post since July, after successfully winning the race to become the new head of the students’ union in Scotland last April. The announcement was made during the union’s annual conference – which incidentally also marked its centenary. She will be in post for two years and much of her time will be dedicated to setting up the structures to allow NUS Scotland to go it alone.
But that’s not the only item on her plate. With the rising cost of living, Gomersall is keen to shine a light on how badly students are being impacted. The NUS launched its Fighting for Students campaign in the autumn, calling for a “tailored student cost of living support package”. That campaign is UK-wide, but since education is devolved many of the asks sit with the Scottish Government.
“It’s really good that Scottish undergrad students don’t pay tuition fees. We talk about that a lot – but that masks, sometimes, the fact that our education is still being run like a business, particularly when you look at post-grad students, particularly when you look at international students and the huge fees that they’re paying, and then the fact that the support isn’t actually there for students,” says Gomersall.
“These issues around the cost of living have actually existed for years. We did a survey last year, our Broke report showed 12 per cent of all students in Scotland have been homeless at some point in their studies, a third of all students at the time of the report were considering dropping out of their studies because of their financial situation, and that was done a year ago. So now we’re seeing, with this cost-of-living crisis, things are getting even worse.”
I thought, I don't think the Labour Party does represent me anymore. I jumped over to the Greens and not a single regret sense
The Scottish Government has committed to a minimum income for students, linking it to the living wage – but no word yet on when that will be rolled out. Gomersall says the situation is urgent.
“We acknowledge the situation that the Scottish Government is in financially, but we’re saying that when you’ve got 12 per cent of students having been homeless last year, and we know that rate will have gone up in the past year, that’s an unacceptable statistic. That should be an embarrassment for the Scottish Government and they have to act urgently, they have to make that top of their priority list. We need to see at least some sort of increase to student finance packages.”
The problem, though long-running, has frequently been ignored. She believes this is because of a “misconception of who students in Scotland are”. “We have this idea of who a student is: 18-years-old, school leaver, moving away from mum and dad for the first time, staying at uni, perhaps, and then in the summer going back to live with mum and dad before going back for their second year. And that’s just not the reality.
“So many of Scotland’s students are parents, for instance, so many of Scotland’s students are mature students, students who are studying part time, students who are care experienced, students who don’t have parents that they can go back to if they need financial support, students who not only are having to fund their own lives as a student but happen to fund the lives of their families, their kids, the people that they care for. And I think that part of this misconception of who students are has meant that we just dismiss the problems.”
She also worries that there is too much of a focus on admission statistics. The most recent figures suggest record numbers of students from deprived backgrounds were accepted onto a university course, but Gomersall questions “how many are actually surviving”. “The retention rates for students from working class backgrounds are really, really low, much lower than the average student,” she adds.
Gomersall knows only too well the pressures facing students. She had to hold down a part-time job at a supermarket while she was studying for her degree at the University of the West of Scotland (UWS). “If you’ve got the choice between taking a shift at work and keeping your home, or going to class, you’re always going to choose to go into work. There were multiple occasions when I was a student, I just had to miss classes because I needed the money, I needed to go into work, I needed to do a shift. If I didn’t take the shift, I wouldn’t have enough money to pay my rent. And that has a huge impact. It had an impact on my studies.”
This is why, alongside an increase to student finance, she welcomes the winter rent freeze (just passed by parliament) and is calling for more comprehensive rent controls, a housing guarantee for students, and discounts for public transport along the way to ultimately making transport free.
And if all that sounds a bit radical – well, Gomersall is no stranger to radical ideas. Throughout the interview she is enthusiastic and upbeat about not just challenging the status quo, but also offering potential solutions. At 23, she is clearly an idealist – but she’s also serious about changing the country for the better.
Growing up in Cheltenham in England, Gomersall says her family weren’t particularly political, other than her grandfather who was a Labour councillor in the 80s and 90s – though he died when she was three. That meant she wasn’t especially engaged as a young teen and it was her first supermarket job which ultimately started her on her political journey.
“I was working at Asda in Cheltenham, chatting to one of my colleagues who was living paycheck to paycheck, often really worried about how he was going to pay his bills despite the fact that he was employed… Just having those chats with him and having chats with other colleagues in the trade union really started to radicalise me, and made me realise, hang on a minute, this is not fair. These people shouldn’t have power over us because they’ve got money.”
Healthcare in this country for trans people is woefully not fit for purpose. We’re looking at waiting lists of four or five years just for an initial appointment
Yet much of the current political turmoil was shaped by decisions taken before she came of age. Her last GCSE exam fell on the day of the Brexit result and she admits to not paying much attention to it at the time. She also only has a tangential recollection of the Scottish independence referendum: “I do remember that we did have a debate [at school] the week of the Scottish independence referendum in 2014. I was just 14 at the time, I was in England, so I really, really wasn’t educated, I wasn’t aware of really any of the nuances about it. But I do remember that at the end of the debate, I did vote for independence, because I thought that the arguments of the people who were speaking were convincing enough. And I thought, you know, that sounds good. I think the Scottish people should do that. And I had no idea that a few years later I’d be moving here and actively campaigning for it.”
She joined Labour at 17 “because I was angry at the world”. Her constituency was a Tory/Lib Dem marginal, but she never felt like she could back either party, instead feeling more at home in Corbyn’s Labour. But that changed when she moved to Scotland for university, and she started “discovering a whole new world of politics”.
At UWS, she joined several societies to make friends. One of those was UWS Greens, the university’s branch of the Scottish Green Party. “I was meeting friends at uni who were active party members and had a really strong voice within the party, and who were able to present their own ideas and have those potentially become party policy and then actual legislation. [It] really showed me that the political landscape in Scotland was completely different. And I thought, I don’t think the Labour Party does represent me anymore. I jumped over to the Greens and not a single regret since.”
She later stood for election, though never with any realistic chance of winning. She was placed 11th on the Glasgow regional list in 2021 and was a candidate for one of the party’s non-target council seats earlier this year. Where she has channelled most of her energies has been behind the scenes as campaign manager and door-chapper for other candidates.
We speak just a little over a year on from the SNP-Green deal which saw the party co-leaders enter government. Asked how she thinks the partnership is going, she says: “As an opposition party you’re always able to say exactly what you think. You’re always able to stand up for exactly what you believe in. And I think sometimes, as a party of government, that can be a little bit more challenging, because you have to narrowly toe the line between being your own party but also being in government... We are only one year into that agreement and I think there’s a lot of really positive things to come from that, like rent controls, for instance. I’m looking forward to seeing how things go over the next few years.” She adds that there is “a lot more to come” from the Greens.
One part of the agreement that will have a major impact on Gomersall personally is the commitment to a “permanent transformation” of gender identity services. As a trans woman herself, Gomersall has campaigned to improve trans healthcare – particularly on the need to reduce waiting times. She has been waiting well over four years for her first session at a gender identity clinic – “and still no sight of an initial appointment,” she adds.
“Healthcare in this country for trans people is woefully not fit for purpose. We’re looking at waiting lists of four or five years just for an initial appointment. The appointments, once you do get them, are often invasive, asking questions that aren’t relevant or conform to gender stereotypes and things like that. It’s really difficult for a lot of non-binary people to access healthcare. And it’s all in all just a process that’s clearly not been designed by trans people,” she explains.
A framework for overhauling these services was published by the government at the end of last year, backed by £9m in funding. But Gomersall says these problems won’t be solved by just “throwing money at it”.
“It’s about changing the system and about making that legislative change or systemic changes that don’t cost as much money, don’t take up as much resource, but still have a huge, probably bigger, impact than just chucking money at the problem,” she says.
Going independent is the sensible option, it’s the stable option, it's the option where we’re avoiding chaos. And I think in 2014, it was kind of the other way around
Bringing about that systemic change is a thread running through much of Gomersall’s politics. It’s also why she supports Scottish independence, because it is “the only way that we can try and change” the current landscape.
Describing politics at UK level as “an absolute omnishambles” and that “we’re being completely failed on all counts”, she says: “We’re in this situation where actually going independent is the sensible option, it’s the stable option, it’s the option where we’re avoiding chaos. And I think in 2014, it was kind of the other way around, where independence was seen as anything could happen, anything could change. If we stay in the UK, at least we know what we’re getting. Right now, we don’t know what’s going to happen if stay as part of the UK. We don’t know what’s going to happen if we become independent either, but at least we’re in control. At least we can make those decisions ourselves.”
It’s not just about the UK Government either. She believes independence would mean the Scottish Government would be more accountable. “Right now, they are doing a lot of the finger pointing at Westminster and blaming Westminster for everything that’s going wrong. Actually, if we’re independent, they can’t do that anymore. They have to take that responsibility. They have to accept their role.”
And what about her role in building Scotland’s future – would she consider entering politics herself? “For now, I’m just going to focus on serving the student population of Scotland. But I’ll never say never. Yeah, certainly wouldn’t rule it out, but right now, my focus is on getting through the next two years as NUS Scotland president and then after that, we’ll start thinking about what the future might have in store."