Liam McCabe is a student activist, first and foremost, with union activism in his blood. The new president of students’ union NUS Scotland says that his first indication of this was at school, when he received the headteacher award for his involvement in the school community.
When he began his studies at Glasgow Caledonian University, joining the NUS was the logical next step. “My father was a trade unionist during the Thatcher years and my uncle was really involved as well,” he recalls. “My father always impressed on me that it is really important to be involved with a union. And that translated into me getting involved with the NUS.”
Taking part in a large-scale demonstration with fellow students in London also inspired him to get involved, explains McCabe.
“Studying sociology and joining a movement – the combination of that really forged my politics,” he says.
At the University of Strathclyde – which he joined in 2015 to study for a master’s in public policy – McCabe got his first taste of student representation, taking up the sabbatical role of vice-president for volunteering and development. He held this post for two years prior to being elected NUS Scotland president.
He acknowledges the respected position NUS Scotland has achieved in recent years, with a seat at the table at national level; the independent student-support review, published at the end of last year, was an example of this. But he believes the union should also focus more on its role as a student movement by engaging with its grassroots membership. It should also be inspired by its past in championing minority rights, such as those of the LGBT community, he adds.
“It is about trying to get a student movement, in the traditional sense, moving towards a common goal,” says McCabe. “I just think we can do a bit better on the movement side of that.”
One key focus during his time as president will be something that he thinks has not been on the radar of the NUS in Scotland sufficiently.
“The regional level of organisation is one of the unexplored resources of the student movement,” he explains. “We can’t lobby 32 local authorities [from the national level] as well as the government. We should be campaigning regionally when we lobby our local authorities, and lobbying nationally when we look at national policies.”
The reason for this, he argues, is clear: “If you look at the way a lot of issues are, and where a lot of the power is, it is increasingly with local authorities.”
Among the issues that are most important to students are those that come under the responsibility of councils. “Local authorities are where it is at in transport and housing, and those are two of the really big things students want us to focus on every year,” says McCabe. “Until you start empowering students at the regional level, you won’t be able to do that.”
To this end, McCabe wants to support students to “create their own regional forums”. While at Strathclyde, he was inaugural chair of the Glasgow Student Forum, which brought together student representatives from across the city. Being able to say that he was representing thousands of students made engagement with Glasgow City Council easier. “Clearly, they are incredibly keen to engage with something that represents over 100,000 students in the area,” he explains. “You would quite quickly get a meeting”.
At national level, the reform of student support funding will be a focus of his work in FE. Following an independent review of student support in Scotland, the government announced a range of measures earlier this year, including a guaranteed entitlement to support for all eligible FE students. This is set to replace the current discretionary system, and raise the maximum bursary to £4,500 per year from 2019-20. It is crucial to ensure that student needs in FE are met, he stresses.
McCabe says he would also like to see well-funded student associations in colleges enshrined in outcome agreements for the sector, with “consequences” if colleges fall short of those demands. While some colleges already have well-resourced associations, this is not the case everywhere, he notes, and even student membership on college boards can in some instances be tokenistic.
Meanwhile, McCabe stresses that his lack of direct experience of colleges does not make him any less able to represent FE students.
“One of the advantages I have is experience in the movement,” he says. “I have had the privilege of being surrounded by college colleagues for the past six years. I have learned so much about the wider sector. And I will dedicate a lot of time to learning.”