Toni Pearce: she flunked her exams – but fought her way to the top to become President of the NUS

Toni Pearce tells Richard Garner how her background will help her fight for students

Toni Pearce, the new president of the National Union of Students, is unique. Not only does she not have a degree – the first leader of the NUS without such a qualification – the 23-year-old also flunked her sixth-form exams.

Her initial failure led her to worry she could be barred from carrying on her studies before she even had a chance to become involved with the student movement.

“My first year I spectacularly failed,” she told The Independent in her first interview since being elected. “I got two Us [unclassified] and two Ds. I was ill and had  been on some strong medication all year. My college was incredible in letting me start the course again.

“If I hadn’t had the opportunity, I wouldn’t be here today. I’d probably still be working as a waitress and that’s not where I wanted to be.”

Now she is worried people in a similar position will not find it as easy to continue their studies, due to the restrictions on resits proposed by the Education Secretary, Michael Gove.

Pearce eventually obtained two As and a B in English, maths and history from Cornwall College after three years of study.

She was set to take up a university place at Bath when it was suggested she might like to take a sabbatical year as president of the Cornwall College Students’ Union.

She decided she would – the start of several years of union work which culminated in her winning the presidency of the NUS on the first ballot, with 424 of the 732 votes cast at its conference last week.

Her first involvement with the union was lobbying Parliament to campaign for a better deal for mature students.

“I won’t pretend I was going as a tried and tested politico,” she said. “I just jumped on a bus at two o’clock in the morning, went to London and spoke to my MP.”

What impressed her, though, was her first experience of seeing hundreds of people coming together to demand better treatment.

She has now joined the Labour Party – although she describes herself as “one of the least active members”. She  added: “Some of the decisions the Labour Party has made aren’t necessarily helpful to students.”

She will bring a new focus to the job because of her background as the only further education college student to have held her office. She said in her election address that she wanted to stand in favour of education policies, not just against them.

She is anxious to put the academic and vocational paths in education on an equal footing and champion teenagers opting for apprenticeships rather than, say, seeking a place at an elite Russell Group university.

Figures published last week show that fewer boys are now choosing to go to university. Academics claim many of them could be following the apprenticeship route instead.

“People should be able to make decisions that are the best for them and be supported in them,” she said. “You shouldn’t be looked down on for doing an apprenticeship just because historically your family has always gone to Russell Group universities.”

During her time as an officer with the NUS – she was the vice-president in charge of further education before being elected president – she had a good rapport with former Further Education minister John Heyes and the union has what she describes as a “working relationship” with his successor, Matt Hancock, and Universities minister David Willetts.

“I have called them several times on things where they’ve been spectacularly wrong – such as scrapping student governors on FE colleges,” she said.

However, she says the union has “no relationship at all” with Mr Gove. “I do think we should [have one], because of the impact his policies are having on many of our members – reforms to GCSEs and A-levels – but we have written and, I think, only got one reply,” she said.

Pearce still has problems with her health – she was diagnosed with hypermobility syndrome, which led to a hip operation. But she believes her struggle with her health will help her in promoting the rights of disabled students.

When we met at the end of last week she was still struggling to get to grips with what she had achieved.

“If you told me at 16 that I’d be sitting here today as president of the NUS, I wouldn’t have believed you,” she said.

A life in brief

Born 13 April 1990

Education Cornwall College of Further Education. Does badly in her first year and almost drops out, but successfully resits and gains A-levels in English, maths and history, as well as AS-levels in chemistry and philosophy (2006-09)

Union history President, Cornwall College Students’  Union 2009-2011;  NUS vice-president for further education 2011-13; Elected president of NUS in April 2013 Takes office 1 July.

election 2015The 10 best quotes of the campaign
A caravan being used as a polling station in Ford near Salisbury, during the 2010 election
election 2015The Independent's guide to get you through polling day
David Blunkett joins the Labour candidate for Redcar Anna Turley on a campaigning visit last month
voicesWhat I learnt from my years in government, by the former Home Secretary David Blunkett
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Student

Ashdown Group: Junior Application Support Analyst - Fluent German Speaker

£25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A global leader operating...

Ashdown Group: Marketing or Business Graduate Opportunity - Norwich - £22,000

£18000 - £22000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Business and Marketing Gr...

Ashdown Group: Database Analyst - Birmingham - £22,000 plus benefits

£20000 - £22000 per annum + excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Application Sup...

Guru Careers: Graduate Media Assistant

Competitive (DOE): Guru Careers: We are looking for an ambitious and adaptable...

Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'