People's lawyer and 24/7 tutor big winners in Life Changers awards

15 May 2008 | last updated: 14 December 2015

A political refugee from Strathclyde who established law clinics to provide legal advice for people with nowhere else to turn and a tutor from Stoke on Trent who works all hours to meet the needs of her students were the big winners at the UCU's Life Changers awards last night.

Professor Donald Nicolson, founder and director of the University of Strathclyde Law Clinic, and Sarah Thorrington, a tutor at Stoke on Trent College, both received their awards and prize money of £3,000 at a ceremony in Westminster. The prize money is to be spent in the spirit of the Life Changers awards, which recognise the power of education to change lives.

A graduate of the University of Cape Town (UCT), Professor Nicolson first came to the United Kingdom in 1983 to study for a PhD at Cambridge. As a passionate opponent of apartheid, he knew that if he returned to South Africa he would be conscripted into military service or face jail. Fortunately, he was granted political asylum and settled in the UK.

A major factor in Nicolson's political radicalisation was his experience as a student adviser in the UCT Law Clinic, providing legal advice in local townships. Inspired by the work in Cape Town, Nicolson began to set up his own law clinics, first at Bristol University and then, on a far larger scale, at Strathclyde. Since the founding of the Strathclyde Clinic in 2003, around 300 students have been involved in helping over 500 clients.

Sarah Thorrington started work as a volunteer tutor. She then became a full-time literacy teacher before moving on to become a workplace development leader. She goes into workplaces and extols the virtues of improved literacy to 'hard to reach' workers doing irregular and unsociable shifts.

Undeterred, Sarah works all hours. She has been known to start work at Sainsbury's from midnight until 3am, then off to the Post Office at 5am. She will then spend a day in college tutoring before heading off to a factory to deliver classes from 10pm through to midnight. On top of all this, Sarah is also studying for an MA looking at how teachers can ensure literacy classes open up greater opportunities for further study and, ultimately, greater life opportunities.

Sarah and Donald were two of 13 Life Changer winners, the other 11 all won £300 prizes to be spent in a similar fashion. .

UCU general secretary, Sally Hunt, said: 'Donald Nicolson has transformed the lives of thousands of people - students and clients alike - in his quest for a more just society where everyone has access to legal advice, not just those who can afford it. Donald represents the commitment to causes and subjects that we find across education; exceptionally bright, talented people who could go off and earn obscene amounts of cash elsewhere, but choose not to because they want to make a real difference and change lives.

'Many people want to learn but practically it is not possible due to work and family commitments. Through her dedication, Sarah Thorrington is making learning convenient and opening up opportunities to people who would otherwise have been denied them. I am immensely proud that UCU had the opportunity to recognise the work of these two fantastic Life Changers and the work they and so many UCU members do day in day out.'