Inspired to fight social injustice, Head of Visa Immigration Support and Advice Peter Yetton is strongly behind GCU’s Common Good mission. Fiona Ramsay meets him to find out why.
“My greatest fear is that when I finally go onto my next adventure and pass away, that I would have amounted to nothing, inspired no-one or not made a difference to anyone’s life.” These are the words of Peter Yetton, GCU’s Head of Visa Immigration Support and Advice.
His determination to help people through his work has led to Peter pursuing careers in the Royal Navy, criminal law and then asylum, immigration and human rights law, before finally settling at GCU.
Aged just 44, his life so far has been extremely colourful, with a family history which has strongly contributed to his need to promote social justice. In the 1970s, his family moved to Zambia from the North East of England, with his father working in the copper mines and mother teaching in poor mining schools. The family then moved to South Africa, with Peter’s mother opening a college for black students during the 1980s, when the apartheid government was coming under increasing internal pressure and tensions were high.
“My mother was a bit of a freedom fighter in her own way,” says Peter. “I feel proud that my family played a part in upholding something good and standing up for their rights in South Africa at that time. They were very brave indeed.”
This brave stance led the family to leave the country prematurely, returning to the UK where Peter studied hospitality management, before gaining employment as a head chef in his early 20s. “It was before Jamie Oliver − not very glamorous and very long hours. It was challenging to say the least!”
Hanging up the apron and cooking knives, Peter then joined the Royal Navy, ending up in Northern Ireland in the run up to the Good Friday Agreement which signalled the end of the Troubles. However, damaging his back while on active service, Peter’s Navy career was cut short after nine years. At the age of 30, he went back to college to gain Highers to study law at university. “I felt it was a calling for me. I wanted to help people. I didn’t feel I had done much of that in the Forces. Though we were upholding specific laws and rights from the MoD perspective, when I came out of the Navy I started to question a lot of it.”
His move into law was also the start of a new phase in his family life. His son, the first of two children, was born as he started studying for his law degree, at the same time working as a mortgage adviser at Standard Life.
Peter chuckles: “They never twigged I was studying rather than working all the time!”
Peter worked in a criminal law firm in the East End of Glasgow, which he found to be “rewarding but ultimately tragic and upsetting” as the same families were coming back again and again. “I would go to prepare a will in people’s flats and houses and they would have no floorboards. It is quite tragic looking at it from the perspective of being a solicitor living a relatively comfortable life. “There are some kids who just need a bit of guidance, but without it they end up going to the next level of crime; some don’t stand a chance.”
The flame of fighting social injustice and inequality planted in South Africa was now burning brightly, so Peter decided to specialise in human rights, immigration and asylum law. “I needed to be part of someone’s journey and have the ability to help them achieve some of the most fundamental things in life – freedom of speech, freedom to live without risk of being killed, freedom to love who they wish to. I achieved some great successes with some of the cases I dealt with, but also saw how fragile and precarious life can be at times, when the law is not with you.”
Peter helped establish Remarkable Law Scotland, a business with fellow lawyer Raymond McLennon, to help small businesses to maintain a balance between commercial issues and people, through communication skills, team building and leadership – recognising the value of people. He also delivered pro bono legal work to various charities at this time.
During his legal work, Peter found that students were often disadvantaged by a lack of support and advice about their individual immigration situation, and joined GCU as Compliance Officer in 2013. Universities and colleges were also losing their licences due to a lack of legal and compliance knowledge. Peter has now rebranded ‘Compliance’ to form the Visa Immigration Support and Advice team.
He explains: “Within this sector it is common to find staff teaching on the front line who are simply not supported in some areas. Their international students could be facing civil wars in their home countries, or specific language barriers and financial difficulties and the lecturers and staff didn’t have the skills or the tools to deal with those things properly. As teaching staff are invariably an inspiration to those that they teach, they tried to help the students, but the lack of expertise and legal knowledge would invariably leave the student exposed and with visa issues, which then impacts negatively on the student, staff member, college or university. Compliance and the law, therefore, need to be seen as a duty of care, as opposed to a mandatory procedure.
“I’ve worked really hard to break down the paranoia and perceived restrictive nature of immigration law and Home Office rules, while also ensuring that all understand the law and what can happen if certain elements of it aren’t adhered to.”
Peter finds working at GCU to be an extremely positive experience.
“This University is quite unique because of its mind-set and that thread of the Common Good that runs through it. There are very few people I have met here who don’t believe in it. The amount of untapped skill sets within departments, in my experience, is second to none within GCU, which means that there is so much potential to achieve great things.”