It’s been an eventful year as President at Sheffield Students’ Union – but even amongst the unpredictability, it’s been amazing.
Inevitably, I’ve been reflecting on the past twelve months during my handover period – and I’ve tried to find learning and lessons that both summarise my experience and that might be useful to those just starting their year.
1. Higher Education is probably going to break at some point
The entire higher education sector is in a precarious situation, and anybody who isn’t prepared to admit otherwise, isn’t being honest. The sector has become far too dependent on international student recruitment, and the coronavirus crisis has deeply exposed that. Many universities are so dependent on international student recruitment that it’s actually quite frightening.
It is fair to hope that on the back of this crisis that key thinkers in the sector would see this for what it is – but rather than accepting that, the sector as a whole generally seems quite ignorant and complacent about it – at least in the medium term. This is dangerous, and doesn’t help anybody long-term.
Universities have focused on growth, and have then thought about experience as an afterthought. Now, universities must think about experience in order to grow – or at least to maintain recruitment at status quo – to protect their finances. We should push them hard on that.
2. It’s becoming harder for students to afford to study
One thing the pandemic has exposed is just how dependent some students have been on part time work and shared facilities on campus. Take away jobs in the leisure and hospitality sector – and expose the lack of personal tech, connectivity and dspace that many students have – and you can see the real crisis.
It is no secret that students need money in their pocket to access higher education, and unless this is addressed we will lose that opportunity for many talented students to join the sector. This may mean looking at the reintroduction of maintenance grants in the long-term, but in the short term it means campaigning to ensure that institutional bursaries and national student loans are reformed to put more money in students’ pockets day to day.
3. The wider political situation isn’t very helpful
It would be wrong to say that the pandemic has caused uncertainty for universities and students all on its own – because that uncertainty was there already.
During the last 12 months alone, we’ve had four different appointments to the position of universities minister. It hardly screams “strong” or “stable” from the government. Most progress was seemingly made during Chris Skidmore’s term in office in the position. The recent appointment of Michelle Donelan has brought relative ambiguity to the sector at a strange time anyway.
Universities are less likely to get a fair hearing at this point, because they are caught in a strange place – needing to deliver the government’s strategic priorities through their research and innovation, whilst also being responsible to their students. The introduction of a science minister has further bridged this divide, and it doesn’t bode well for the sector as a whole.
What does this mean for the future? It’s hard to tell, and that’s the whole problem. Nobody really knows, and answers don’t look set to come anytime soon. So it’s vital that SUs keep demanding answers.
4. There’s a new wave of digital student activism starting
Students’ union council motions and complicated policy structures are everywhere – but Change.org has more power at Universities. Here in Sheffield we had an ePetition with over 10,000 signatures for a “safety net” that spread faster and got more support than a motion being picked over by some reps would ever have got.
It’s great to see students wanting to get directly involved, and it’s something for many SU’s to consider when they get up and running. It seems that when we talk about an issue that students care about they’ll show their support.
5. We can learn a lot from Europe and need to keep that relationship strong
Wonkhe’s SU tour to the Baltics and Finland taught us a lot, and in a post-brexit landscape, it is important that we keep our relationship with our European friends. From visiting our European counterparts, we learned that Finnish Students’ Unions are not just some of the richest in the world but equally their democratic principles and great to learn from.
I wrote back in January reflecting what we learned from our friends there, and there was certainly lots to build on. As we emerge from this crisis and reimagine our democratic principles, it is worth us reflecting on how we avoid becoming isolated.
6. Student nurses and healthcare workers shouldn’t pay tuition fees – but should anyone?
The coronavirus crisis has demonstrated the complete unfairness in nurses and healthcare workers paying fees whilst also working on the frontlines of the NHS and saving lives. We shouldn’t be letting this happen.
Thankfully, a lot of MPs agree and have written to the government about this. It’ll be interesting to see what the response to it actually is, and more broadly what the response to the eventual NUS’ Student Safety Net campaign will be. I am not going to go on about needing a free education system at the point of access (which would be a good thing), but if this year doesn’t warrant any “money back” then it’ll be fascinating to know what would.
My team (incoming and outgoing) wrote to the Government on Tuesday the 23rd June, asking them to cancel debt for student nurses. As I’ve said above, we aren’t the first to write to the government on this issue, but I hope we are the last.
6. Universities like to copy each other
Who remembers the student safety net? As soon as one university is on to something, you can be sure the rest of the sector will look to follow. This can be a brilliant thing for students, but sometimes may not be so good too (in the case of those universities who didn’t get their safety net).
This is good news, as it means that sabbs will be able to coordinate across SUs and understand from each other how to implement certain bits of practice. Equally, it’s bad news as it does mean that universities have to either feel very pressured into doing things, or it has to be “good” for them to want to do something. It’s less about winning hearts and minds, but more about forcing hands in a game of poker.
Maybe SUs should try to persuade their university that being first or unique by listening to students and responding wouldn’t be such a bad thing.
7. People in the sector spend far too long on comms, and still get it wrong
Universities are good at talking about “intent” on a controversial issue, but actions are harder. There are many examples of this. Universities with very poor track records on addressing their BAME attainment gaps have, for example, produced shiny comms saying they’re doing everything they can to reduce inequality and increase diversity – but with no real tangibility behind their “action plans”.
Universities who have pledged to be more sustainable still work with huge fossil fuel intensive companies. Universities say they’ll do lots to address the mental health crisis but support systems are overloaded and underfunded.
The year ahead would be better if the pledge was “we’ll implement that review / report / guidance” rather than prevaricating over the problems.
8. If you treat students like consumers, they’ll ask for things like refunds and value for money
Even before Covid-19, in many universities there’s a cohort of students who started university back in 2017 and have since lost 37 days of teaching due to strike action. To cut a long story short about whose fault this is, most students’ union’s will stand by their lecturers and blame employers. Some students will blame the universities. Some universities will blame the collective system for determining pay and conditions. It’s not straightforward.
But the real problem is that by selling degrees in this packaged bundle, it’s created a real mess that the sector wants to run away from. The problem is that the university hasn’t sold a £9,250 degree on the basis of £300 per lecture. The problem is that students bought a broadband subscription for the year, and when the system went down for a bit, they were told they weren’t allowed anything back to make up for it.
The first time it happened, students sort of got on with it – but after a while, when it happened again, it has left many students frustrated. When you couple that with the fact that they’ve also had a semester’s worth of teaching online too – with no access to the physical facilities and experiences they were “sold” – you can understand why so many want their fees cancelled or refunded.
But rather than getting into that actually quite simple conversation though of giving students a few hundred quid back, we’ve been pushed down the complaints route through the OIA, Consumer Protection rights, force majeure clauses and quality assurance. It really is a bit ridiculous – and SUs should not let up in exposing how ridiculous it is in the year ahead.
9. Universities rely on SUs
Students’ unions have to be seen as equal partners and not just a flashy marketing tool. It’s incredible when you look at the marketing of a university and how much the student “experience” is a central tenet to recruitment.
This has particularly been of interest during the current pandemic, as we all know that experience is going to be markedly different. The strange thing is that students’ unions are viewed very differently by universities at different times. When they are lobbying universities to be more sustainable, to avoid staff cuts or to decolonise the curriculum, things are slow and take time to get moving. The students’ union is also viewed as a bit left-wing and annoying too.
But when the marketing recruitment wheel gets turning, having a great students’ union and all the other great things have to offer become important. I’m writing this as a warning for universities. Don’t just pick and choose the parts of the SU you want to focus on, because it’s good for your brand. Do that, but also focus on working with us on the meaningful things too.
10. Things are going to get worse for universities, but SU’s will try and make them better
It’s been quite a year for the UK higher education system. Brexit, a General Election, two bouts of industrial action, ongoing culture wars and the coronavirus pandemic. In spite of all of this however, students continue to be amazing and students’ unions continue to do good things. I am fortunate enough to follow a lot of sabbs at different SU’s and seeing all the work they have been doing throughout this period has been both uplifting and restored a bit of faith.
The sector might be a bit of a shambles, but I think when you zoom out it’s the counter-juvenoia of everybody in the sector now thinking it’s worse than it has been before. It probably isn’t. The wider political environment is helpful, and the pandemic is unprecedented, but there is at least consistency to good student leadership. It’s something we should cherish.