Manifesto proposals driven by the struggles faced by students

Beth Elder is President at Queens Students' Union

Tesnime Safraou is City and Community Officer at Manchester Students' Union

University life should represent a period of growth, discovery, and opportunity.

Unfortunately, for today’s students, it is marred by unprecedented challenges.

The grim realities facing our students paint a sobering picture – sky-high levels of debt, inadequate funds to cover basic necessities, a housing crisis, and the relentless juggle of “part-time” work to combat soaring living costs.

Social interactions and extracurricular activities, once integral to the student experience, now seem like distant luxuries for those without substantial independent wealth.

And the prospect of an unforgiving employment market, looming loan repayments, and escalating housing costs only add to their burdens.

Right now, the higher education system in the UK is failing far too many people. We believe that this is our opportunity to create a system that supports students’ academic journey, fosters wellbeing, and ensures equal opportunities for all.

A need for government action

Amidst this backdrop, it is unsurprising that many students feel overlooked and marginalised. Yet many of these issues could be alleviated through decisive governmental action, offering tangible benefits for both the economy and wider society.

Today, we are launching the Russell Group Students’ Union (RGSU) Student Manifesto.

Crafted collaboratively by student leaders representing over 700,000 Russell Group students, our manifesto outlines crucial priorities essential for preserving the integrity of the UK’s higher education sector and ensuring equitable opportunities for all students.

Against the backdrop of an impending general election, student leaders identified five key themes – student finance, student living environments, international students, postgraduate research students, and how the entire higher education system is funded.

These proposals aren’t just policy demands – they stem from the real struggles faced by students across the country.

Ensuring that the rising cost of being a student is not a barrier to participation

Affordability should never be a barrier to participation. Yet, students across the UK are grappling with mounting financial burdens, hindering their academic pursuits and overall wellbeing. In the Russell Group Students’ Union’s 2023 Cost of Living report, we found that 1 in 4 students are regularly going without food and other necessities because they cannot afford it, 35% of students with caring responsibilities reported not having enough money to cover their basic cost of living. Our manifesto proposes concrete steps to address these pressing issues.

  • We advocate for an immediate overhaul of student maintenance support. By aligning funding with the Real Living Wage and introducing a more progressive repayment model, we can ensure that every student has access to adequate financial support, regardless of their background.
  • Students deserve equal access to free childcare. Simplified and improved policies are urgently needed to remove barriers and support students in balancing their academic and family commitments.
  • To address the NHS workforce gaps, and provide opportunities for aspiring healthcare professionals, increased funding for medical and dental students is essential.

A student living environment that supports effective learning.

Creating an environment conducive to effective learning starts with ensuring students have access to suitable housing without compromising their basic needs.

Students across the country have shared harrowing experiences of living in substandard accommodation, facing mould, inadequate heating, and exorbitant rents, all of which have profoundly impacted their health, wellbeing, and academic success.

Our manifesto outlines key reforms urgently needed to address the housing crisis facing students across the UK:

  • There is a pressing need to increase the quantity, quality, and affordability of housing available to students, both within university-owned accommodation and in the private sector.
  • Legal protections for student renters must be strengthened. Holding landlords accountable is essential to improve housing standards and ensure that students’ rights are upheld.
  • To address cost-of-living pressures and prevent student fuel poverty, students should be provided with additional financial support, including a student winter fuel payment.

Strengthening the global reputation of UK Higher Education

The international reputation of UK higher education relies on the experiences of international students and the diversity of our academic community.

If the next government prioritises the reforms outlined below, we believe that the UK can bolster its global reputation in higher education, attract top talent, and foster a diverse and inclusive academic community:

  • It is paramount that the UK visa system for international students is improved. This includes removing international students from net-migration targets, reversing recent visa eligibility changes for students’ dependents, and reducing the financial burdens associated with visas.
  • Relaxing part-time work restrictions and maintain an attractive post-study work offer are also vital.
  • Access to postgraduate research study must be improved. For too long, there has been a lack of diversity within academia. There must be an increase of minimum stipend levels in line with the Real Living Wage, enhanced doctoral loan provisions, and increased funding to diversity the postgraduate research student cohort.

Investing in the future of UK higher education

To put it bluntly, the future of UK higher education hinges on sustainable investment and strategic reform. We believe that the current system is overly reliant on international students paying exorbitantly high fees.

Our manifesto calls for a comprehensive review and overhaul of the sector to ensure its longevity and global competitiveness:

  • There must be a long-term reduction in student fee levels across all levels of study and fee statuses. This is crucial to alleviate the burden of graduate debt.
  • Higher education regulators must prioritise student voice in decision-making processes. This includes implementing mandatory annual surveys for postgraduate students, forming student representative panels within UKRI, and enhancing mechanisms for effective student engagement.
  • There must be support for cutting-edge research and teaching in sustainability. This is vital to uphold the UK’s position as a global research leader and to tackle climate change.

As the nation looks towards the next general election, it is crucial for policy makers to prioritise these reforms, and shape a higher education landscape that is both inclusive and forward-thinking.

We believe that through decisive action, the next government has the power to build a system that empowers students, drives innovation, and secure a fairer, more prosperous future for all.

Russell Group SUs are ready to work with the sector and policy makers to explore the issues we’ve raised in this manifesto.

If you’re a staff member in a Russell Group University, reach out to your Sabbatical Officers and speak to them about the manifesto. If you’re a policy maker and want to discuss the priorities in the manifesto, get in touch with us.

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