We want Greater Manchester to be the best place for students to live in this country

Joel Dowson is the Greater Manchester Students’ Partnership Manager for SUs across the region

The shifting of political power from Westminster to local regions has been one of the keys themes of the Conservative governments since 2010.

Regions all over the country have signed devolution deals with central government, and the most well known of these is probably Greater Manchester.

We have a mayor who is referred to as “the king of the north”, a new London-style transport system (Bee Network) which launched on 18th September, and the combined authority investing over £100 million in local businesses.

SUs work on the basis that power is best shared and made real through elected officers. Devolving more powers to decision makers closer to the people who are impacted by decisions sits comfortably within this lineage. But better structures don’t suddenly make things better for students.

And what is it like to be a student in the region? If you are looking for a decent and affordable home, a reliable and safe transport system, or real collaboration on student safety, Greater Manchester could be a lot better.

This gave SUs in the region an idea.

Assembling to collaborate

Our big question was how we might collaborate to make the Greater Manchester region the best place to be a student in the UK. And that is how the Greater Manchester Student Partnership (GMSP) was born.

The Greater Manchester Student Assembly is the flagship programme of the GMSP. The assembly is made up of eight sabbatical officers from across the five partner students’ unions (UMSU, USSU, The UnionMMU, UBSU and RNCMSU).

The assembly has quarterly meetings with the mayor and his office to raise issues that are currently affecting students throughout the region. And we collectively plan and research issues that affect students that he has influence over.

This does meant that some big issues with neighbourliness or bin collection, as this is not in his domain, do not get raised in this fora. It is a longer, more local, more technical, form of campaigning that we are all working together on.

The assembly has chosen three areas of focus that the mayor has control over: housing, transport, and safety. The other aspect of the partnership is developing strategy for getting students to be more politically engaged.

We are working across the unions and universities to get students registered to vote when they register with the university, with the help of Purpose Union. We are also developing a manifesto for students for the upcoming mayoral and general elections, where we are aiming to ask as many students as possible from all over the city about what matters most to them.

Looking back and looking South

The inspiration for the partnership was a London Students’ Union Partnership from the early 00s. They used their influence on the first part of the country which had some level of devolution, which was London.

They worked with the then mayor of London, Ken Livingston, on getting a third off all public transport in London for students. We were also inspired by the work of Nottingham Students’ Partnership, and their work with Nottingham City Council and their desire to work closely together on civic issues.

The partnership has been in place since before the pandemic, but the 2022/23 academic year has seen more significant activity than ever. The work has been gaining momentum, and the SUs recognised that it needed a full-time staff worker to come in and oversee it, which is my role.

I came in in April of 2023 and I have been working hard over the past few months getting to know a lot of different people, and working with the combined authority on some new, exciting projects.

On the topic of exciting projects last year Robbie Beale, Activities & Communities officer at University of Manchester Students’ Union, wrote an article in Wonkhe last year about how the officers had written an open letter to the mayor asking to reduce the bus rates for students for £1.50 for a single.

Although this was unsuccessful, this was a good start in getting to know and putting ourselves in front of the combined authority.

Looking forward and looking North

In the coming months, there are some exciting projects on the table. We have been working closely with the team at Purpose Union, who produced an article about how universities can work with local authorities to get students registered to vote, using the Sheffield Model.

Greater Manchester is more complex than some university cities as our students live all over the Greater Manchester area, which is made up of ten local authorities. We are hoping that working closely with Purpose Union and the Combined Authority will make the process with the universities and the local authorities easier.

We are also having an agreement in place to develop a student living and staying strategy with the GMCA and the universities. Garnering inspiration from the Nottingham Student Living Strategy, the officers pitched the idea to the mayor and representatives of the VCs from each institution at the end of June. This will focus on our three priorities mentioned above, the mental health of students and developing a plan to encourage students to stay in the region after graduating.

The future looks bright for the Greater Manchester city region, and we are determined to make students a key part of that vision.

We want Greater Manchester to be the best place for students to live in this country.

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