When our students’ problems change, our priorities need to change with them

Emma de Saram is VP Liberation and Equality at Exeter Students' Guild

When I was campaigning for my role as VP Liberation and Equality back in March, my priorities were pretty set out.

My headline goals were about decolonising the curriculum, sustainability on campus and increased wellbeing support especially for victims of sexual violence.

But, while these liberation campaigns are still incredibly important to me personally and to the students I represent, over the last few months my plans have dramatically changed.

All in

In my view the Cost of Living crisis needs to be treated with the same importance and urgency that we saw SUs and universities switch to during the Covid pandemic. Maintenance loans aren’t meaningfully increasing, and if the belittling attitude of Graeme is representative of the policy approach of Student Finance England, students are set to be in for a rough ride.

Students are already struggling – and the added dynamics of shared housing involving up to 12 students, all with different energy usages and budgets, only accentuates the difficulties of the cost of living and energy price cap rise.

This tweet at the weekend from a concerned parent took me right back to my second year accommodation, where I was likely the poorest of the six of us, and had to try and overcome my anxiety to negotiate the heating timer plan with the rest of the house. God alone knows what that would have been like now.

Despite the need for an all-in approach from universities, it just doesn’t yet seem to be the case, at least visibly. This suggests that when a crisis isn’t directly affecting the lives of people who manage our universities, it’s not going to be top of the agenda.

That’s not to say that there’s not enough empathy there from some incredible individuals, but this is about a shift in institutional mindset – and as student leaders, we all have the responsibility to be shouting from the rooftops about it until we shift the norm and discourse around money.

With so many more students who will be going to food banks and struggling to pay bills, we have an increasingly important role to be working with our SU’s, lobbying our universities and showing solidarity with national campaigns.

No holding back

I’ve only been in post for just over a month, and in this time I’ve realised that there are perhaps three things setting us officers back from shifting our priorities.

First, we were elected on our certain aims and motivations – by straying away from these to focus on the Cost of Living crisis may seem like a bit of a betrayal.

Second, because we are expected to bring something new and dynamic to the role, focusing on money may not be that exciting. While SU’s may not be able to make immediate financial and structural changes like free tuition and scrapping student debt, we still have a hugely important role to play. This should not just be business as usual – and we can’t wait until after freshers week to make amends.

Third, our unions, their strategies, their structures and their staff teams are not necessarily geared up to respond to a crisis like this. We don’t have a “cost of living coordinator” and there probably isn’t a page on it in the strategic plan. But as charities our beneficiaries are students – and this is likely to be the number one issue they face this year. It’s up to us to pivot – students can’t wait for the next strategic review or our next board away day.

As with Covid, all our plans need to be viewed through the Cost of Living lens. Is this affordable? Is this inclusive? And it impacts all officer roles. Activities officers will want to be encouraging societies to stage free events, education officers will be thinking about whether running out of money will count as an extenuating circumstance this year, and liberation officers will be thinking about the intersections between poverty and low income, and “getting on” as well as “getting in” to higher education. Everyone has a role to play.

Bring a bottle to the party

In my hometown, where wealth inequality is pretty stark, I started up a repair café and that’s given me a lot of insight into how to make events genuinely financially inclusive. We take donations for repairs, and sell food and drink for a suggested donation of a couple of pounds, in the hope those who can afford it will give a bit more, but gives us the flexibility to give it on the house to anyone who turns up penniless.

The repair café works because it’s free, it’s a space where the community has really come together to use their skills, and it just gives a lot of people company and somewhere to spend their Saturday. After several years of community and climate justice activism, I’ve learned how to put on more inclusive events and campaign for change. I’m taking that knowledge and experience to make life for students hopefully that bit easier this year. We all have skills we can transfer into this crisis.

Although it may feel frustrating for student officers to change course, we have the power to set an example of treating this crisis with the care and compassion it deserves. Changing our minds and priorities in the current political climate is okay. It’s a natural response to a state of crisis. It’s just and noble for us to put some of our other priorities on the back-burner while we focus our energy on ensuring basic welfare needs are met. And the more officers that take this step, the more we can really achieve.

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