This article is more than 1 year old

No elections, but plenty of debate in Harrogate

Reviewing policy proposals presented to the National Union of Students conference, Jim Dickinson finds a student movement in rude health
This article is more than 1 year old

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

There are no officer elections at this year’s National Union of Students’ annual conference in Harrogate.

These days it elects office holders on two-year terms – and having terminated the contract of last year’s President winner Shaima Dallali late last year, its board has resolved to leave the post vacant until next summer.

Officially that’s because it says it would be “inappropriate and irresponsible” to run an election before implementing changes recommended by the KC that led its inquiry into antisemitism – although not having to hold what would have doubtless become a defacto referendum on the handling of that affair is likely to have also been a consideration.

Having had to junk last year’s NUS 100 celebration, the event will open with a discussion marking 50 years of NUS-USI – a jointly supported autonomous body established in Belfast under a unique arrangement between NUS UK and the Union of Students in Ireland that provided a blueprint for the Good Friday Agreement 26 years later.

Despite the “student politics” slur, NUS-USI is a reminder that it’s students who are usually on the right side of history – and capable of creative leadership when others cower.

Beyond that there’s plenty on the agenda for delegates to discuss – who, having attempted to hold last year’s event almost entirely by flipchart pen and consensus decision making, will this year return to voting on things.

Living grants

The cost of living crisis is naturally high up the agenda – but the pragmatic focus seems to be on enabling students to work to survive rather than the calls for “living grants” of old.

Students from Ulster call for a living wage that provides a decent standard of living and removes financial barriers, Leeds students call for greater financial freedom for international students, and the national apprentices’ group demands reform to the minimum wage for apprentices – as the “impact assessment” for the proposal puts it:

The gender, race and disability pay gap starts early, right at the beginning of our career. It isn’t the posh boys on degree apprenticeships who are paid £4.81 an hour.

Reflecting the increasingly overseas make up of its members, there’s a number of proposals in on international students. Students at John Moores call for the 20 hour a week limit on working to be lifted, others want to see the abolition of fee increases, and students at Bangor want measures to ensure that universities only recruit to capacity with particular reference to student accommodation in the area and lecture theatre capacity:

[There should be] a body to ensure high standards of international student recruitment, ensuring adequate conditions and that all recruitment materials from universities are up to date, accurate and not misleading.”

Housing and education

On student housing, students at Durham note the £1,500 shortfall between the average maintenance loan and average student rent in England – and reminds delegates that 24 UK universities have grown by at least 5,000 students in the last five years, despite a slowdown in the building of student accommodation.

Students at Westminster focus on the impact that poor housing can have on mental health, physical health and academic performance, and the mental health impact is also a part of the submission from students at Liverpool, who talk about students taking on more work to afford spiralling rent and other living costs:

Rent increases are at an unsustainable level. To ensure that students of today can cover their living costs while having a fulfilling time at university and to ensure future students are not prevented from accessing higher education due to the costs of rent, the government HAS to freeze and control the rents.

Students at Staffordshire call on NUS to lobby for greater options for family accommodation for both international and domestic students, Westminster students calls for support for international students to understand the private rental market and protect them from exploitation by landlords, and Durham students call for formal links between student recruitment and local housing supply, publishing regular audits of student housing and recruitment numbers.

Education is also on the agenda – students from University College Birmingham have interesting proposals on lifelong learning that include free childcare provision to support access, and students from both Sheffield College and Leeds City College talk about the need to save BTECs.

Students at Oxford talk about artificial intelligence and the need to make edtech study support free to all students, and ask that the government prioritise investment in providing every child with access to laptops. Students at Sunderland speak specifically about the need for study skills education, proposing that it be mandatory for all students in higher education.

And students at Sussex argue that all students should be able to access hybrid learning, choosing their preferred way of learning, as a way to combat the cost of living crisis:

Parents, carers, and pregnant students [should be able to] learn safely and flexibly without compromising their education, responsibilities or health; students with Covid anxiety or health concerns [should not be] forced to risk their health and cause themselves distress by being in closed spaces with no precautionary measures; and international students shouldn’t have to compromise their education due to circumstances beyond their control such as visa issues or an emergency visit home

Meanwhile students at UWE in Bristol highlight the impact of driver shortages on their local First Buses, calling for:

Students should have the option to access affordable and reliable public transport to study on campus. NUS should campaign on this matter and provide support for lobbying at a local / regional level.

From now on, only you and I

No NUS Conference would be complete without some discussion about itself – and with a government ban on engaging with it persisting, discussion on implementing the recommendations of its antisemitism review is both important and inevitable.

In addition students from Northumbria and Sheffield call for a regional representation structure, students from Cambridge want better measures for accountability of elected officials, and the union’s Democratic Procedures Committee proposes a broader review of NUS’ … democratic procedures.

I can’t remember a time when NUS wasn’t busy on one level or another reinventing itself for a new age – pendulum singing between radical campaigns and ministerial lobbying, national action and local support – and those who attended the event in their youth might celebrate or lament the safe spaces, lack of elections and dearth of factionalism, but there’s good news here.

This does feel like an organisation on the up – and the body’s national gathering, serving as it does to bring students together to understand each other, set its priorities for the year ahead and channel the energy of its ever renewing membership, appears to be in rude health.

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