Students feel the effects of policy – but what can they to contribute to it?

As NUS Conference meets in Liverpool, Jim Dickinson reviews the runners and riders for its leadership and the policies to be debated by delegates

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Elected for their two-year terms in the first few weeks of the pandemic, National Union of Students (NUS) President Larissa Kennedy and her de facto deputy Hillary Gyebi-Ababio have worked against the odds to become an impressively difficult-to-dismiss double act.

Back in 2020 Kennedy quickly carved out her role as national student activist-campaigner in chief, while Gyebi-Ababio has become familiar to many in the sector as a serial student committee and panel member – using her infectious influencing skills to challenge sector policy and practice on everything from student housing to freedom of speech.

And they’re off

Four candidates are in the running to replace Kennedy at NUS Conference in Liverpool. Shaima Dallali (City SU) pledges to establish renters unions and calls for rent controls on university accommodation, while Alisa Koester (Aberdeen University SA) talks of celebrating and defending vocational education and the arts and improved mental health and wellbeing support.

Radical Haslam (Man Met SU) calls for a freedom of speech clause in the NUS constitution, and Vaios Koukouletsos (Solent SU) has some of the most creative policy pledges this year, promising to fight for no collection of council tax on students earning less than 27k for two years after graduation, and incentives on employers to hire and support graduates from disadvantaged backgrounds. Who says that the student movement is a monoculture?

In the Vice President (Higher Education) race, Samad Chaudhry (Union of Kingston Students) pledges to campaign for housing guarantors for international students, and Jules Singh (Birmingham Guild of Students) wants to see the costs of dental, eye-care and prescriptions for students cut.

Ayo Ewebiyi (Salford SU) commits to campaigning to reduce or eliminate the interest rate on student loans – demonstrating the tension between the politics of debt and the technicalities of such a pledge only really benefiting rich graduates – while Chloe Field (Liverpool Guild) commits to embedding “person-first, trauma-centred” support for victims of sexual violence on campus. Further vice presidents for liberation and for each of the devolved nations will be elected throughout April.

The toad under the harrow

For readers who might have attended the event in their youth, the event in Liverpool is very much not your dad’s NUS Conference. Reflecting a tough few years for its finances, a much shorter and less factional event will debate just six policy statements covering fees and funding, access, gender-based violence, student housing, international students, a “new vision” for education, and an emergency statement on international solidarity in light of the situation in Ukraine. Yet there’s no shortage of pointed observations and interesting ideas.

Fight for funds notes that after tuition fees, an average postgraduate student receiving the maximum loan from Student Finance England to study a Masters’ in the UK has just £2,830 to pay for rent, bills, food and other expenses for the year. The international student experience calls on universities to put more emphasis on activities that encourage mixing of different student groups, whilst recognising the additional struggles that international students face.

Making university accessible warns that the Office for Students’ value for money proposals universities might cause some to recruit fewer students from social backgrounds “defined as having a higher propensity to drop out of university”. And New Vision for Education argues that students’ collective power is “relegated to ‘consultation’ through heavy institutional bureaucracy” which it says “actively isolates elected officers from those they represent and makes pushing for change highly inaccessible for most students”.

This is not a new tune – throughout its 100 years, student representatives have frequently clashed on the tactics to be deployed by their national union. Some argue that lobbying and influencing work over policy represents dangerously polite acquiescence – others regard demonstrations and occupations as capitulation that allows the student voice to be dismissed.

Back in 1954, Education Minister Francis Horsbrugh took the view, shared by most of her civil servants, that speaking to NUS would open the floodgates to meeting other groups – in the words of one of her officials NUS was “like the toad under the harrow they feel the effects of policy but have nothing at all to contribute to it”. The NUS President of the day, Fred Jarvis, was one of the few throughout its history that managed to avoid the twin trap chiches of aggressive campaigning or passive lobbying – developing an impressively assertive yet radical relationship with Conservative education minister David Eccles over student finance policy.

Accepting that the loud, and frequently critical “organised expression” of students has something important to add to the policy process requires skill, tenacity and empathy on the part of both student leaders and those currently in charge of higher education both locally and nationally. Delegates will be hoping that Michelle Donelan and Nadhim Zahawi are open to evidence, ideas and ideological critique.

We say it every year, but it deserves saying again – while the press will pick up on jazz hands and exhortations to use neutral gender pronouns, the reality is that there are very few organisations in the UK where the leading candidates for leadership positions are more often than not people of colour, women, disabled and or LGBT+, and fewer still where that will feel entirely normal to participants at the conference. Long may it continue.

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