If we are to learn anything from the history of the student movement, it’s that where students lead, others follow.
Those who founded NUS had a vision of peaceful dialogue between nations and the internationalist solidarity that drives activists of all political colours to this day. We fought for students’ access to universal healthcare in the thirties when the NHS was a distant pipe dream, and we proudly stood at the forefront of campaigns against apartheid and for LGBT+ and women’s rights in the sixties and seventies when they were almost universally scoffed at by those in power as radical or futile causes.
More recently, it was NUS, students’ unions and student activists who first evidenced that sexual violence and harassment were a serious issue on our campuses; who have been exposing the racial inequities in attainment and how this reflects a wider issue of a colonial education system; and who have been highlighting the increasing burden of accommodation costs and spiralling rents in both the private and university-owned sectors.
A generation of struggle
For my generation of students, it can seem we face challenges in every direction and from all quarters: the catastrophic climate emergency; Brexit and the xenophobic bigotry and racism it has emboldened; the changing shape of employment in the midst of widening social inequality horrific levels of endemic deprivation, and much more. But I know from my visits to students’ unions across the UK in the last few months – from Strathclyde to Sussex – that students are together determined to lead in overcoming the significant challenges that lie before not only us, but all of humanity.
Leading NUS at a time of huge, often unpredictable and volatile change in our society – and for the organisation itself – is both exciting and, sometimes, extremely daunting. Yet I believe that, right now, we have so many opportunities to make improvements to student experiences now and in the future – and I have a responsibility to ensure NUS delivers where it can and must to fundamentally changes lives for the better.
As one of the first steps, I am proud to be launching NUS’s 2019/20 Plan for Action. It’s the first time in many years that NUS UK has published this type of document, and it sets out how our resources and strength will focus on a specific set of priorities we believe will create a better education system and a better society, led by students for the benefit of all.
The centrepiece is our work to build and sustain a movement to transform education. We need to reconsider the entire basis on which our tertiary education system works – and return to the values that underpin the belief that education is an inalienable, universal right. Marketisation has been a total failure, and in England, where this approach has been taken to its furthest, most brutal extreme, we waste so much time and money on market mechanisms and marketing while underfunding and neglecting students, staff and resources. Graduate salaries have become the sole measure of worth, diminishing not only higher education but inflicting society as a whole.
A National Education Service
It’s not enough just to oppose this way of working, we have present an alternative. To transform education in its entirety, NUS will be fighting for a National Education Service (NES), and its equivalents in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as a way of ensuring that we have the funded, accessible, lifelong tertiary education we need. We want to win not only the political battle but the societal battle too: this has to be something that the public view in the same way they do the NHS, a universal system that is self-evidently better than the alternatives and which politicians clamour to endorse.
We will start this year by developing a plan and detailing a vision for the NES with partners and beginning to build the movement that will win this great, immeasurable prize. We have set out the broad framework of values and objectives we think are critical to success. Some aspects of the NES are clear: for example, an entitlement to learning that enables retraining and study later in life, tuition fully funded through the taxation system, and – building on the Civic University Commission – institutions embracing their civic responsibilities.
However, NUS does not have all the answers. We have already begun the process of consulting our member students’ unions on what they think the NES needs to feature and how it should operate, and we will be encouraging students’ unions to have conversations on campus with their students. We will be working closely with UCU and other unions as the representatives of staff, because their views are equally as important. And we will publish in depth research and analysis to support our ideas. But we also want to hear from other organisations and individuals in the sector and beyond who can help us build this movement to transform education. If you think you can, then please do get in touch.
The plan contains many other ambitious and wide-ranging objectives, on areas as diverse as Brexit, housing, Prevent and transport. Some of our campaigns are more immediate than others, but they reflect the fact that students want a better world – and know the challenges and difficulties this entails.
This year we will forward the work of previous student activists and lay down foundations of our own. I’m more than confident that we will succeed; that we will transform education and society as a whole.