NUS Conference is a time for NUS Delegates from across the country to come together and talk about all things Higher Education. This year, our four delegates, Annie Willingham, Francesco Masala, Meg Crossman and Alex Dobro will be attending the conference virtually where the focus is on the #StudentsDeserveBetter campaign and Decolonising the Curriculum.
Day one started with an opening video from the whole NUS Officer Team discussing some of the wins that have happened for the student body across the sector. Lead by NUS National President Larissa Kennedy we heard from Hillary Gyebi-Ababio (VPHE), Sara Khan (VP Liberation and Equality), Salsabil Elmegri (VPFE), Matt Crilly (NUS Scotland President), Becky Ricketts (NUS Wales President) and Ellen Fearon (NUS-USI President) on key issues that had happened such as government U-turns, rent rebates, increased mental health funding and campaigns that have been happening.
We then attended a talk by Chanté Joseph (hosts How Not To Be Racist on Channel 4) and Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan (educator, writer and poet) on how social media has altered the student activist world as it has created a new lens for us to focus on issues that have been present for previous years and how the medias perception of student activism remains the same.
In the afternoon we took part in different workshops:
Meg Crossman - I attended: How do we solve a problem like tuition fees
This session covered the marketisation of higher education - in particular where institutions get funding from and where the money from tuition fees is spent. The session also involved a really interesting group discussion around how the marketisation of higher education affects students, universities, and the public more generally. We also talked about how the benefits and feasibility of potential tuition fee rebates following the pandemic, which I'm looking forward to learning more about in the policy sessions.
Annie Willingham – I attended: Decolonisation in Practice: Running Campaigns as an officer with Hillary Gyebi-Ababio.
This session focused on how to empower students to lead on decolonisation campaigns across different institutions and how as a SU Officer you can support and facilitated taking the movement forward. We discussed embedding practices such as non-westernised traditional thinking across the whole university, so decolonisation work does not lose momentum and how to challenge universities responses if they sign up to the race equality charter through addressing how they accommodate students of different faiths, different cultures and different communities.
Day two started with Policy Workshops on Fees and Finance, Sexual Violence, NDAs and Relationship Abuse and Erasmus+. Prior to these workshops students’ unions had to submit policy ideas, delegates then had the option to vote for the top 6 which would then be discussed at a national conference.
Bath SU wrote a policy on the Turing Scheme and the large gaps it as in recreating the Erasmus+ Scheme the UK Government chose not to be a part of. We worked collaboratively with Edinburgh University Student Association to create this policy. You can read it here.
Annie presented this policy highlighting how Erasmus+ offered 17,000+ students the opportunity to study or work in the EU (outbound mobility) and over 30,000+ EU students to study or work here in the UK (inbound mobility), however, the Turing Scheme only offers outbound mobility impacting our whole society as we benefit from the addition of exchange students in our communities. There are also further implications towards who receives funding and how much meaning the Turing Scheme will disproportionately impact students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Annie and NUS staff then answered questions from delegates to enhance the policy and their understandings of the policy.
After presenting the policy we went into breakout groups, my group discussed what would the commitment be from universities to cover additional costs ensuring that international mobility remains affordable and accessible to all. I really enjoyed presenting the session, hearing from other delegates how passionate they were in pushing the UK Government towards reimplementing Erasmus+, especially given that Wales and Northern Ireland have committed to additional funding, highlighted how important the issue is for students nationally.
In this session, we discussed the Erasmus policy proposed by Bath and Edinburgh SUs. It was great to learn more about the policy from Annie in this session. In smaller groups, we were able to talk about the policy, its importance, and its relevance, bringing back questions for the proposers.
We then had the option to attend a lunchtime event hosted by the Federation of Students in Islamic Societies where they were discussing opposing surveillance and Islamophobia on campus. Since Prevent was introduced it has acted as a way to police and surveillance Muslim students across the nation. This session explored how Islamophobia has grown and manifested in the Higher Education sector and what we can do support our Muslim community.
The afternoon consisted of campaigns-based networking. There was a range of workshops we could attend ranging from the Decolonise Education campaign, Students Deserve Better campaign, New Vision for Education looking at the future of education, Get out the Vote and Craftivism. All the sessions were introduced and then involved breakout rooms for discussions.
Meg Crossman – I attended Decolonise Education: Disrupting the Anti-Racist Narrative.
This session covered the Black Lives Matter movement and the anti-racist statements made by our universities following the murder of George Floyd. We considered what has been done for the Black community since and whether these statements were genuine or tokenistic. We also looked at the importance of transparency and communication from universities and started to draft an accountability statement template. This was a great opportunity to find out about the work done at other universities to support Black students, particularly around the Black attainment gap.
Annie Willingham – I attended Get out the Vote.
This session focused on how we encourage students to vote in upcoming local elections. We discussed the lack of diversity often seen in democratic elections and how tokenistic actions can be perceived. We discussed the need for young people to register to vote and how as an SU can we facilitate opportunities for people to learn more about who is standing in the elections and what elections are upcoming. One of the biggest barriers to ensuring people are registered to vote is not having their National Insurance number to hand!
Make sure you are registered - Register to vote - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)
In the evening Meg and Annie attended the Students Deserve Better Digital Rally. It was fantastic to hear from Larissa Kennedy (NUS President) on the demands NUS and Students’ Unions are making.
We know students deserve better, so we need the Westminster Government to step up and commit to:
1. A true student support package: upwards of £700m (HE)
2. Restore maintenance grants and the EMA (FE and HE)
3. Underwrite tuition fees, not just this year but every year. (HE)
1. Academic mitigation at every institution where it is needed (HE)
2. Keep unsafe exams cancelled (FE)
3. An end to digital poverty (FE and HE)
Day three started in a similar way as day 2. We had the option to attend one of three workshops which would be discussing policies on mental health, student housing and cost of living written by different Students’ Unions across the country. You can read the policy proposals here.
Meg Crossman – Attended the Mental Health policy workshop proposed by Cambridge University.
This session discussed the policy proposed by Cambridge SU to address the student mental health crisis. We discussed current mental health provision at our unis, where the gaps are, and what can be done to close these gaps. We were also able to talk in smaller groups about how our unis can put student wellbeing at the forefront of higher education.
Annie Willingham – Attended the Student Housing policy workshop proposed by Leeds University Union, University of Sunderland Students’ Union, Winchester Students’ Union and Worcester Students’ Union.
The session I attended focused on the minimal rights student tenants have, both in private renting HMOs and in halls of residence. We discussed the large rent strikes that have happened this year and the impact these had in bringing to light some of the key issue’s students are facing. We also discussed how it shouldn’t take students to need to strike or occupy buildings in order for their rights to be addressed. We discussed the need to unite students in the movement against the marketisation of higher education and the need for student tenants to have a voice around the table with national and governmental bodies such as the National Landlords Association and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.
The final session of the conference included a variety of activist speeches from the NUS officers as well as several SU officers. We heard all about the next steps and how we can put our discussions at the conference into action. This session was really empowering and effectively brought together everything we'd talked about over the past few days.