The 7 Cambridge SU delegates have been super busy during the second day of NUS Conference 2021. Whether we were partaking in important policy-based discussions, future NUS actions or networking with other delegates from across the UK, the conference being online hasn’t prevented us from making the most of the conference. This second blog post will cover some of our highlights from the day - make sure to give it a read!
Morning - Policy Workshops
The first policy-based workshops took place this morning! These groups centre around policies that are proposed by student delegations from different Universities and are selected based via a priority ballot. Today were able to select between sessions focusing on sexual violence & NDA’s, tuition fees and Erasmus+. The discussions that take place within these groups and the consensus reached between delegates will shape future actions taken by the NUS at a national level!
Tuition Fees and Student Finance
A number of us attended the Fees and Finance Group, with discussion focusing on a motion for the NUS to campaign for tuition fees to be partially refunded based on the treatment of students throughout the pandemic, with the potential to escalate towards a national tuition fee strike. Delegates are given the opportunity to question the proposers of the motion - a key opportunity to reshape the narrative around a particular issue! There were lots of important questions around the need to recognise the disproportionate burden the current fee structure places on international students, and the need to avoid endorsing the language of marketization in demanding a refund. Although there were significant discussions around what a strike would look like it was energising to see the broad consensus amongst delegates that the introduction of tuition fees were part of the growing marketization of education, and that the abolition of fees must be the overarching goal of any campaign. It was also raised that partial refunds will not have a substantive impact on the amount that students will pay back over the next thirty years with the interest accumulated on their loans. NUS decision-making takes place via building consensus - meaning that the concerns of delegates are addressed via collective discussions. Amendments addressed the issue of delegating to NUS Scotland, representing international student concerns and ensuring that demands work in solidarity with University staff - these will be voted on later in the Conference.
With Brexit having a significant impact upon the lives and opportunities available to students - a number of SU’s proposed policies focused on the loss of access to the Erasmus+ programme. The policy highlights the benefits of the programme in enabling students to study, train and work in 34 EU and associated countries, alongside providing access to EU students who wish to study in the UK. Proposers of the motion spoke of the barriers this would present to EU students wishing to study in the UK; requiring that they pay extortionate international fee rates and acquire visas to study in the UK. Home students would face similar difficulties in navigating fee structures and visa rules when applying to study abroad. There was considerable agreement amongst delegates that without action this would be detrimental to UK Higher education; both in depriving students of the opportunity to study in other countries, but in also preventing UK universities from hosting thousands of EU students each year. The group discussed the need for NUS to take action against gate-keeping in FE, and the tactics to be adopted in campaigning for barrier-free access to education in the context of Brexit.
Sexual Violence and NDA’s
The third policy workshop brought together a group of policies focused on tackling the ongoing sexual violence crisis in higher education. It focused on the manifold ways in which students are let down by their institutions; through inadequate safeguarding, insufficient reporting mechanisms and the closing of ranks to protect perpetrators from being held accountable. Discussions highlighted that institutions are complicit in perpetuating the shames and silences that exist around incidences of sexual misconduct. It also touched on how sexual violence campaigning must account for all axes of oppression, and how this can often shape the responses taken by Universities. Some of the solutions suggested by delegates included an end to non-disclosure agreements, inclusive reporting mechanisms and the need for well-funded support services for victims of sexual violence.
Following a lunch break we returned for campaign workshops drawn from the ongoing NUS Decolonise Education and Students Deserve Better campaigns. There was a range of different interactive sessions that delegates could attend - see what we got up to!
Some of us attended sessions focused on Disrupting the Anti-Racist Narrative and campaigning tactics for bringing about meaningful change within our institutions. The first of these sessions had students consider the anti-racism statements issued by our Universities in response to last year’s BLM protests and any resulting action. It became clear that across different Universities words had failed to be followed up with real concrete actions to tackle racism on campus, with the majority of work coming from student-led campaign efforts. The second of these sessions focused on the press and the ways that an overfocus on traumatic events prevents any long term accountability for institutions. Delegates were forced to consider how campaigners could disrupt this narrative within the popular media through the use of tactics such as press releases and social media sharing.
In the Campaigning on Housing networking session, some of the delegates had the opportunity to discuss some of the biggest concerns when it comes to student housing. The key issues included student renters being unable to pay rent, self-isolating students being unable to receive support from accommodation providers, and students being unable to leave their tenancy agreement early during the pandemic. The delegates split into smaller groups to discuss what they would like to achieve moving forward, with ideas including informing students about their rights as tenants, further advice on Purpose Built Student Accommodation (PBSA), tackling accessibility issues around guarantors for international students, and increasing awareness of Tenants Unions. Moving forwards, the next steps will be to engage the students affected and Tenants Unions themselves, as well as lobbying MSPs/MPs and university senior management to bring these ideas into motion.
Other delegates attended a focus group designed to steer the NUS New Vision for Education. The group considered the ways in which we can work towards achieving a truly demarketised, decolonised, and equal education that is free and accessible for all students. Delegates shared their thoughts on the current education system, and how the perspective of students differed from the wider public attitude. There was a strong sense of anger at the way students had been treated throughout the pandemic, although a recognition that some aspect of remote learning had improved access for disabled students. Breakout rooms discussed what our ideal education system would look like and there were many inspiring suggestions; many centred around the principles of free education, accessibility, staff-student solidarity and building a strong sense of university community. The record of these discussions will feed into the development of this particular campaign, which is really exciting!
Tomorrow we will be presenting our policy on solving the student mental health crisis - make sure to check out tomorrow’s blog post for more details!