We have reached the third and final day of NUS Conference 2021, and it has been as exciting and thought-provoking as all the rest! We started the day off by discussing some of the policies – including our own – that had been submitted to the conference, and ended the day with invigorating speeches by student campaigners from across the UK. This blog post will take you through our final day at the 2021 NUS Conference, and look forward to our next steps as your NUS delegates.
Morning - more policy workshops!
Like on day 2, we started off the day with policy workshops. Today we were able to choose between sessions on mental health, student housing and the cost of living which were the remaining policies selected through the priority ballot.
Student Mental Health
Many of us attended the workshop on Student Mental Health, and this was the policy that we submitted to the conference this year. We decided to focus on a preventative approach to student mental health as in our earlier discussions we noted that, while things are being and have been done within our institutions to try to improve mental health, we are still facing a massive student mental health crisis. We proposed that educational institutions should be tackling key factors such as discrimination, excessive workloads and limited access to funding and supportive resources and our vision included things like increased hardship funding provision, better policies on welfare and accessibility, inclusive complaints procedures and well-funded support services.
Our proposal was met with passionate discussion, with the delegates from other institutions sharing their experiences, thoughts and ideas so we can make this policy as impactful as possible. The discussions included talking points like how the policy could be applied to all students across Further and Higher Education, what student-led actions could be taken, and what is already happening in some areas that could be expanded to institutions across the UK.
This policy raised an issue that has been both highlighted and exacerbated by the pandemic over the past year and this is student housing. Regulations around student accommodation, both private and university, are variable and lacking across the UK. The proposers described how students have no additional accommodation rights, are often unable to leave complex and unhelpful contracts and to ask for refunds or discounts when faced with financial difficulties or poor-quality, unsafe accommodation. Solutions raised in the proposal and consequent discussions included compensation for accommodation students have been unable to access, the right to leave tenancy contracts, a specific association to represent student tenants and changes to the student maintenance system so it actually reflects the cost of living students are facing. The disparities in housing across universities nationally were also raised and that there is a need for better accountability.
Cost of Living
The cost of living can be a major barrier to accessing, and remaining in, Further and Higher Education and this policy workshop discussed how to tackle this so students can access education without limitations brought about by issues like a lack of access to appropriate technology which, especially over the past year, has been integral to learning. Some of the remedies included students receiving a Real Living Student Wage that takes into account things that the Real Living wage does not, and a Real Living Rent which outlines what affordable accommodation actually looks like for students. In addition, the proposers raised that universities should be lobbied to make clear the actual cost of being a student, making sure to include all aspects of the student experience like sports, societies, eating on campus and accommodation in the later years of university.
Afternoon - coming to a close
The afternoon was filled with talks, advice and a Q&A with a panel of officers from the National Union of Students as well as student unions and student campaigners. This was facilitated by Hilary, who is NUS Vice President for Higher Education, and was closed by NUS President, Larissa.
We started off by hearing some powerful statements from those on the panel. Steph, Vice President for Education at UCLan, talked about solidarity and how we move together to make change. She also embraced the “snowflake” description of students and described how together can be blizzard-like and unstoppable.
Matt, President of NUS Scotland, reflected on the past 50 years of existence of NUS Scotland and the amazing changes they implemented back then, including having one of the first policies dedicated to LGBT+ rights in an organisation where it wasn’t the main focus, and their more recent successes. President of NUS Wales, Becky, focused on the inequalities the pandemic has exposed and how students deserve better, but also looked at how students are fighting for better.
The NUS Vice President for Further Education, praised the dedication and the collective power of students in FE when fighting against the A Level and BTEC decisions that were made last year. While J, a campaigner from Not On My Campus, also talked about the value of mobilising, building networks and looking at short-, mid- and long-term goals.
All the panellist were asked about what they were looking forward to in the student movement answers from Becky, J and Steph included 16 and 17-year-olds being able to vote in the Welsh Senedd elections, seeing the passion in student activists, and campaigning against having “cookie-cutter” approach to education so ALL students can thrive instead of just surviving. Matt highlighted the value of protest and said that, if possible, he wanted to “take students from TikTok to Trafalgar Square” and this was further emphasised by Larissa who was looking forward to seeing students turn their disappointment and anger into action.
In the Q&A, questions like how to start a campaign and how to keep yourself motivated were asked, and we were told about how we should build networks, share best practice, remind ourselves why we’re campaigning and to practice self-care as an ‘act of political warfare.
Before the final closing statement, we heard solidarity statements from student campaigners and were encouraged to have solidarity with students being evicted at extremely high rates from Queen Mary University of London, and those who has experienced and witness the violence against protestors of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill in Bristol, as well as those who would be disproportionately affected by it. We ended by having a minutes silence for Richard Okorogheye, who was tragically found dead after going missing, followed by a speech from Larissa with closing remarks of “be bold, be brave and fight for justice and liberation”.
In the following days, we will be voting on the policies and amendments so that they become NUS policy, but we’ll also be reflecting on our experiences, the knowledge gained and the ideas formed from our time at the 2021 NUS Conference.