Today was the first day of the 2021 NUS Conference and your seven Cambridge delegates have been busy attending a range of different sessions! Like everything else at the moment, this year’s conference is taking place online, so we’ve all been attending the sessions virtually from our different locations in Cambridge, Birmingham and London. We’ll be uploading a daily blogpost on here to let you know what we’ve been getting up to so make sure to stay tuned.
The day started with a rousing opening speech from Larissa Kennedy, the President of the NUS, who spoke about the importance of a shared vision for demarketised, decolonised and democratised education. She emphasised that the NUS has been prioritising economic and academic justice for students: over the past year, they have focused particularly on issues related to housing, funding and digital poverty, as well as building anti-racism campaigns, to further the union’s aims of democratising and decolonising education. We were deeply inspired by her articulation of the need to foster a strong collective voice, so that the government cannot ignore us and our demands for students across the country!
This introductory speech led into a discussion between Larissa Kennedy, Chante Joseph (social media creative, host and writer) and Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan (educator, writer and poet) about the current state and context of the student movement. Suhaiymah quoted Audre Lorde early on, entreating us all to remember that there is no such thing as a single issue movement, as we do not live single issue lives - this notion is fundamental to student organising. They discussed how the pandemic has shown that beneficial change can happen quickly and effectively, but that this is so often denied because discrimination against marginalised groups is embedded within current systems of power.
Rooting students’ demands within a broader context, the panellists held up the protests led by Sisters Uncut as a very current example of successful campaigning. They attributed the success of this movement to the clear strategic goals (e.g. blocking the bill which drastically curtails people’s rights to protest, hence #KillTheBill) which are located within a much bigger vision that is clearly explained (defunding the police and redirecting funding into communities, dismantling racist, discriminatory, violent institutions). Their direct actions have been effective because they have clearly publicised the movement’s goals, attracting a lot of media attention and mobilising many people.
The speakers’ insightful contributions allowed us to think actively about the urgent need to address systemic racism, and to wrest power from the state and those in positions of power who deliberately create a hostile environment for those who stand against them. This has endured throughout history - as Suhaiymah pointed out, the counter-insurgency tactics of the British state are a legacy of the British Empire - and it’s important for us not to be silenced.
After a break for lunch, we returned to the conference for some campaign-based sessions. The themes of these were drawn from two of the main campaigns of the NUS, the Decolonise Education campaign and the Students Deserve Better campaign. We all attended a few different sessions and swapped notes afterwards!
Some of us went to a session about tuition fees and the marketisation of the higher education sector. It began with an overview of the history of tuition fees in the UK (from their initial introduction to their episodic increases from £1000-£9250/year) and an explanation of how tuition fees are fundamental to the marketisation of higher education, as charging for university education is underpinned by the market logic that competition improves the quality of the product. The group discussed how this model positions universities as businesses and students as consumers to dangerous effect. Far from improving education, this model actually degrades education quality: this is because universities become more focused on competing against other institutions in league tables and arbitrarily measuring ‘student satisfaction’, rather than thinking critically about students’ actual experiences and the quality of their teaching and learning. This model is disastrously flawed, as it encourages universities to run themselves for profit, offering the lowest cost product whilst exhorting as much money as possible from their student consumers.We discussed the impact of this system on students, and also learned more about whether students ever actually end up repaying their tuition fees - very few occupations actually permit individuals to repay their full loan plus interest before the thirty-year period elapses. We discussed how organising around this issue has fallen off the national radar a bit and that there’s a need to revive this, but that focusing on strengthening the democractic structures within institutions is also important.
Some delegates attended a session about campaigning for decolonisation and what collective care looks like in practice. The conversation began with an introduction circle using the phrase “I need…” to address the support that attendees were seeking for the day. Some of the questions that were asked and discussed in this session included: What is collective care? What gets in the way of caring for each other? How do we protect each other from burnout? What is our responsibility as individuals? What is our responsibility as a community? How do we show each other we love each other? There was collective discussion and agreement about the important qualities and actions needed to achieve collective care, which included (but were not limited to) a supportive community and environment where everyone can share experiences, hearing rather than just listening, self-reflection and reciprocity, understanding and respect.
In a session on campaigning on housing and student renters, Caitlin Wilkinson spoke from ‘Generation Rent’, which is a campaign that platforms the national voice of private renters, who suffer from a significant lack of security. They campaign to make rented housing secure, safe and affordable, and have recently campaigned to get rip off letting fees banned, called for an end to section 21 ‘no fault evictions’, and have been involved in the recent change in law to make all housing fit for human habitation. There’s still a lot of work to be done, particularly as the UK government pledged to end ‘no fault’ section 21 evictions in 2019 but haven’t implemented any new laws to this effect. People can get involved in this campaign by joining the renters rights campaign https://www.generationrent.org/sign_up, or by joining the Student Renters Network facebook group.
Plenty of food for thought after just the first day! We’re excited for policy discussions to start tomorrow and we’ll be back soon with another update.