If we are to learn anything from the history of the student movement it is that where students lead, others follow.
Those who founded the National Union of Students (NUS) had a vision of a 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 1930s 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 1960s and 1970s, when they were almost universally scoffed at by those in power as radical or futile causes.
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 and 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 that students are 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, change in our society – and for the organisation itself – is both exciting and, sometimes, extremely daunting. Yet I believe that 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 change lives for the better.
Creating a better education system
As one of the first steps, I am proud to be launching NUS’s 2019/20 Plan of 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 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.
It’s not enough just to oppose this way of working; we have to present an alternative. To transform education in its entirety, NUS will be fighting for a National Education Service and its equivalents in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, to ensure 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.
Framework of values
We will start 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 SUs 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.
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.
We won’t win everything we want in one moment or one year, but the change we seek will only be won if we keep pushing in the right direction, together. To go back to one of my earlier examples, the NUS report Hidden Marks, which first brought to light the scale of the sexual harassment and violence on campuses, was published in 2010.
This was the start of a campaign that involved student activists and researchers, sector organisations and politicians.
It led ultimately to the Universities UK taskforce in 2016 – and, most recently, the OfS-funded projects – to tackle the issues on campus, as well as further research to illuminate different facets of this problem.
I think we will need a similar approach to take forward the other aspects of our plan and all of NUS’s elected officers want to work with those of you in the sector who share our objectives.
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.
If you would like to help support the plan, then please do get in touch with me at: firstname.lastname@example.org