The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Rachel Wenstone Headshot

Empowering and Supporting Our Mature and Part-Time, International and Postgraduate Students

Posted: Updated:

Today is the start of the National Conference of the National Union of Students. 1,500 delegates will vote in next year's teams of officers.

Traditionally conference has been biased towards only representing the needs of a certain type of students- the traditional 18-25 undergraduate student. However, instutions are rapidly becoming more diverse- and there has been a huge shift in diverse sections of students. The NUS sections tries to represent diverse groups, comprising of three campaigns: International students, Postgraduate students and Mature and Part-time Students.

This year, we've asked all candidates for NUS posistions four questions on how they intend to represent their diverse membership if elected in the upcoming year.

Well it was a stroke of genius by the sections officers to present us all with these questions, because, for the first time in a long time, we are ALL talking about international, postgraduate and mature and part-time students. And for the first time in a long time, NUS candidates are being held to account for a word that getting banded about like it means nothing at all - representation.

Representation is an on going process and it's a means to an end, not an end in itself. All to often, candidates talk about representation, as if simply having a sections officer means we can fulfil the wishes of hundreds or thousands of students; simply having an officer is student engagement in itself. As if the rest of the NUS campaigns don't have to bother working for those students, because we've already 'engaged' with them, we've ticked that box.

Section representation allows us to support sections campaigning better, it allows us to make 'sections issues' everybody's issues. It make our NUS campaigns focused - focused for a progressive system of education, for access and for an incredible student experience for everyone - not just the 18-24, traditional, 3 year undergrad students.

If you have any comments, please get in touch at Rachel.Wenstone@nus.org.uk

Rach x


What experience have you had in the past with these groups of students?

As Communications and Internal Affairs Officer (Gen Sec Equivalent) at Leeds University Union I worked, together with an incredible team of sabbs and staff, to ensure the Union made a positive contribution to the lives of all our members.

For international students, we did a lot to de-code the union, providing podcasts in different languages at elections time, explaining industrial action and why it was happening, bringing 200 international students together every week in our "Global Café'. We lobbied the University to ensure Libyan students, who had lost funding, were supported to continue in their studies.

We organised a local march of 3000 against cuts to education, and supported home and international students from the school of Modern Foreign Languages to campaign against Government cuts to years abroad.

We lobbied the university to ensure the Lifelong Learning Centre retained its funding and held specific welcome talks for mature students during fresher's' week.

Together, we worked with student parents to establish a child and carer friendly space for them in the Union.

We implemented an entirely new system of postgraduate taught student school-reps. Through the involvement of PGT school reps in school meetings, we were able to stop the university from raising postgrad taught fees.

We also began to implement a system of postgrad research student representation, working together with UCU, creating forums and symposiums. Following on policy successful passed by PGR students, we started a piece of research into support, training and pay for PGR student who teach, leading to the creation of a campaign, led by students, to stop the exploitation of PGR students in our faculties.

I am a postgrad, part-time student, so I have real experience of some of the hardships faced - like the cost of printing and transport, which are a huge hidden financial burden.


How do you intend to involve the sections in the mainstream of NUS' political agenda?

I have been on the NUS NEC for two years, and over that time, have witnessed a prevailing assumption, that, just because there is an officer, this 'group' will be represented. The volunteer sections officers do not have the time, support or budget to develop sections representation across the country, work with sections officers in students' union and run national campaigns. Taking political direction from the officers and the students fighting in that campaign, I will put sections work central to the role of VPHE. Issues such as the xenophobic and inept UKBA visa cuts should be part of our wider narrative against cuts to HE and for the recognition of education as a global public good.

I would have regular input and scrutiny of the HE Zone's work from sections. We should not be in the position (such as this year) that sections need to submit amendments to motions put forward by Zones - there should be a joined-up approach to our work.

Sections, like the Nations and Liberation campaigns, should play a key role in the HE Zone Conference, so that NUS can tackle education policy as one body, without sacrificing the voice and knowledge of those campaigns.

My extended manifesto explicitly includes representation and support for mature and part-time students. NUS should be training those trade unions with high numbers of part-time students to understand the tensions and challenges of part- time study, so those trade unions can support their members fully.

Postgraduate research student representation is not good enough across our sector - we have to establish and formalise relationships between students' union and UCU to ensure students who learn and teach can determine their own experiences in HE.


How would you ensure the work of your zone takes non-traditional learners into account?

Working closely with the NUS Welfare Campaign, I promise to create a focus on retention, and a toolkit that students' unions can use to hold their institution to account. We have to understand better the experiences of different students, including those from non-traditional backgrounds.

This campaign will include focus on the student life cycle; helping students' unions to create a better, more understood focus, on different cohorts of students. We need to lobby our institutions for tailored and timely induction, which should be a far longer process than the first two- weeks of term. Finance education and advice should be available to every student; no student should ever have to turn to commercial loans and credit cards.

Over the course of the next five years, the way education is delivered will change rapidly across the sector. NUS needs to do more on understanding the learning and teaching experience of those in flexible provision. I will lead an investigation into the impact of different degree provision - part- time, distance or condensed learning - so we can ensure a choice based on knowledge, not wealth, for every student.

Our widening participation work needs to be co-ordinated across our cities and regions; bringing together our communities, schools, colleges, universities and students' unions. A coordinated approach will ensure our widening access work is deeply felt and meaningful. This will help us to create a fluid education sector, establishing progress agreements between colleges and universities, and support FE colleges providing HE.

Now, more than ever, we need to focus attention on foundation degrees - sometimes the key tool at opening university up to those who were let down by the school system. I will campaign to ensure Government funds all foundation courses, making them free, and that students receive full and tailored support to see them through onto their degree.


What will you do to more specifically target and improve the lives of these students and include it into your work next year?

We need to work together with the International Students Campaign to fight the Government's ideologically xenophobic and economically stupid policies. We also need to join up with the VP Further Education and resist the deportation of students from institutions that have lost their trusted status. This is an issue that is having a frightening impact already on large colleges in Scotland, so this has to be a joint campaign across the Nations.

Student carers need a voice within the NUS, and not a voice that is assumed through the mature and part-time students campaign. Issues of parking, timetabling, free or subsidised nursery care, and flexible academic representation and welfare provision need to be won on our campuses.

Mature and part-time students are equal in number to 'traditional' undergraduate students, but as a movement we have failed them. This year, there has been a sharp drop in the number of mature students applying to university. In 08/09, 92% of part-time students were mature. Mature and part- time students should be central to the HE campaign. Under the new regime, BIS estimates that 30% of all part-time students would be entitled to a loan. But the Student Loans Company, and Government, have no idea how this will be delivered, and as yet, have not even started to address this issue. We need to be on forefront of protecting current and future part-time students. Now is the time for us to lead and hold government and the SLC to account and prevent a huge failure in part-time provision. I will lead this change to get the wins our students need.

We need to campaign to end the manipulation and exploitation of postgrad research students who teach. I will use the research NUS has already collected on this issue to win the training, support and pay that PGR students deserve.

NUS must set the agenda on taught postgraduate funding and access - campaigning for a progressive and regulated system of funding, with a national bursary and scholarship scheme. The Government has so far failed miserably to even admit there is a problem, so we need to set the agenda on funding on postgraduate funding and access.