THE BLOG
23/04/2012 12:39 BST | Updated 23/06/2012 06:12 BST

How I Pledge to Support Mature and Part-Time, Postgraduate and International Students in NUS, If Re-Elected VP Welfare - Pete Mercer

I've always had a passion and a drive to empower under-represented groups within the student movement. The fact that giving this opportunity is being given to NUS candidates I think is an excellent idea in and of itself, demonstrating the power of the student voice - this must be harnassed and fostered as much as possible for the years to come, particularly in a climate within which these groups are at risk of further marginalisation.

I've always had a passion and a drive to empower under-represented groups within the student movement. The fact that giving this opportunity is being given to NUS candidates I think is an excellent idea in and of itself, demonstrating the power of the student voice - this must be harnassed and fostered as much as possible for the years to come, particularly in a climate within which these groups are at risk of further marginalisation.

As the Welfare Officer at Newcastle Students' Union for two years, I fought to reform our democratic structures and embedded international, postgrad and mature student forums, which saw the interests of these students travel up through our structures to Union Council. I campaigned successfully against the summer-time closure of computer clusters used predominantly by postgraduate students doing their write-ups. When the university kicked out around 60 international students with bogus qualifications, I lobbied them to change their admission and audit process, ensuring it never happened again. And when the university attempted to "free up" accommodation that was built and designated for students with families (largely mature and international), I organised an immediate campaign to block the proposals - and won.

Nationally, throughout all my campaigning objectives I've strived to consider the impact upon the sections. With the Pound In Your Pocket priority campaign, I've made sure that in particular, part-time study and postgraduate level will be key areas of work and will form part of the policy recommendations formulated around our research into student support and financial hardship. With postgrads, it's a national disgrace to the widening participation agenda that there is no statuary financial support for students. And with part-time funding, the Government may have come up with a proposal for part-time fee loans, but student support, and the process through which students access it, still remains a massive problem. I intend to address this through the priority campaign. On international students, I've worked hard to research their experiences in relation to hate crime/incidents on campuses and proposed a number of recommendations to the sector to tackle racism and xenophobia.

For all of the sections, political, democratic and social inclusion still remains one of the biggest issues facing both the campaigns themselves and the students they represent. A higher proportion of mature students, for example, have caring responsibilities or full-time work, and as such find NUS' outdated modes of communication impenetrable. The rise of NUS Digital will see a more innovative approach to membership engagement, one that doesn't assume mid-week availability and ability to travel and looks towards sophisticated online methods; but in the meantime, I propose an online welfare and social policy hub, where students can both learn about specific issues and the impacts this has on different types of students. With the priority campaign, I'll establish focus groups to make sure that consideration for these types of students are not overlooked - but I'll ensure that they can engage on their terms and in a way that is most appropriate for them.

We have to recognise the inequalities within our own organisation if we are to ever overcome inequalities within the FE and HE sectors. That the needs of postraduates, much like those in FE, have been politically sidelined for so many years, due to a lack of representation at the top, is shameful. In general, I believe that parts of our movement, such as the different zones, should be doing more joined up work - but this applies to sections too. Where joint work is undertaken, the sections, as well as liberation campaigns, should be brought through the middle.

A big thrust of the priority campaign on student financial support is getting the government and the sector alike to recognize the "hyper-diversity" of our student populations, and the specific financial and welfare needs of these students. Any policy recommendations taken forward will certainly examine and make the case for increased support for those studying part-time, at postgraduate level and international students facing immediate hardship. Similarly, research being undertaken by the welfare zone on the needs of students in relation to their accommodation and support services shows that considerations for suitability and challenging the "one size fits all" is imperative in the planning of new builds, of local provision in the PRS and social housing, and of access to appropriate support services.

Under the changes to service delivery in the localism bill, I'll ensure that these students are not forgotten; whether it's local crime commissioning or public health priorities, I'll make sure that I work with organizations such as Safer Future Communities and Youth Action and empower activists locally to engage with these structures to ensure those under-represented groups aren't left off the agenda. Non-traditional learning models and our student body diversity has been at the core of all my research this year, which will inform and provide the spring-board for all my lobbying, campaigning, training and activist building.

As I've said, one of the biggest issues is the extend to which we engage with these groups and how we decide to engage. I've recognised that inclusion of sections and consideration for the impacts that our work has on the students they represent, must be embedded from the start - at our training events. 2012 sees the launch of a new summer training programme for welfare officers specifically - I will ensure that all the sections are consulted with in the design of this programme, so that it includes issues that these students face, that the broader issues look at effects on different types of students and that the structure of the event is accessible and inclusive for these students.

I also believe strongly that in order to bolster representation of international, part-time, mature and posgrads, we need to make a concerted effort to actively encourage these students to attend our democratic and training events - for example, how will we ever expect postgrads to be represented on zone committees if we're not improving postgrad registration at the zone ocnferences? I'll do this through our existing channels, but also by encouraging our constituent members to embed this ethos when signing up delegates. I believe some of the biggest changes can be achieved by inspiring and mobilising from the ground - ensuring then that the needs of sections are firmly on the agenda.