Tomorrow 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, institutions 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.
1.) What experience have you had in the past with these groups of students? (Max 300 words)
Over my two years as a Sabbatical at City College Norwich, I have worked closely with all these groups (and a few more you haven't mentioned) to make sure they are getting as much out of their Students' Union as possible. (Although I must add CCN doesn't have any post-grads). We are also one of the first Students' Unions to have a full time sabbatical Apprentice as our Deputy President.
For example, with Part-time students, we have made sure the Union is open later, we have begun the development of an apprentice representation system that fits them (and built by them) so that their Voice is as empowered as any other groups as well as ensuring every apprentice is fully aware of the Union and the support it can give. We are currently surveying our Apprentices about the need for a Part-Time Students Officer to help co-ordinate representation.
For Mature Students, we have setup specific societies that support student parents during study time, worked hard to get more Mature Representation on our Union (with a Mature Students Officer) as well as a big increase in Mature Students as Reps.
With our International Students and especially ESOL students, we have worked with them to design and develop a "buddy system" aimed at helping them settle into college life.
When it has come to campaigns, we have involved these groups as much as possible, by ensuring it's their views that are shaping the campaign. With EMA, we broke through the barriers by getting our sections officers to lead on engagement, but quickly found it was our ESOL reps who had taken it upon themselves to fight their side of the campaign, and a rep called Anthony Carpenter (65) who rallied his whole school to sign our petition. He is still a really keen representative who does the Union proud.
2.) How do you intend to involve the sections in the mainstream of NUS' political agenda? (Max 300 words)
We need more representation from these areas. And not a same old approach that NUS has always taken. For me, the issue is that these groups do not feel that NUS is there for them. Only now do we have a National Society of Apprentices, something tangible and real that an Apprentice can say supports them. But are we doing anything for the others?
Many feel that NUS is just for under-grads and the more involved FE Unions, an attitude I would make a priority to challenge and change for my year, and what it boils down to is making sure that NUS, its FTO's and its Unions are equipped with the training, resources and support to represent these groups. A Union that has never dealt with work-based learners would really benefit from talking to a Union that has, like CCN SU. Its about empowerment, and making sure that these groups are valued as much as any other group and it is also about breaking down the "us and them" attitude that pervades many, getting rid of the notion that an SU is for one group and not another. This will be done by removing a lot of the pre-conceived "barriers", such as looking at opening and closing times, the accessibility of societies and activities, childcare issues, language barriers and so on. One move is to bring forward the sections conferences to precede National Conference, making sure there voice is heard before decisions are made at conference.
3. How would you ensure the work of your zone takes non-traditional learners into account? (Max 300 words)
If elected, it is a strong part of my manifesto that we must become the voice of a generation, not just of "traditional" students. Union Development has made leaps forward, but has many more to go before we really can turn round and say we represent these groups.
I would ensure we take non-traditional learners into account by continuing the work of the Deepening Participation Committee, and acting on its recommendations. I would also look to involve other groups in the dealings of the Union Development Zone, so engaging with the TUC on Work-based learner and Apprentice involvement.
I would look to work alongside the Sections to bring their views to the table and work with the Zone to improve the reach and outlook of the zone. Its about de-centralising the Zone to make sure it is incorporating the Sections and the Liberation Campaigns in our work to develop Unions, we don't have the time to do it all on our own. This would include Sections having key involvement in training for every Union, as well as a stronger voice in priority campaigns.
One gap NUS misses is Student Parents and the appropriate support they need to help them succeed in education, and as a Student Parent, I would work with the Mature Students officer and all other sections to get this group of the student body to discover its own, powerful voice.
4. What will you do to more specifically target and improve the lives of these students and include it into your work next year? (Max 400 words)
Next year, if elected, we must continue the work of the "Pounds in your Pocket" campaign to tackle Student Poverty, especially amongst our International Students who fall prey to corrupt landlords, our Mature Students who are fleeced by institutions when there main concern is studying and putting food on the table. We have the Sections of NUS, so why are we not taking their voices to the heart of the movement and back into the Heart of our Society?
I will be good for my word on what I intend to achieve with my manifesto. If we are to become the Voice of a Generation, we cannot stand by and allow these groups to fight their battles alone, NUS must be prepared to stand with them, and that includes every Union, FE, HE or Small and Specialists. The Sections are often left out and that will end, ensuring the voice of thousands remain at the heart of NUS. With the government hell-bent on wrecking the chances of these groups, now more than ever NUS needs to reach out and help empower these groups to fight back.
Students' Unions need to understand that the learning journey of a mature student or a work based learner are far different to those in the "traditional" groups. This will come about by in-depth research and outreach work to engage with the different groups. To make an impact, Students' Unions must be prepared to look at themselves and evaluate how truly accessible they are.
As Zone convener, I would look at the basics, so producing model engagement models for these sections (with their expertise and guidance) would begin to solve the issue of the barriers to participation in Students' Unions and the wider institution. I would look at how these groups perceive their Students' Unions, and at issues that arise from that around accessibility, suitability, language, support, cost etc. Now is not the time to be turning away students when we need each other the most.