The HE Debate: Where next for...students?

27 Jan 2015

Megan Dunn, Vice President of Higher Education, National Union of Students

In the run up to the General Election, NUS is delivering a huge campaign to ensure that students’ are too powerful to ignore in the political debate. This involves a range of activities - voter registration drives, hosting local candidate debates and supporting students’ unions to build relationships with decision makers. But what is also crucial is making sure that students, and the public, understand the underpinning political beliefs that dictate the way in which higher education is, or could be, delivered in this country.

The reason this is so important is because, otherwise we run the risk of blindly supporting ideas that, actually, create consequences we completely disagree with.
For example, the principle of growing higher education provision, and working to make sure all those who wish to, and are able to study to a higher level is one we can get on board with. However, the decision to achieve this growth through actively encouraging the rapid and unregulated expansion of for-profit providers is one I wholly disagree with. Not only do I object with the idea of private companies making profit off the backs of students - and the taxpayer - through their access to loans from the SLC, but the fact that students are completely unprotected if their institution fails (which, sadly, is no longer a theoretical discussion, but a current reality for thousands of students) is downright scandalous.

This is why NUS is calling for a commitment to public education by ensuring that no penny of public funding goes to for-profit providers, and for a national financial protection scheme, into which all providers have to pay, to ensure that students’ studies are not disrupted in the event of institutional failure.

Ensuring that students are alert of these narratives also means they can better identify where they are inconsistent. The current treatment of international students is a perfect example of this. On the one hand, we have the encouragement of the growth of private provision, which is predominantly aimed at the international student market, and on the other, we have draconian and demeaning immigration policies which not only have resulted in many institutions feeling they need to implement finger-printing on their campuses, but even worse, has meant that thousands of genuine international students, through no fault of their own, have had their visas revoked and been left with nothing. Of course, I do not claim that there isn’t a single international student in the UK that is not genuine – but there are thousands of students who are, and have been left alone with no support or protection and little to no chance of being able to finish their course or even get their money back.

It is international students who are bearing the brunt of the consequences of policies that simultaneously look to aggressively recruit them to the UK, and then resolutely find ways to send them home again. We all, within the HE sector especially, know the huge economic and social value international students bring to our universities and wider society, however, the Home Office clearly does not agree! And as a consequence of their changes to students’ visa policies, a recent poll run by NUS found that over one third of international students surveyed either strongly disagreed, or disagreed that they would recommend UK study to a friend. This figure rose even higher within Indian (48%) and Nigerian (43%) students – two key markets for British universities.

NUS has long led the call to remove international students’ from net migration figures, and the weight of opinion is firmly on our side – this is why we are including this in our General Election manifesto. It is time to stop using international students as a political football, and an easy target for politicians – allowing them to pin responsibility on immigrants instead of dealing with the real causes to injustices in society.

Essentially, the questions we want students, and the general public to be asking themselves, and politicians in the coming months is not “do you want higher education to grow?” but “how do you want higher education to grow?”.

This is also the question we want to ask about investment – not should there be more investment into higher education, but what should that investment look like? I believe that higher education is a public good, and should be treated as such. I believe that the current funding model is not only practically flawed, but ideologically flawed, and that I have yet to see any evidence that driving higher education institutions to become increasingly marketised and competitive has produced positive outcomes for students. In the next few months, we will be talking in much more detail about our commitment to, and ideas for, the phasing out of tuitions fess and restoration of public funding to universities.

One of the key challenges we face is in widening out the debate around investment in education. The narrow focus of politicians and media (and sometimes, of NUS) on English, full-time, undergraduate funding systems has been to the detriment of other aspects of the education spectrum in this country.

Further Education funding has been slashed, to little or no comment from mainstream media, part-time student numbers have plummeted, and UK students are increasingly finding postgraduate study unaffordable. Underpinning all of this is not only a lack of direct funding, but also the complete absence of easily accessible information, advice and guidance for any of the these students.

We are asking students, the general public and politicians to look at our education system as a whole, from creating a new, better Education Maintenance Allowance, scrapping 24+ learner loans; protecting and improving Disabled Students’ Allowance and creating a new postgraduate funding system - as well as phasing out tuition fees. We, as a movement, and as a higher education sector, cannot afford to keep quiet about these issues. We must actively seek to engage our political leaders in conversations and decisions about our whole education system.

If we do not, we risk creating an education system which is the opposite of the one I believe in. Higher education should not be a closed shop, a place where those with power and privilege can reinforce it. It should be, and can be, a force for social good and opportunity in this country. We should be leading the charge in creating a more equal society.

Education is transformative – for the individual and for the community. It allows us to think critically, and challenge ourselves and others, and change the way we see the world and our place in it. But in order for this to be a reality, we need to continuously reflect on the reality of our practice. Universities often say that they are open to all of those who are able, but as we have seen from the recent work by HEFCE on higher education cold-spots, there are many areas of the country where people are unable to get to a university. We tell students that if they work hard, and get good grades, they will get a job. What we don’t tell is them is that, now, more than ever, their job is likely to be temporary, on a zero hours contract or in far, far too many cases – an unpaid internship. This is why NUS is campaigning beyond the boundaries of education, for the end of unpaid internships, a living wage and a statutory code of practice for zero hour contracts.

I don’t want higher education just to be something that people aspire to, but that people can create aspirations from. At the moment, the cold hard truth is that for too many students it appears there is little to aspire to. If, as a national union, we do not tackle the huge challenges graduates and young people face is society head on, then we are doing them a disservice.

And I’d like to ask you to join us in our work. You, by virtue of reading a blog on the million+ website, are clearly interested in education, and by choosing to read my blog, are hopefully also interested in students and making their lives better. What I’d like to ask of you is to help give students a voice in this election. Think about what voice you personally have – are you a Vice Chancellor, a students’ union president, a governor, a lecturer? I invite you to talk about the issues and ideas I’ve discussed with your students, but also with your local MPs and candidates, with your local papers and with your colleagues, friends and families. If we can all pull together we will be able to ensure that students, and higher education are powerful force in this election. You can read more about our General Election Manifesto here:

Follow Megan on Twitter: @megandunn116