Lily Sheehan’s report on the first ever NUS North West Regional Activists Network meeting
The National Union of Students (NUS) hosted a regional conference at the University of Manchester Students’ Union, covering a wide range of issues.
The first ever NUS North West Regional Activists Network meeting took place on Friday the 2nd of December. Headed by NUS President Malia Bouattia, the conference focused on student activism, ranging from the controversial Teaching Excellence Framework to the current mental health crisis in higher education. She acknowledged that most of the issues students face today are a direct result of “managers and vice-chancellors rationalising the system…[in a] race to the bottom.”
It was argued that in the current economic climate, education has become “a commodity,” and that in the post-Brexit political atmosphere, BAME students are subject to increased discrimination and international students face both a rise in fees and uncertainty about the length of their stay in the UK. By working together and pooling our resources, Bouattia argued, students can help each other to overcome the problems.
The President also spoke of the necessity of the regional network, speaking of the need to “close the gap” between the NUS and the activists they represent. Attendees were invited to share their personal criticisms of their universities or Students’ Unions, with other students or NUS officers providing potential solutions.
The Manchester Students’ Union played host to students from across the North West, from Manchester to Central Lancashire to Derby. Of particular notability was Siôn Davies, a University of Manchester student who is on the NUS National Executive Council and the only Conservative ever to hold such a position. In the current political climate, he is expecting a ‘Tory takeover’ of the NUS. Whilst the NUS remains (for now) a very left-wing organisation, only time will tell if it will be subject to the same political turmoil as the country in which it exists.
One talk, led by NUS Disabled Students’ Officer James Elliot, was entitled ‘Minds versus Markets – Mental Health and Education Funding.’ It focused on the oft-repeated sentiment that higher education in Britain has been subject to a ‘marketisation’ in recent years, and how this has affected students’ mental well-being in particular. A study by the NUS last year discovered that 78 per cent of students surveyed had experienced some form of mental health difficulty at university, with a worrying 33 per cent reporting suicidal thoughts. Whilst the most common cause of distress was workload (67 per cent of students), nearly half were deeply worried about finances — hardly surprising given that UK student debt increased from £15 billion in 2005 to £54 billion in 2014. Elliot encouraged attendees to force their universities to do more than simply “raise awareness.” He expressed a desperate need for high-quality counselling services, institutional mental health policies and systemic change to reduce the financial burden on students.
Led by Manchester Students’ Union Diversity Officer Ilyas Nagdee, the ‘Decolonising Our Education – Tackling the Attainment Gap’ session provided insight into how the British higher education system remains problematic for BAME students. Brought up at the session was the issue that many minority students are made to feel “different” or “inferior” within their academic institutions — one Muslim student complained of an academic advisor who made Islamophobic jokes in front of her. This sort of treatment can lead to feelings of isolation and lower confidence. Additionally, another attendee raised the issue of Euro-centric curricula, citing the example of a Psychology student she knew. Although this student had received excellent results at A-Level, she struggled to finish her undergraduate studies. She felt her degree was “hard to relate to” and was confused as to why non-white psychologists were never mentioned. Although many universities (such as Manchester) have purposely created units that involve the non-Western world and minority groups, it was argued that it was time for them to be part of the standard curriculum.
The sheer range of issues explored at this inaugural Regional Activists Network meeting shows there is still a lot of work to be done, but it was clear that the delegates and students in attendance were keen to make progress.