Right, I’m going to go ahead and just say it. It’s cheesy and perhaps toe-curlingly cringing but I don’t care; by choosing to embark on a degree you have begun a life changing experience. The opportunities available to you here as a student at the UK’s largest university are vast.
Around this time of year thousands upon thousands of students go through exactly the same experience. Whether you’ve parachuted here straight from sixth form, or you’ve decided it’s time for a change and have chosen to return to education, you’ll want to know what to expect from your student experience here. Welcome Week can be a little nerve-wracking if you are a first year but don’t worry; being new is just something all students go through.
As one of the most bustling, student-friendly cities in the country and one with a rich cultural heritage going back a few hundred years, you’re bound to find something that excites you here.
This might not come as any great surprise but your experience here is whatever you choose to make of it. Student activities play a great part in student life and are guaranteed to enrich any student experience, no matter what age you are. Whether you fancy volunteering in the community, trying student media or simply meeting people who share your interest in all things Estonian, with over 200 societies you can decide to get involved as much or as little as you want. You’ll soon learn what works and doesn’t work for you.
I’m speaking from experience here. I will never forget walking into Academy 1 to explore the Students’ Fair during my Welcome Week and feeling like a rabbit trapped in the inviting headlights of a truck. It was an intoxicating experience. It seemed like thousands of different student societies, charities and campaign groups had set up their stalls waiting for the throng of newcomers to sign up to what they had to offer. I must have signed my name on about thirty outstretched clipboards without necessary realising what I was signing up to. Fatefully, one of the first stalls that attracted my attention was that of the student newspaper, which is how I found myself here.
United we stand
All of these activities and societies are made possible by the work of the students union, which has two buildings, one on North campus and the one on Oxford Road. The students union, of which we are all automatically members, does a great deal of work in ensuring students have the best time possible while they are here. So, if you thought that all that the union comprises is a building with a bar and a shop in it, think again folks. Our Union is a body completely independent of the University and is led by representatives that are elected every year by you lot. You may be completely oblivious of this fact now but you won’t be come March, when every morsel of free space along Oxford Road will be covered in election posters. Every hopeful will have to fight for wall and pavement space to display campaign slogans. By the end of voting the campus will resemble a manic jumble sale.
A fourteen member body called the Executive are in charge of the day-to-day running of the union. The Executive is made up of four current students, each of whom represents a university faculty, and ten people in sabbatical positions. Those in sabbatical positions, have either graduated from their courses or have taken a year out from study to do their job. This means that they can dedicate all their time to their year long (minimum wage) paid role.
But don’t fret, having student elections once a year does not mean that the Union’s decision-making process ends there. We regularly take decisions as a union by holding general meetings and voting on motions, or policy on what we want as students. This is the democratic way of putting across students’ views about how the Union should be run. From determining what the Union’s official attitude towards important current affairs to whether we should install more water fountains in the building, these decisions are taken at general meetings, meaning that every student has a say. Any student can submit a motion to be voted on, so if you are unhappy with, say, the quality of feedback you receive from your course tutors you can act to change this.
Unless you’ve been living under a hulking great rock for the last two years, you’ll know that the country’s economy is currently undergoing a shaky recovery after nose-diving spectacularly. Add this to the government’s mammoth spending deficit and it would be one of the most epic understatements to say that for many people times are going to be somewhat harder. This has meant that with employment prospects more scarce than at anytime in the past few years, higher education is seen by many as a way of remedying this problem. Since the introduction of top-up fees by the last Labour government in 2006, the issue of how to finance university degrees has been a highly contentious one. Next month sees the publication of the results of a big review on higher education funding and student finance. The review is being led by the former BP head honcho Lord Browne. This has come after many universities, particularly those in the Russell Group, have made clear that the current fees paid and means of funding higher education is not sustainable.
What will all of this mean for students now? Whether you study on full or part-time courses, undergraduate or post-graduate, the financial landscape is set to change. While the Browne Review hasn’t officially reported its findings yet, it has been suggested that there could be two possible outcomes.
The first possibility is that students may have to pay higher fees, some figures suggesting around £7,000 a year. This policy is favoured by many in government and by scores of universities, our own included, as they have been waxing lyrical about the fact that public funding to universities has dropped significantly over the last 20 years.
Another possibility is the often-debated and controversial ‘graduate tax’ that we could all pay after completing our education.
The Browne review has invoked strong feeling on all sides of the student funding debate. Our union’s own Academic Affairs Officer, Kate Little, has particularly harsh words about it, describing the review itself as a ‘stitch-up’. According to Little, “Labour and the Tories selected a panel largely comprised of businessmen so that they could ensure the outcome they both wanted – higher tuition fees. The two major parties have been trying their hardest to keep tuition fees off the general election agenda until the National Union of Students forced them to acknowledge it, and neither committed to a position on the issue before May 6th came along. The stage was set for an easy win for those who want students to pay more.”
Unsurprisingly, student finance is one of the biggest issues on campus. With looming spending cuts on public services, universities are set to make tough decisions over the coming years. I know this better than most. At the beginning of the summer I received a letter from my course’s department, the School of Combined Studies, telling me that in a couple of years time my course would no longer exist.
The future may be uncertain but there’s no way you can let that stop you enjoying your time here.
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