NUS Conference Round-Up

This week, President Kate Roberts and your elected NUS Delegates - Vice President Wellbeing and Diversity Henn Warwick, Milo Dack, and Maciej Pawlik - attended the virtual NUS Conference to discuss policy motions and upcoming work for the national student movement.

CW: Mention of Sexual Violence, Non-disclosure agreements (NDA), and Relationship Abuse.

This week, President Kate Roberts and your elected NUS Delegates - Vice President Wellbeing and Diversity Henn Warwick, Milo Dack, and Maciej Pawlik - attended the virtual NUS Conference to discuss policy motions and upcoming work for the national student movement.

What is NUS?

The National Union of Students was founded in 1922 to champion students to shape the future of education and create a better world. NUS run campaigns aimed at making student life better with the organisation’s core mission and values remaining the same since 1922: to promote, defend and extend the rights of students.

NUS represent seven million students across Higher Education and Further Education in the UK and is led by a team of elected Officer Representatives:

NUS President: Larissa Kennedy

Vice President Higher Education: Hillary Gyebi-Ababio

Vice President Further Education: Salsabil Elmegri

Vice President Liberation and Equality: Sara Khan

These Officers are elected on a two-year term every other year and work alongside Presidents representing Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

What is NUS Conference?

At National Conference, students and officers from across Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and England come together to focus on the policy that the student movement will take forward for the next year. Conferences serve as a space to shape upcoming priorities for students, students’ unions, and NUS, to shape what NUS will be vocal and visible on. At the conference, there are conversations to shape the campaigning priorities for the student movement in the future and discussions to ensure everyone gets to participate and put their views forward.

The Conference this year has also focused on the next steps of NUS’s two recent campaigns: #StudentsDeserveBetter and #DecoloniseEducation.

So, what policy motions have been discussed?

There were six policies brought forward to NUS Conference to be deliberated and voted on:

Fees and Finance

During this workshop, we discussed the wider issues of student finance with a particular focus on tuition fees as a whole and looked at the long-term implementation of full and complete removal of tuition fees for students accessing Further/Higher Education. We also discussed tuition fee refunds for the past academic year and the form in which this would take, as well as how we would campaign for this. In the coming weeks, we will further discuss, amend and eventually vote on this motion which will allow us to conduct national and coordinated fee strikes (should we decide we want to take part) and to request that Government provide a tuition fee refund for services lost.

Sexual Violence, Non-disclosure agreements (NDA), and Relationship Abuse

In this workshop, we discussed the sexual violence crisis amongst UK universities, colleges and student accommodation. The group explored the impact of COVID-19 and how Government restrictions left some students more vulnerable and susceptible to perpetrators as they were confined to their halls of residence. We learnt that inconsistencies in support and reporting processes across educational institutions in the UK, and even within institutions themselves produced imbalances in equity and therefore a minimum standard of support when handling these cases is desperately needed. Thus, student survivors of sexual violence and relationship abuse are more likely to drop out and their academic achievements suffer a lot because of psychological distress. Research conducted by the BBC exposed the true reality of the crisis, since 2017 UK universities have spent around £87million in payoffs through non-disclosure agreements (NDAs), thereby intimidating and silencing the voice of survivors and concealing and protecting perpetrators of abuse, assault, and rape. 

Overall, discussions around sexual violence and use of NDAs showed promise, with many delegates becoming better informed about the use of NDAs to silence students in a variety of areas of student life, not just in the context of sexual violence. This was raised with the proposers, who acknowledged that more needed to be done to review power abuse within different university bodies and abolish the use of NDAs once and for all.

Erasmus +

In this policy discussion, we focused on the proposition for NUS to campaign on re-joining the Erasmus+ scheme as a way to promote cooperative and accessible educational experiences. In the short term, there were discussions about improving the Turing Scheme to accept inbound EU exchange programmes, and to provide funding and opportunities for students in further education to participate in an EU exchange, as was previously possible in the Erasmus+ scheme. The discussions in this session revolved around making these opportunities available to all students from all backgrounds through reinstatement and financial support.

Mental Health

The motion introduced at this year’s conference on mental health by Cambridge Students’ Union provided an eye-opening and educationally insightful glance into the student mental health crisis. Mental health in higher and further education has, for a long time, been brushed aside and swept under the carpet, meaning that these issues have been left unaddressed and largely ignored. This session served to reopen the discourse on mental health at universities and colleges and in apprenticeship schemes, encouraging delegates and representatives of their university to share their experiences and further highlight the severity of the mental health crisis. However, putting mental health policy into tangible and actionable plans is and will always be difficult, simply because the topic of mental health is so vast and so serious that for every answer we can provide, three issues remain unanswered. I hope that, through serious collaboration with NUS and individual unions across the nation, we can make real and meaningful change to the face of mental health and the student mental health crisis.

Student Housing

Student housing has evidently been a significant issue across the student movement this year, following numerous rent strikes and issues related to the pandemic for students in university accommodation and private student housing. This policy is proposing the development of a National Association of Student Tenants (NAST) in order to create collective power for student renters in the UK. The discussions focused on providing information to allow students to understand their rights as renters and how this national association would work with grassroots movements and local tenants' unions to achieve national change.

Cost of Living

In the cost-of-living discussion, students raised issues with the representativeness of the motion being proposed, considering that the costs associated with university life affect all groups of students. Beyond this, many suggestions were idealistic and thus delegates worked towards finding practical means of implementing measures to lower the costs of living. It was ultimately decided that finding sources of finances beyond government provisions was necessary to enable a faster way of accessing financial support, which is a promising outcome. 

Delegate reflections

Kate Roberts

‘" have really enjoyed engaging with NUS Conference this week (although it is my second online conference thanks to the pandemic!), it has been great to hear from some fantastic student leaders in the student movement. Being able to engage in national issues is an extremely important part of the Sabbatical Officer role, Royal Holloway doesn’t exist in a vacuum and many of the issues our students faced are also faced across the UK, therefore collective action is necessary to achieve genuine and tangible change for students."

Henn Warwick

"Attending the NUS Conference was an inspiring and rewarding experience. The Conference provided me with the opportunity to engage in national-level discussions and debates with like-minded student leaders that affect, not only RHUL students, but students across the UK in universities and colleges. Discussing prevalent issues such as Sexual Violence, Mental Health, Anti-Racism and Decolonisation has continued to motivate me to fight for change."

Maciej Pawlik

"Discussion is always welcome and the NUS Conference certainly provided a lot of discussions with many different and innovative individuals. I feel privileged to have had faith put in me to stand at Conference and represent students, and I am happy to have been able to fulfil some of the promises I made during my campaign. I have given a voice to those silenced by NDAs and I have succeeded at putting forward a preliminary amendment to turn senior management bonuses into student subsidies. The struggle continues, but it is a happy struggle for positive change.’"

Milo Dack

"I have thoroughly enjoyed taking part in this year’s conference, which was my first (and hopefully not my last) experience. It was very inspiring to be a part of such an incredible movement of passionate student leaders who are both determined and resolved to making a difference for students, whether that be through ensuring that our value-for-money is reached, or that our rights as tenants and renters are protected and respected, or that our mental health and wellbeing is looked out for and after. More importantly, I’ve been honoured to have been chosen by you, the student body, to represent your views and wishes at the conference and I hope to do so further as I continue my path at Royal Holloway."

What happens next?

Voting will soon be open for all delegates to vote on each policy motion and the accompanying amendments, and we will hopefully hear soon which policies have passed and will be taken on by NUS over the next year. This is not the end of any of these discussions, this work will involve collective student engagement on a national level, and you will hopefully see more from NUS on these areas of work over the next 12 months. We massively enjoyed engaging virtually with the NUS Conference this week and are looking forward to seeing what changes are made for students following this on a national level.