Students are tired of being an afterthought; we’re getting ready to TURN UP
Orla Tarn, NUS Wales President
This time last year I wrote about the student cost-of-living crisis after statistics revealed 96% of students were cutting back on socialising, food, energy, transport, and healthcare. At the time, fresh-faced and new to my role, I was optimistic things would improve.
But as this new academic year rolls round, its apparent the crisis students face endures. This time last year I would have been shocked to learn that 8% of students in Wales have experience of homelessness, but it breaks my heart to say that today, after a year in post, I’m not.
The one thing that consistently amazes me about students is our resilience. We adapted to online learning in the pandemic (and some of us actually enjoyed it). After the pandemic, we adapted to hybrid learning. But heartbreakingly, many have had to adapt to poverty and hardship as inflation spirals, housing costs rise exponentially, and maintenance fails to keep pace.
Yet, in true ‘if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry’ fashion, many have dubbed the crisis the ‘cozzie livs’, got used to working long hours on top of their studies, and just got on with things.
When I came into office, I was nervous about how to politically invigorate what I saw as a generally apathetic movement; the student movement has a history of being radical, but with all the crises faced by students in recent years, many are jaded and exhausted and believe nothing can be done.
I was one of those students – even as the world crumbled around me, I studied, went to work in the Students’ Union bar, and didn’t complain (outwardly…much).
And yet, after years of industrial action, a global pandemic and now the cost of living crisis, I believe the tide is turning.
Recent studies from the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), suggests that over 85% of full-time UK undergraduates are expected to vote at the next general election – well beyond the levels we saw in 2019.
Thirteen years of austerity, marketisation and being treated as consumers without any of the associated consumer protections has lit a fire within the movement, and within individual students, and no amount of failed gerrymandering with mandatory voter ID can extinguish it.
Our priority now as the National Union of Students Wales is to ensure there is somewhere for students to channel their energy – that they have something to vote for. Major political parties, many of whom will be relying on the votes of young people next year, need to ensure that student priorities, such as funding reform and tuition fees, housing, transport and equality laws, are included within their policy portfolios.
With everything else going on in the UK and wider world, it is easy for student issues to slip off the radar; when things are going so wrong, it’s a no-brainer to ignore the swathes of apathetic young people who don’t vote anyway, right? Before the cost-of-living crisis, I might have agreed. And yet, I now have faith that young people will change this narrative at the next General Election.
This week, we continue our 2023 tour of Freshers’ Events across Wales; we’ve spoken with hundreds of students across higher and further education about their past experiences, what changes they want to see to their education, and what they want for their future.
At each event we’ve encouraged them to register to vote, and with an ever-growing number of Welsh students and learners keen to engage with democracy, many for the first time, I have more hope than ever that a radical Welsh student movement will rise to the challenges presented and ‘turn up’ to the ballot boxes when the time comes.
Oh, and spare a thought for the students moving in down the road from you this week – odds are, they probably can’t afford to have many loud parties anyway and they’d likely value a bit of neighbourly companionship.
Students can claim a free CitizenCard (valid Voter ID), worth £15, using the code ‘NUS’ here.
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