The student experience is regressing – we need to be radically different in Wales
By Becky Ricketts, NUS Wales President
When I was elected NUS Wales President on 3rd March 2020, the number of confirmed Covid cases in the UK was just 51 – including a solitary case in Wales. Less than three weeks later, the Prime Minister announced the first lockdown, issuing a stay-at-home order that would last for months and closing shops, pubs and restaurants indefinitely.
I can remember the uncertainty and fear this new disease was causing, but on the day I was elected I could never have imagined the extent to which it would affect the lives of students and define my presidency.
Only now, as I approach the end of my two-year term, is life returning to some form of normality, but I worry that the knock-on effects of Covid and decisions made by the UK Government will damage the lives of students for years to come.
I’m proud of what we as a student movement in Wales have achieved during the most difficult period in living memory. We won tens of millions of pounds to support students with their finances and mental health at the height of the pandemic.
Students’ unions were a valuable lifeline for isolated students, providing care packages and socialising opportunities, while university students, college students and apprentices raised money and volunteered to help the most vulnerable in our society.
But I’m also realistic, and I’m concerned that the student experience is worse than when I became president and will continue regressing without intervention from government and institutions.
A new NUS Wales President will be elected at our annual conference in Cardiff this week, and when I hand over the baton officially in July, they will face a huge task leading the student movement in Wales in our post-pandemic world as we approach the next general election in 2024 – which coincides with the fiftieth birthday of NUS Wales.
Right now, the cost-of-living crisis is my number one concern when it comes to students’ day-to-day lives. Of course, this is an issue that will affect everyone in Wales to some degree, but students who rely on grants and loans to cover living costs only have a finite amount of money to live on.
It’s even more bleak for apprentices, who live on as little as £4.81 an hour due to the apprentice minimum wage. With the price of energy, food and other necessities rising at dizzying rates, many students are going to have the make the choice between heating and eating this year.
At a time when students are in clear need of relief, the Westminster government seems to be doing all it can to make the prospect of studying less attractive. As well as the hike in interest rates on student loans to 12 per cent, ministers recently announced proposals to change the student loan system so that most graduates – specifically low and middle earners – will pay back more, and for longer.
Coming out of the pandemic, and in the context of the climate emergency and automation, we need a radical approach to education that breaks down barriers instead of constructing new ones. We need real, honest leadership from not just our governments, but from councillors who will be elected next month, from institutions like colleges and universities in the heart of our communities, and from civic society leaders – including people in positions like my own.
It’s abundantly clear that this radical leadership isn’t coming from the very top in England, and there is increasing urgency for us to do things very differently in Wales. We proved that we could do this during the pandemic, so why can’t we do this with our education system too?
Having led the student movement in Wales for two years, it is clear to me that Welsh ministers need to do a lot more to grasp the root and create a system that puts students and staff at its centre. The marketisation of higher education has engendered a culture of putting profit before people, and a competitiveness between institutions that only values getting people through the door and onto courses. This is the consequence of more than a decade of regressive policies at Westminster, and it’s time for Wales to go its own way to undo the damage.
It might seem fanciful to call for such upheaval in Wales given that English ministers are doing all they can to pass the financial burden onto students, but only by being ambitious and radical can the student movement match its past achievements and lead the way towards a better world. There’ll be so many challenges for my successor as NUS Wales President to face, but I’m confident they will help Wales lead the way towards a new vision for education.
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