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Let's make our education system fairer and build a fairer society

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NUS President Shakira Martin reflects on her speech to the TUC 150 Congress on Monday 10 September 2018
NUS President Shakira Martin address TUC 150 Congress

It was my absolute honour to speak to delegates at the Trade Union Congress’ 150th annual conference in Manchester.

As the National President of NUS I represented 7 million students and apprentices across the UK. Students who are very often workers, apprentices who are your colleagues in the workplace. There’s a lot to celebrate, the 150 years of TUC have been transformational for millions of people. However I used my time on Monday to talk about the next 150 years.

It’s clear you can’t talk about work without talking about education. Things have changed for people in the UK since I started college. They’ve changed over my life. And I’m not sure things are getting better. There is a common myth that says if you’re working, or educating yourself, that you can get by. But we know that’s a myth. It’s a myth for workers and it’s a myth for students. The NUS I lead has been examining student poverty and showing exactly how class and poverty create barriers that stop too many students getting in and getting on.

The decisions made about the funding of education and of students, the assumptions made about students and learners that all too often stem from the middle-class perspective of the people who run our institutions, and the increasing cost of living work together to create barriers to getting in and getting on.

One of those barriers is housing, often housing is not accessible to people on low incomes. So much of the places we expect our low paid and students are bad for their health – housing standards at the bottom end of the sector is awful. Housing has to be fit for the people that live there and fit for study. Student rents soar – not just in the private sector, but the halls owned by universities too, all with the excuse that they’re only charging ‘market rent’.

Plus the costs of market rent is unaffordable for so many – what about the universities and colleges or as an apprentice where there is no hope of housing provided for you as you educate yourself? Housing costs then become a trap against making our lives better through learning.

I also used my speech on Monday to speak briefly about what’s happening in Westminster right now. The government say they’re on the side of young people – indeed they proposed some great changes. But since Parliament came back they’ve started to turn around on their policies. All too often government policy drives down standards and removes rights and makes it necessary to have personal debt to access housing or education.

But it’s no doubt the government are shirking on their responsibilities to renters, young people and workers. Brexit is dominating the agenda and that doesn’t look set to change. The problem is this farcical negotiation period that will ultimately harm workers and their rights. It’s clear that the moment for students and workers to unite around a common idea is now – we deserve a People’s Vote on the final deal. I’m proud that NUS were one of the first national organisations to come out in support of a People’s Vote, and I am prouder still that more and more of our allies in the trade union movement are coming to the same conclusion.

If we are to fix this, we must work together on the big issues of the day. If we can get it right, we can make our education system fairer and in turn build a fairer society. Ultimately we can give our students real opportunities that will transform the workplace. So there is a lot of work to do over the next 150 years. But let’s be ambitious for our students. Let’s be ambitious for our society.

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