Good afternoon Congress and thank you so much for the invitation to speak you in your 150th year here in Manchester. I feel incredibly honoured.
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. We share the same challenges and we can do so much more working together. For this reason NUS is and always will be a friend of the trade union movement, working in partnership with you, standing in solidarity when your members take action to defend their rights. I want to congratulate the TUC on its 150th birthday and thank you for the many ways you have transformed the lives of workers in that time.
Congress, I know there’s lots to celebrate. But I want to talk about the next 150 years. And you can’t talk about work without talking about education. I want to talk about what work will look like, what education will look like. I want to talk about my education, and what education will look like for my kids, and their kids.
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.
When I was elected to NUS President last year I wanted to talk about poverty. When we talk about students, many people think about being eighteen and going to university. People think of students whose parents give them a weekly allowance or pay their rent at halls at big universities in big cities. But NUS represents many more students than that. We have to remember those students who don’t have those privileges: the single parent trying to work and study at a further education college. The apprentice who is being paid poverty wages, maybe even below the minimum wage they are entitled to. The working-class student at university whose loan has almost run out and who is making the choice between heating and eating.
There is a common myth that says if you’re working, or educating yourself, that you can get by. The myth says students have enough unless they’re reckless with money. And people like to say students are reckless with money. Society likes to say the reason people are poor is because they’re reckless with money, not because society has demanded that some people should be poor.
But Congress, 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. We heard from apprentices, learners and students, from academics, providers and sector agencies, and from campaign organisations, charities and of course trade unions, including the TUC.
And we found that class and poverty in further and higher education are linked. 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.
The system creates a ‘poverty premium’ that means working class students pay more.
They pay more directly – like higher interest because they’re more reliant on debt. And they pay indirectly – like higher transport costs because they have to travel longer distances. The impact is to restrict choice, restrict access and increase drop out.
Congress, if we are to change this, there’s so much to do. This year, NUS will be campaigning on a broad range of related issues to smash those barriers and scrap the poverty premium.
One example, one that is so important is housing.
Having a home is a right. But the housing has to be fit for the people who live there, fit for study. 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.
And often housing is not accessible to people on low incomes. Students often need guarantors, even if they’re estranged, or just independent adults – and whether they have people who can act as a guarantor, and that person is in the UK. Deposits and fees are disproportionate and applied to renters again and again.
And housing should be affordable. 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’.
But 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? What about if you have a family? What about the people who never apply because housing themselves and their families won’t be affordable if they’re studying? Housing costs then become a trap against making our lives better through learning.
I want to take just a moment to talk about what’s happening in Westminster right now. The Conservatives say they’re on the side of renters. They say they’re on the side of young people, of those who want to be able to live in good, affordable housing. And they proposed some great changes.
But since Parliament came back they’ve started to turn around on their policies. They’ve turned around on addressing fees for renters. They’re reconsidering three-year tenancies. They’re abandoning making real, legislative changes in this area – and abandoning another generation to substandard homes. This has to stop.
Congress, all too often government policy drives down standards and removes rights and makes it necessary to have personal debt to access housing or education.
All that means is that opportunity relies on who your parents are, not what you can do.
And that’s not just about class. A priority for NUS this year is the Black attainment gap at our universities. That means that Black students – including those with African, Arab, Asian and Caribbean heritages – are less likely to get an upper second or first class degree.
That gap exists after you account for entry grades, types of qualifications, which schools students attended. It exists after you account for socioeconomic background. It exists in our universities – and our universities can fix it.
Real solutions for the outcomes that disadvantage Black students can benefit all of us. The Black attainment gap is a symptom of an issue in education. Finding the solutions isn’t simple or straightforward – systemic oppression isn’t easy to take apart.
But if we can get it right ? It can make our universities fair. It would make them better for women, for disabled students, for students from working class backgrounds. It can show the way to make our colleges and universities fairer and better for everyone, Black or not. And giving all our students real opportunities could transform the workplace.
So, Congress, 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. The attainment gap is closing – but I want it to close quicker than the 75 year it will currently take. I want decent housing – decent homes – to be considered a right we all should have. I want choosing to get on with study to be something our society celebrates. I want study to not be about the money, but to be about being a bigger person. I want things to get better.
But I know that things will get better – soon, and over the next 150 years, because students’ unions and trade unions are partners – and our working together will mean a better society for all.