Been a while once again since I sat down to write about anything really external of general announcements. But every now and then I believe it is beneficial to take a moment to reflect on events that I attend in order to represent the student body at York. Primarily I mean to discuss the NUS Local conference that took place at Northumbria University, which I attended with SU president Ben Leatham on 25/11/15.
For those that don’t know, a NUS local conference, which is quite a new development within NUS is an opportunity for local Sabbatical officers in the area to come together and discuss key issues facing the student body. The idea being that the relatively low number of Sabbs would allow for greater discussion, a focus on local issues and of course the usual networking that comes with that.
Speaking plainly, I am very separated from the day-to-day politics of NUS, and as such events like these are a new experience for me. They also feel a bit like meeting that extended part of your family that you don’t see all that often, and you don’t quite feel as though you’re ever really having the same conversation with each other. Overall there were perhaps about 40 or so Sabbatical officers, and a couple of NUS student representatives, such as the Welfare and Union Development officer.
The day was divided up into micro sessions and a couple of keynote speeches, so my experience of the event was as detailed below:
1. Welcome Speech by NUS.
2. A micro session discussion regarding the BME attainment gap.
3. A discussion regarding electoral campaigns in our local area.
4. A open discussion lead by a speech from the Northumbria sabbatical officers.
5. A discussion about NUS’ “Homes Fit For Study” report.
Why I attended these sessions was due to input from the liberation networks and the staff team in YUSU. So, with the general outline formed, I feel the best way for me to approach this is to highlight the pros and cons of what I got from the event, so that you as the student body may decide if you believe the event was of any value or merit.
Positives: Whilst there are only two points, they are vast and I believe they are incredibly useful and potent positives:
· York does a good job and we need to be more proud of our achievements:
This is a general point, but the discussions had through all micro sessions and group discussions highlighted that, whilst YUSU is not perfect we do damn good job at pushing through and getting solid work done.
Examples include the work out students and BME officers put into “Why is my Curriculum White?” which elsewhere has either only seen initial discussions or been relatively ignored at other institutions. Likewise our recent voter registration drive (in which we signed up roughly 200 or so students within 4 hours) was surprisingly ahead of the curb in that, with the exception of Leeds Beckett and a couple of other Student Unions, we were both leading the way in engaging our students, and ensuring that they will be able to vote in local, and national elections.
York has a strong student body, that I firmly believe, and sometimes it is only in these rather general discussions that we are able to step outside our University bubble, and compare ourselves, at least locally, to the work of others. Give yourself a pat on the back, and a hot chocolate or something, you deserve it!
· NUS Staff are Passionate, Informative and have really provided context:
To some this may seem as a no-brainer, “It’s there job to know there stuff and represent students!”
Well of course, but that is only the minimum spec. It’s one thing to represent students; it’s another to do it with a clear and resolute passion that rubs off on you. This was particularly the case within the BME attainment gap discussion where we had some very frank discussions; lead by Alaa Elaydi, the NUS policy officer. The influence that the Green Paper may have on competition, the issue of BME students not “fitting in” the frank matter that 1/6 of BME students still face racism regularly.
Likewise, the housing discussion lead by NUS member Fleur Priest-Stephens was incredibly informative. I was left so impressed by the Homes Fit for Study program and very much believe it will slot In so well with the work YUSU needs to do over the holidays to support our student body on the housing issue. Both with tenant legal rights and the ever pressing issue of rising accommodation prices.
Within these discussions, I learnt a lot and feel as though both Ben and I left with a fresh perspective that sometimes can only come through those being able to provide national context for you. For that I am very much appreciative.
· Why do so few of us talk, why do so few of us talk about other key issues?
A ranty title for sure, but in all honesty my key frustration with the day was just the lack of discussion and engagent with the topics at hand.
I am by no means a brilliant Sabbatical officer and I have met several who both out perform myself and exceed all expectations. However I try, as much as I can, to repeat a single theme in all of these discussions “I am here to represent the York student body”. Because of that, regardless of personal interest in a topic, it is pivotal that Sabbatical officers are open and discussions are had on all issues facing us as institutions.
It felt as though many either did not want to face the issues, or did not have the confidence to address them. A key example of this is the total lack of conversation over the implementation of Prevent nation-wide, and a general distinct lack of critical debate or conversation.
It felt as though NUS just did not want to promote these conversations either. Whilst we did do some positive networking, the discussions were pretty trivial. And there is a place for that, y’know, at the bar in the evening, but not whilst at attendance at a conference in which we must all be wearing our representative hats.
I was disappointed with the lack of lead by NUS on this and that it was more a ‘let’s catch up and take a breather’ approach, over ‘let’s come together and work out what are the key issues locally and how we can work together, and what NUS can do to help’.
· This isn’t about what you can do for NUS, but what NUS can do for your institution:
Whilst it is good to see what NUS is up to, and I can’t even begin to imagine the regular issues they must face, I am annoyed that it was a ‘here is what we did oh boyyy aren’t we grand’ rather than an open discussion topic, ‘What do you think of NUS’ progress, etc?’
My only thought on this was in comparison to say our College Training we provide here at York for JCRC/CSA’s. I remember so vividly 3 years ago now how I found the training all so about “YUSU” and not about “how can we help students achieve what they want”. As of writing we haven’t done this Sundays College training, and it may well be that we fall into the same traps, but it is so aggravating to see the same mistakes made within our National Union.
Likewise there were some technical hiccups and slips, that, to be honest were a little bit aggravating. There were only a handful of us and it just all felt a bit last minute.
· Student Unions are at several different stages of development, this needs to be a conversation topic
Whilst this threads into the positive point, a realistic discussion that I feel could be had at NUS local is that our unions are at so many different stages of development. Both in what we provide and what our general yearly goals are.
For example, Northumbria University are currently focusing a majority of their efforts on student engagement. Actually getting students to understand what the Union provides and undertakes. Whilst this is a regular topic here at York, there is luckily for us, a much larger knowledge of YUSU within the Student Body and many readily engage to hold us to account.
Meanwhile Durham’s college systems are far more developed than ours, and as such have incredibly complex discussions and relationships that we have not yet acquired in York. By the same token we also have a fully established liberation network, which for Durham is only in its infancy.
Part of the issue in these differences is that we are all on different pages. NUS is supposed to help us all get to the same spot, if only for a day. Yet these variations in Union objectives mean that we are scattered. As such the goals of one union to simply get people invested into the Union is not discussed and related to the aims of others perhaps with developing networks or furthering national campaigns. Much like the prevent discussion, this was moved to the side. And I feel as though NUS, at least at local events, could do far more to help bridge local gaps and agendas.
Overall, despite the negatives, I think that the ultimate aim of the day, to inspire and reinvigorate Sabbatical officers, was achieved.
Whilst I cannot say that, “I have the answers” entirely, I do believe that while the issues brought to the NUS local events by SABB officers are vitally important, there is scope to improve the way in which we address key issues.
Yesterday for example I had a unbelievable discussion with a York student over national political movements, LGBTQ issues, etc… Afterwards I realized that it is these discussions that YUSU should bring to the NUS. The local events should be an opportunity for key issues to be discussed in an open and frank way.
We are a national body of representatives, it’s time we stepped up to the plate and acted like it. That is what we got voted in for, it’s what we are paid to do, so I’ll be damned, that is what we must provide.