On Monday 1st August, my first day as President of Warwick Students’ Union, the single biggest attack on accessibility in Higher Education was finally implemented. Maintenance grants - a vital resource which have helped hundreds of thousands of students take the next step in their education - were abolished and converted to loans.
Hundreds of thousands more students will now be saddled with even greater debt, purely because of their socioeconomic background. They have been told, in effect, that education is only for the rich; that there is no point coming to University unless you study a degree considered ‘worthwhile’, or have a career planned that will net you a hefty wage packet. In being turned into consumers, they have been failed once again by this Government.
Astonishingly, this isn’t even the biggest threat facing Higher Education. The HE Bill, currently making its way through Parliament, will see the biggest reforms to Higher Education in decades take hold from 2017. The Government has created the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) as a new mechanism for Universities to raise tuition fees still further - which several institutions have already announced plans for. Increasing the presence of private providers, setting up current Universities to fail and measuring teaching ‘quality’ with flawed metrics that are open to manipulation are all part of a coordinated attack on Higher Education which in no way act in students' best interests.
In making these changes to suit a profit-boosting model for Universities, the Government has also proven itself grossly out of touch with everything else that is happening to students. One in three students now experiences poor mental wellbeing, and University support services are often ill-equipped to support them. One in five female students is sexually assaulted in their own University community - and when they report it, they are blamed for their own assault and never see the justice they deserve. Our campuses and courses are structured so inaccessibly that when a disabled student tries to seek help, they are effectively told that University isn't for them and they end up leaving. Institutional racism stops people of colour achieving as highly as their non-black peers and, when they are the target of racist abuse, they are accused of manufacturing the crime. International students are being priced out of Universities and the NHS and when they arrive in the UK, in addition to being subject to hate crimes and told that they are not welcome. Students are being told they have to focus solely on their studies to justify the debt they are being saddled with, so they forego their extra-curricular activities - in turn sacrificing their own wellbeing.
All of this is inherently political - which means we can’t shy away from being so ourselves. Regardless of your own party-political affiliations (or, indeed, lack thereof!), the fact remains that everything is political. The imposition and raising of tuition fees is political. The rising cost of student living is political. Your ability to access and participate in sports clubs or societies is political. Your course’s reading list is political. Your right to exist as a woman, a person of colour, a disabled person, an LGBTUA+ person and all other intersectional identities is political.
All this paints a bleak picture for the road ahead, but I remain hopeful. We are slowly seeing the return of the belief in a collective movement and other forms of action - be it direct action, speaking to captive audiences, sitting on committees or just having a chat with someone you don’t know about a new idea for five minutes. We are seeing more and more people defy the reductive (and, of course, highly political!) rhetoric of being classed as an ‘ordinary student’ to take a stand for what they believe in - be that fighting for free education, facilitating a welcoming environment in their society or leading their sports team to promotion. More students are appreciating the power they have to change their modules for the better when they represent their peers and meet with departmental staff.
Students are the future and, if we are not treated as such - if our planet is exhausted, the Government continues to make decision which impoverish and marginalise students, if Universities prioritise profit over people - then it's time for us to say “enough is enough”. Now is the time for us to stand together with our lecturers in the University and our peers in FE colleges to present a united front. It isn't selfish to demand a future which is sustainable, accessible, inclusive and supportive for all - it is absolutely essential given the monumental challenges ahead of us.
Throughout the new Sabbatical Officer team’s first week in office, naturally we have been thinking about the year ahead. We have been planning how to achieve the aims of the manifestos we were elected on, and thinking about how we can improve students’ lives by fighting for your rights here at Warwick. These, then, are the Sabbatical Officers’ top 10 priorities for the coming academic year:
1. Secure a lecture and seminar-free Week 0
A proper Welcome Week aids the transition to University and allows more space to prioritise students’ wellbeing. It is unbelievable that we still do not have a Week 0, and we will campaign once again for this to come into effect for the 17/18 academic year.
2. Mental Health
We are committed to prioritising student wellbeing by lobbying the University to reform their pastoral care and personal tutor system, launching our own ‘Are You OK?’ Campaign, and lobbying the University to allocate more funding to its student support services.
3. Fair Pay for Postgraduate Teachers
Postgraduates who teach balance their own research with providing outstanding teaching to undergraduates. When the University does not pay them properly, this work is devalued and many struggle to get by. We are calling for fair pay for postgraduates and an end to casualisation in the workforce at Warwick.
4. Zero Tolerance to Sexual Violence and Harassment
Sexual violence affects 1 in 5 female students during their time at university. We refuse to tolerate this in any form, and will be working with the University to establish a joint taskforce to reform our prevention strategies and reporting pathways.
5. Host the first ever Warwick Fringe Festival
A brand new event taking place in Term 3 will celebrate the incredible arts offering we have on campus. WFF will form a key part of the Creative Warwick campaign being launched this year, which aims to promote the creative, innovative, enterprising and diverse nature of all student societies at Warwick, while securing the space and resources they desperately need.
6. Wednesday Afternoons Free
Enrichment activities like competitive and social sport, societies, volunteering and part-time work must be valued as co-curricular by the University. They are absolutely integral to students’ wellbeing, in turn providing invaluable opportunities for personal growth and development. We are calling to free up this time of the week and enhance the university experience for the benefit of all students..
7. Liberated Curriculum
We will collaborate with the student and staff community to ensure that the diversity of our campus is reflected in the curriculum, that issues of liberation are embedded at a departmental level, and that the voices of marginalised groups are listened to.
8. Cut Out Hidden Costs
We will lobby the University to identify and mitigate hidden costs that students are unfairly forced to pay on top of their tuition fees and living costs, such as printing, buying textbooks, binding dissertations and paying for medical notes. In addition, we'll call for a hardship fund to cover graduation costs so that no-one is shut out.
9. Eco Centre
The Sabbatical Team is committed to facilitating the student-led development of an eco-centre here on campus. This building will have the capacity to house many of the environmental, sustainability and creative projects of SU clubs, societies and student groups.
10. Defend Civil Liberties
We will call for the University to scrap the injunction against occupation-style protest on campus, which represents a gross violation of free speech. We will also campaign for minimal compliance with the Prevent duty, a Government programme which effectively spies on Muslim students and students of colour while monitoring activism on campuses.
This is our statement of intent. Now is not a time to rest on our laurels and pretend everything is okay, because that is far from the truth. Now is the time to harness the power we have through collectivism - not just to hold our University to account, but to achieve a more equitable future for us all. We want to do all this in collaboration with you.