Posted on Thu 22 Dec 2016 at 14:07 by Luke Pilot
Term 1 of the 2016/17 academic year has come to an end, and I doubt I'm the only person sighing with relief at the thought of a little time off after what the past few months have thrown at us!
In a term where we had to pick up the pieces following the EU referendum result, an unprecedented US Presidential election, a rise in fascist politics and hate crime (with a particular spike in our local community), together with a steady stream of our heroes passing away, a series of nation-shaking events have left the world feeling like an increasingly volatile and turbulent place.
With all that's happened, however, it's important to acknowledge how far we've come, and how far we still have to go. All in all, Term 1 has been pretty successful from an SU perspective - let's take a look back at what went down!
We ushered in the new academic year with the introduction of pre-season access to selected sports clubs for new undergraduates. This provided a major boost for new students and is something the University should endorse more so that we can tap into the sporting excellence so often demonstrated here at Warwick!
Our annual Autumn Elections went very smoothly and had fantastic levels of engagement, with just a few positions needing to be filled via co-options at Council. We now have a full team of elected representatives ready to deliver on a host of manifesto pledges and campaigns for students next term.
As promised previously, wellbeing and mental health is firmly on the agenda after the launch of the SU’s Are You OK? campaign, addressing issues around housing, employability and participating in World Mental Health Day. We saw some fantastic engagement from our sports clubs and societies, with thousands of students pledging their support to friends, colleagues and peers dealing with poor mental wellbeing.
We have seen significant developments on the campaign to tackle sexual violence in our community and delivered something the Union does not traditionally do: teaching. This term, we pioneered the 'Intervention Initiative' - a module about sexual violence and domestic abuse aimed at empowering individuals to be active, not passive, bystanders - taught by the SU in collaboration with two academic departments. This is a monumental feat by those involved and will inform an integral part of the University's strategy for tackling sexual violence and Lad Culture in the future.
Perhaps the biggest shift we have seen in the University is on the topic of ‘Week 0’ - a stand-alone Welcome Week free from lectures and seminars. This has been SU policy for nearly 8 years now and is a subject that has traditionally proven difficult to engage University staff with. However, through a significant and exhaustive lobbying programme, we have made considerable progress: indeed, pending a decision at the Senate in February, we may well see a proper Week 0 introduced in the near-future. This has been one of the most comprehensive pieces of work by the SU that I've witnessed and will no doubt benefit thousands of students. It is truly a game-changer for student wellbeing, orientation, socialisation and participation at Warwick.
In an unprecedented move, the Union successfully called for an extraordinary meeting of the Senate - the University's highest academic decision-making body. We did this for 3 reasons: to secure Senate buy-in on Week 0, to scrutinise the University's latest submission detailing their compliance with the Prevent duty, and to debate whether the University should opt-in to the government’s proposed ‘Teaching Excellence Framework’ (TEF) - the flawed mechanism that will be used to raise tuition fees still further.
This was a particularly exhausting debate. With the Senate refusing to even vote, the opinion was ultimately taken to support University Council's decision to opt-in to the TEF. It's difficult to leave a meeting with the energy to continue campaigning when your University just agreed to become complicit with the marketisation of Higher Education: we went into that meeting fighting the Government’s reforms, and came out realising that we now had to fight our own University too.
A much-needed boost was delivered by the National Demo on November 19th, as called by NUS and UCU. We took a record 111 students to London to march against this government’s attack on Higher and Further Education, and to make them heed our warning: we will not stand idly by while fees are rising, funding is being slashed and grants are abolished. 15,000 students and staff marched in London that day and I am proud to have supported the movement by raising our collective voice.
Perhaps the biggest shock came when we learned of the University's intention to raise tuition fees for the 2017/18 academic year - not just for new students enrolling next year, but for current students too. By being crystal clear that this decision would be an unacceptable abuse of the trust students have in their institution, we were able to make the University concede. For all students who are currently enrolled at the University, and those who deferred entry until next year, your fees will remain at the ‘bargain’ rate of £9k for the rest of your undergraduate degree. While this is undoubtedly a win (of sorts!), through opting in to the TEF, the University will press ahead with raising fees to £9250 for all new students next year, and these fees will increase year on year thereafter. This is a sad fact of the Government's proposed reforms for Higher Education, and plans we need to continue to oppose.
When students occupied the University’s new conference building, The Slate, we immediately began working towards supporting their wellbeing and mediating negotiations with the University, given our democratic policy supporting the aims of the occupation. Through this mediation and liaison, the occupiers were ultimately able to achieve massive wins: the injunction against occupation-style protest will be dropped and the events of December 3rd 2014 apologised for; hourly-paid tutors suffering from appalling working conditions will now have union recognition to aid their negotiations; and the Vice Chancellor will be publicly communicating the University's misgivings around the flawed TEF.
And let's not forget all the huge events we ran too - from Housing Day to the Societies and Sports Fairs, the ever-growing number of society speaker requests we facilitated, the return of the Kick Homophobia Out of Sport campaign, 3 GUM Clinics, a Course Rep and Exec social and, of course, 10 very successful Pop! club nights.
One of the best things to witness that I hope we will see continue in 2017 is the number of collaborations and grass-roots movements to better students’ lives. I have referred to grass-roots action a lot this year, but only because that is what the SU should be inspiring and facilitating: students stepping up as global citizens, defying norms and pioneering new ways of thinking, new ways of delivering teaching and ultimately bringing a positive change to our world. This is nowhere better demonstrated than in the delivery of Black History Month, where cooperative grass-roots teaching and learning took place in our community, led entirely by our students. The University would do well to observe this style of learning and implement it throughout the curriculum.
There are plenty of lessons to be learned from what's been a challenging term. In the face of adversity and a near-constant state of precarity, we are often forced to look for ways out of a tight fix. Though the art of persuasion can work, equally we’ve seen how talking can sometimes get us nowhere. We need to accept direct action as a legitimate tool for achieving positive social change - particularly when there is no other way to achieve your aims - while embracing the notion of collective action as a necessity.
2017, and the rest of the academic year, will no doubt bring difficulties too, but it's all the more important that we don't back down from these challenges now. Next year brings enormous pieces of work, like the Institutional Teaching & Learning Review, feedback on the NUS Institutional Racism Review, SU Officer Elections, the return of Varsity, and the brand new Creative Warwick campaign. Perhaps most difficult of all will be the NSS boycott. This intervention is now absolutely necessary and an example of students taking matters into their own hands when the Government, and their own University, won't listen to their concerns.
I am confident that if we can win on supposedly “impossible”, institution-wide issues like tuition fee rises and Week 0, we can also win on everything else heading our way. With that in mind, let's make 2017 a revolutionary year for Higher Education!