On Monday 22nd October Kate Cole (Oxford SU President) and Farheen Ahmed (Oxford SU VP Welfare and Equal Opportunities) travelled up to Sheffield for the National Union of Students (NUS) Zones Conference 2017.
The conference started with an introduction to the NUS Vice Presidents, a summary of their work over the last couple of months, and their plans for the next two days, where each would deliver a stream of workshops and talks based around their priorities for the year ahead.
Kate started with Ali Milani’s Union Development Zone, attending a session entitled “breaking down the barriers to sport and activities”. We discussed the main barriers to sport at our Universities, including financial pressure, poor accessibility, and lad culture, and how our SU’s could fight to help break these down. Ali and his team have spent the Summer conducting extensive research on the topic, and we’re very excited for the publication of his report, as access to physical activity is a big priority this year at Oxford SU [see what we’re doing this term at www.oxfordsu.org/thisgirlcan].
She then moved onto the Welfare Zone for Izzy Lenga’s “it’s time for proper student housing plans”. Again, since housing is a key priority for Oxford SU, this was an incredibly interesting session where we discussed problems in the private rental market, a lack of information about letters rights, and poor quality, high cost housing. Considering students are the only unionized body in the sector, we have a key role in driving change, and it’s great to see our national union taking a lead to tackle these problems.
For the last session of the day, she stayed in the Welfare Zone for “sticking plasters won’t work for mental health”. This was an interactive session discussing good and bad practice in our Unions, at our Institutions, and in our general communities, and considering what role we believe each should play in mental health service provision. It was great to hear that Izzy has brought Mental Health First Aid into the NUS’s training programme, and we sincerely hope that mental health is no longer seen as just a buzzword, but rather a sector that needs serious investment and long-term pressure to reform.
On the other side of the conference, Farheen sat in Amatey Doku’s Higher Education Zones, starting with campaigning and learning from other institution across the UK. This included investigations of how to share and apply good practice across different institutions, under the NUS’s centralized system. It’ll hopefully be used to inform more collaborative, national projects, such as the project of ‘Mental Health’ ambassadors in decision-making bodies and the need to ensure students’ are able to engage actively in learning. One outcome was to develop steps (across institutions) on how the expansive nature of inclusion could change the tone of various discussions across the university (in term of curricula, diverse methods of assessment and developing a sense of community).
The conversation in HE Zones then moved to Brexit, beginning with the confusion and uncertainty surrounding Brexit. However, it then moved to discussions on what the NUS would like to see, in terms of informing their lobbying efforts. For example, in making sure that both UK/EU students do not have their relevant schemes jeopardised and trying to retain a level of funding for educational institutions in the UK.
The next item on the agenda for Farheen was a discussion on the Race Attainment gap. Here, there were discussions on how to ensure that BME students are better supported in the lead-up to higher education, and enabling individuals to seek the relevant support, where needed. It also touched upon the idea of intersectionality and a recognition of how, in particular, race and gender can lead to higher gaps. There was a brief discussion on the Race Equality Charter Mark, which Oxford University is hoping to submit to, and how to ensure that it reflects the needs of your student body.
Our day ended back together in the main hall for a plenary to launch Shakira Martin, NUS President’s, key campaign pledge: the NUS poverty commission. We were introduced to the commissioners, their role in the research, and what our SU’s can do to get involved. We’re excited to be contributing to this, led by our VP Access and Academic Affairs, Catherine Canning, and our campaign Class Act. Look out for the report when it’s published in February 2018.
We were up bright an early on day two for an accountability session for Izzy Lenga (VP Welfare) and Amatey Doku (VP Higher Education). Amatey in particular was asked a series of incredibly challenging questions around Brexit and the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), and answered impressively throughout. It was important to sit on these accountability sessions, to ensure that the NUS officers are able to make full use of their seats in the national discussion. We can also proactively ensure that the NUS are aware of the interests of Oxford students.
Kate stayed with Amatey for the last session of the conference, attending the Higher Education Zone’s “imagining a better TEF” session. Again, this was an incredibly interactive session where we thought about what teaching excellence really meant to us as students, and how far this concept was from the current government framework. Farheen moved to the Society and Citizenship stream, to discuss how to tangibly create equal access, particularly for asylum seekers and refugees. Given the work that student campaigns and Oxford is doing, it provided an insight into how to ensure the various scholarships and programmes being offered are able to be accessed by the people that most need it.
All in all, it was a great two days, and we’re incredibly grateful that we had the chance to attend. Thanks for having us, Sheffield!