NUS President speaks on HE Bill panel

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On the Wednesday of Week 7 Malia Bouattia, NUS President, visited Lancaster and joined the campus discussion of the Higher Education and Research Bill.

Sitting on a panel with Lancaster’s Dr. Odette Dewhurst, Senior Research Development Manager, Lizzie Houghton, Ph.D. Student and Lecturer, and Nick Dearman, LUSU VP Education, the group discussed the bill, its implications for students from a variety of backgrounds, and how they believe students can take action.

A running theme of the discussion was the growing privatization of education, which the speakers discussed in a variety of contexts. As the HE bill pushes a teaching excellence framework for ranking universities, a system that would also control which universities would be allowed to raise fees through bronze, silver, and gold rankings, the panelists discussed how those rankings and fees would impact the quality of education at the given universities.

“Increasing fees does not mean that money is going into the number of teachers you have access to or the resources you have access too – if anything it’s the opposite” Bouattia explained.

With talk of fees and university budgets, the treatment of international students became a point both about the specific international clauses of the bill, and how institutions treat those students.

“International students will continue to be treated like cash cows, and [the HE bill will] restrict them to the best institutions. This gives Russell group and high-end universities a monopoly on the mistreatment and exploitation of international students.” Bouattia said.

“Students who take the ‘strategically important courses’ will be the students with work visas after graduation,” Houghton explained, discussing how the evaluation of what courses are economically beneficial will impact which students, specifically when the number international students is capped.

The conversation around the valuation of degrees beyond STEM and Management pushed the discussion to implications for post grads and the research aspect of the bill.  

With funding already an issue, “Institutions and research councils will need to do more to encourage students to stay on” Dewhurst said, though she pointed out that there were benefits under the bill for expanding interdisciplinary research.

Houghton spoke about the ways cut funding will limit diversity in institutions, “institutions like Russell Group universities, those with more funding tend to have fewer minority students, which means there will continue to be fewer minority students in post-grad opportunities.”

Malia pointed out that funding for humanities subjects are already rare“funding for social sciences research is so rare. It’s not gold, its diamonds if you can just find it.” These issues are amplified for liberation groups, continuing to limit diversity in research fields.

As the panel had been discussed their issues with the bill, a member of the audience pushed for solutions, ways for students and staff to push back.

Lizzie pointed out the big picture failings of the way HE policy is discussed, especially around debt and fee raises.

“One of the big issues with HE policy is we focus on how students are in debt, but if you look at them they aren’t debts like we would think of them. Students having what we consider personal debt limits how you can get politically angry about it. Student debt implies that the good of the experience is completely on the individual, ignoring the social good. We have to look at education and how it benefits the rest of society, and view the debt and cost of education as a societal issue.”

Dearman pointed out that HE policy and regulation, specifically the new Office of Students, needed “student voices filling it all the way up if you want to improve the student experience.”

As the NUS has pushed boycotting the National Student Survey (NSS) as their formal protest of the bill, Malia pointed out in addition that promoting local surveys and solutions were ways for students to voice their opinions, citing the success of the ‘Gold Paper’ put forward by students at Goldsmith University.

As Malia had to leave early for personal reasons, NUS VP Welfare Shelly Asquith stepped in to answer more questions.

A member of the audience questioned the plan to boycott the NSS, pointing out that it was one of the few ways students could voice their issues but also support their universities and programs. Asquith pointed out again the benefits of localized feedback mechanisms that give students more direct influence over the university, as well as more consistent feedback so changes could be implemented during student’s time at university, rather than just after students have left.

Asquith said, “This is a marketized machine that we can manipulate, that’s really powerful” summarizing why the NSS protest, and other forms of market-based protest, are the best way for students to fight the bill.

As students in Lancaster and across the country work to understand and engage with the HE bill, the panel gave students and staff a variety of opinions, perspectives, and ideas. To engage with the LUSU campaign, contact LUSU VP Campaigns and Communication Rachel Hughes at lusu.comms@lancaster.ac.uk.

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