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My time at Higher Education Zone Conference – Melissa Owusu

Friday 13-11-2015 - 17:41

This is a guest blog by Melissa Owusu, Education Officer at Leeds University Union and NEC 2nd place for the Higher Education Zone.

At the end of October, I attended the Higher Education Zone Conference for the first time, and it was definitely the best NUS event I’ve been to.

I was lucky enough to secure the National Executive Council place for the HE Zone and cannot wait to begin working with the rest of the committee to shape the way NUS moves forward with HE.

What particularly stood out to me was the amount of those elected that focused on liberation within Higher Education such as liberating the curriculum and narrowing the Black attainment gap. Although some may claim these issues are not ones that concern the ‘average student’ or don’t focus on ‘what students want’,  this truly calls into question who is this average student and what do we mean by what the whole student body we represent wants?

I’m an Education Officer who has a mandate from the student body that elected me – working on a range of issues such as refreshing the Partnership agreement students have with the University, feedback, alternative assessment methods and improving digital learning across campus. However, I do not have the luxury of talking about prioritising some teaching & learning issues over my fundamental survival in a higher education institution. An institution that crafts its curriculum as if people that look like me do not exist, in an educational system where if I go on to do a PhD, as I so hope, I am 80 per cent more likely to drop out than change my name to Dr. We have an academic environment that by virtue of my race I statistically attain less than my white counterparts. This is not solely an issue for the Black Student’s Campaign, nor should any liberation issue solely be the work of that liberation group, as the sidelining of these issues will never resolve them. These are all teaching & learning issues – there is no tension between ‘bread and butter’ education and liberating the education system so that it works for everyone – they are the same thing if we are truly looking to represent the needs of all students. If we see them as separate, then ‘what students want’ means what students who don’t look like me want.

I recently ran an event at my union about liberating the curriculum and it was a massive success with over 500 people in attendance and an exceptional buzz around campus. The students and staff that came were from a diverse range of backgrounds all ready to discuss and critique the whiteness of their curriculum. For instance, many students will learn about the Industrial Revolution, but never how theft and the massacre of so many people across the world funded it. The day following this event a student alerted me that their lecturer, after attending the event, had realised that only white women were featured on their reading list for a feminism module and rectified this.

And liberating the curriculum goes beyond getting some names on reading lists – it is scrutinising how assessments and academic standards function to privilege some people in society , and how teaching & learning itself is oppressive. The VP Higher Education has made it a priority for the HE Zone to help unions tackle those structural challenges on campus and it’s great that we now have such a diverse committee with half BME members to drive this work forward. The role of NUS is to help SU members take on the huge challenges on our campuses, while celebrating the great work unions already do.

In my view, Education Officers are too often tied up in policy work and sometimes it makes our work more operational in tackling the practical processes of student education such as lecture capture, module enrolment, and assessment and feedback. This is the kind of stuff we are winning on every term and building on each year, and what we’re really good at while shrugging our shoulders at what to do about the deeply entrenched structural issues within our education system that are increasingly being unmasked and challenged. The student movement at a national level needs to add value and empower us to work on systematic issues and inequalities.

There is nothing more important to student education than the curriculum itself, and to be able to challenge this is an incredible prospect, one I do not want to shy away from. All the functionalities and processes around the delivery of education are diminished if the education system itself is fundamentally flawed and only works for some.

I believe in students getting the broadest and best education that can be offered and see it as the main thing NUS and other SUs should be focusing on. As opposed to facing a number of students with a curriculum that doesn’t reflect them, that fails to acknowledge the history and achievements of people who looked like them, and that fuels the idea that non-white, non-western people have nothing important to say.

Simply because the National Students Survey does not provide a question that directly asks ‘do you think your course, or University, is structurally and inherently oppressive and racist?’ does not mean that these issues do not exist and do not concern students.

Liberation must run through everything if it is ever to be given the importance it should have. Too many see liberation as an add-on that can and should be dealt with in its own space.

But to me, and to the students we represent, it is everything.

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