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#NUSScot17: Opening remarks from NUS Scotland President Vonnie Sandlan

Friday 24-03-2017 - 11:32

NUS Scotland Conference is underway in Dundee! Follow #NUSScot17 for updates on debates, election results and NUS Scotland Awards winners. 

Opening remarks from NUS Scotland President Vonnie Sandlan

Good morning and welcome to NUS Scotland conference!

I’m so happy to see you all here this morning (all bright eyed and bushy tailed, I’m sure…), having travelled from all over the country to be here. 

I hope – no, I know – that it is going to be great weekend, full of good debates, exciting elections, and also lots of fun – something I’ll come back to in a bit. 

Before I go any further I want to introduce our executive committee – so if you could stand up and give a wee wave.  SEC are the leadership of NUS Scotland, so if you’ve got any questions about the politics of what we’ve been up to this year, grab one of us to chat.

I want to just briefly share a few thoughts with you all – about the last year, about this weekend, about the future for our movement.

This time last year when we came together, we did so to set ourselves some really ambitious goals, and in a context of a Scotland that had changed and was continuing to change, not least as we looked ahead to the Holyrood elections. 

Since we last met as a conference, it feels like politics has changed forever. We had the soaring high of a Scottish Parliament election campaign which put student issues front and centre – the very same student issues that we debated and discussed right here, last year, were at the heart of the political agenda and we secured big wins from that campaign, with our much wanted, much needed, review of the full student support system finally called.

But on the flip side we had the dizzying low of a divisive EU campaign, and the disastrous decision to leave the EU.  

But through both that high and low it has never been more important to have a bold, strong and positive vision for education, and for the kind of society we want to be part of. And most importantly, ensuring that all of the amazing energy that was built up in people all over Scotland - not just from the EU Campaign but actually from the Scottish referendum campaign, through a general election and a Scottish election too – never disappears.  

No matter the occasion we’ve been asked to go the ballot box for – be it the independence referendum, general or Scottish election, or the EU vote – so many of the people so many of us will have spoken to were most driven by social justice and about social cohesion, and about Scotland being a friendly, welcoming place, about striving for that fairer society, and about having a government that would use its powers to redistribute wealth across society, and put people in charge of their own lives. 

But if we’re honest, with exceptions at either end of the extremes, no vote result was ever going to do that by itself. And so, as we look ahead to a potential second referendum, our role remains exactly as it was three years ago during the last one – sitting not on the side lines of political debates, but above. Ensuring that a position of being neutral on electoral outcomes never means being neutral on the type of society we want to live in and the political and policy changes that need to be taken regardless of outcome. 

There are over 500,000 students in Scotland – that’s over 10 per cent of voters – and many hundreds of thousands more young people who have just received a historic right to vote: 16 and 17 year olds. Just imagine the power of the student and young people voice if every one of those voted! And that is the challenge that presents itself to us every single year, and one we can never give up on. It’s about ensuring that every single year we never give up on our fight to ensure education and society – right here and now – is that bit fairer. 

And in the last year, we’ve been doing just that: 

  • We took hundreds of Scottish students to the march on Westminster – recognising that not only do decisions there have an impact on us here, but also that solidarity doesn’t stop at a border. 
  • We’ve led a robust and successful Scottish response to the dangers of TEF, and the threat of consumerisation in education.
  • We led a strong campaign against the UK Government’s horrific proposals for foreign workers lists, demanding our college and university principals stand against them.
  • We’ve continued our campaign to make access to postgraduate education fairer, securing significant increases in tuition fee and living cost support for those students.
  • We saw the publication of the Commission on Widening Access’ final report, and pushed for the appointment of a strong and independent advocate for fair access through the first ever Access Commissioner – and we’re continuing to hold feet to the fire to ensure government, institutions and the commissioner all uphold their responsibilities.
  • As well as being at the heart of the Scottish Government’s refugee integration strategy, our asylum and refugee campaign delivered our first ever summit, bringing together which staff, officers, activists and students from across the education and third sector to address the issues faced by refugees and asylum seekers in the education system.
  • And we’ve been developing a really exciting local government election campaign, ensuring that we never forget that the students taken locally are ones that can serious impact on our student’s lives and that we have the potential to secure wins at every level of decision making – which you’ll be hearing much more about later. 

And of course, as ever, our liberation campaigns have absolutely led the way in some of the boldest and most progressive campaigning our movement sees:

  • Our Women’s campaign have led a bold and inspiring campaign through Inspire Her Future, empowering women into those subjects and industries they’ve been underrepresented in for far too long.
  • Our LGBT+ campaign has been working hard, through Bin the Blood Ban, to overturn the discriminatory blood ban. 
  • As part of Black History, there was the #BlackStories campaign, providing a platform for black students to reclaim their histories through personal, family and political narratives.

And of course, if it hadn’t been for the amazing work undertaken by all of you here and many more students across Scotland, we wouldn’t right now have a high-level, independent review of student support. 

That review is incredibly important. If we were starting from scratch, we wouldn’t aspire to the system we have now. It leaves far too many students to fall through the gaps, and can even serve to undermine our efforts on fair access. A fundamental review of student support will ensure we scrap the injustices of the current system, and provide security and parity for all students, regardless of where, what or how they study.

At the end of the day, fair access doesn’t stop with getting those with disadvantaged communities into education, because a single student lost from education is a damaging loss for them and a damning loss for our country. If we’re to truly realise our ambitions for fair access it’s vital that we ensure that the support is in place to not just get more students into education, but supports them to stay there and succeed.

So, I will finish with a plea to you all, while you’re chatting and debating and, maybe even dancing, this weekend, working out where we go next: be bold, be brave, because we matter. 
This conference is no place for cynicism – this isn’t somewhere for us to doubt ourselves. We get plenty of that from outside. 

But it’s also a conference where we should be able to have fun and remember – those we’re fighting against aren’t in this room, they’re outside it. 

Have those intense debates on conference floor, campaign proudly for the candidates you believe in, and never be afraid of your convictions – but let’s remember that can stay on conference floor. And there’s always karaoke and a laugh at the end of it all.

There’s a saying that floats around the place – an adaption from (surprise!) something said by an old white dude – the reason student politics is so vicious is because the stakes are so low. 

That couldn’t be more wrong. 

Everything we have done and will continue to do is because the stakes are actually huge, and we have a responsibility to the students on our campus, and those who may never make it there, to do all we can to change our campuses, communities and country. 

From our work right now on the student support review – ensuring that students have the necessary support to access, stay in and succeed in education – to that of mental health, which has the potential to genuinely save lives. We matter. Our work matters. And we only ever achieve it by working as a genuinely national and united. 

Of course we’ll disagree – it would be really weird if we didn’t, and the best decisions and outcomes aren’t achieved by everyone simply agreeing with each other – but when all is said and done, we should have the confidence in ourselves and in our argument, and in each other, to all fighting for the same ends, even when our means of getting there may differ.  

Conference, the world around us may be uncertain right now, but we should never feel the same about our role in it and the things we can achieve to change it for the better.  

Thank you. 

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