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The Hot Seat: Ben Whittaker (UWLSU)

Friday 13-03-2015 - 12:08

This week, NUS is celebrating forty year's of the Vice President Welfare role. With that in mind, we caught up with Ben Whittaker, one of the 28 occupants of that office for this edition of the Hot Seat.    

It has been forty years since NUS created the position of Vice President Welfare to lead political work in this area and you served in this role for two terms from 2009-2011. What did you learn from the experience?

The student movement is one of the greatest movements in the world with a long and often unsung history in making a difference. I was VP Welfare when the student movement was fighting £9k tuition fees. I saw the real power of our collective movement. 50,000 people marched in protest, a national fees stunt was organised in less than 24 hours, our lobby of parliament left some MP in tears, and students’ unions were all over the media and at the center of the debate.

I also learnt that train travel is tiring, railway station food is both unfulfilling and fattening, staying in a hotel for 75 per cent of your life is an experience that I don’t miss and student officers love to get you drunk even when you don’t want to – but it’s an experience that I would not change for the world and would do again tomorrow if I got the chance.


In your opinion, what were the most exciting projects or campaign wins that you worked on during your tenure? 

I worked on NUS’ Faith and Belief project, which focused on interfaith activity, campus relations, and hate speech. The project showcased one of NUS’ key strengths; NUS does not shy away from having difficult conversations about fundamental challenges facing communities in the UK and the world. I am really proud that NUS has been a leader in championing the importance of safe space for all students regardless of who they are or what they believe. For this project, we knew that producing a booklet with tips and suggestions wouldn’t cut it. We delivered a project that started to support SUs on the ground to handle difficult situations on their campuses. Looking back now, I realize that NUS was ahead of the game. This work pre-empted the emergence of government sponsored programs like ‘Prevent’ and additional powers for the Police and universities to monitor students and intervene in their lives. Students’ unions are under more pressure than ever to respond to the needs of students on the one hand, and respond to increasing demands of institutions and government on the other.


More broadly, what do you see as the most significant achievement for the student welfare movement historically?

I think our single biggest achievement is our ability to constantly be leading progressive debates about the welfare state and benefits, the NHS, support for the most disadvantaged in societies. I am proud that NUS defends the principle that individuals in will achieve more when they are supported and the rights protected. NUS has always been a the forefront of these debate weather that be saving DSA, championing liberation, defending the NHS or challenging discrimination


How important do you think it is that welfare campaigns are student led?

Like everything that students’ unions do, I think it is critical that students are involved in the design and delivery of activities that improve their lives. It’s really exciting that we’re starting to see a more diverse range of issues emerging from students who, in the past, have struggled to be heard. For example, NUS’ ‘Meet the Parents’ research is the first time we’ve heard directly from student parents about what they want and need. There’s always more to do and I believe that the movement’s next big challenge is around reaching all sections of the student community and finding ways to engage that fit around their lives. We must face up to the fact that the majority of students don’t have time to devote to the methods of representation and campaigning that the movement has relied on in the past.


Tell us about your present role Deputy Chief Executive at UWLSU.

I believe that all people should have the opportunity to reach their potential in life. But I see a higher education system that reproduces existing inequalities and propels them into the world of work. I believe that high quality students’ unions in modern universities could disrupt this cycle of inequality and could make a significant contribution to a more equal society. Right now I’m trying to work out how to create an excellent students’ union here at West London. I want the outcomes for UWL students to be the same as anywhere else; a powerful student voice that results in change, support for those who need it, and opportunities for students to do things outside of their course. But I know that the delivery methods can’t be the same as everyone else; relying on voluntary time and cultural capital isn’t going to work for us. I’m not alone in this pursuit and I’m working with colleagues from other SUs and from NUS on research projects and delivery pilots. I’m also learning from outside of the sector and I’m working with youth work organisations, public sector bodies, and charities to bring in new ideas that have already been tried and tested elsewhere.  


What do you believe are the biggest challenges for student welfare today, nationally and on a local level?
We all know what the challenges are and many of these have existed since students unions were formed – the real questions is whether students’ unions are effective enough to improve the lives of students today.


What advice would you give to students today who are looking to get involved with welfare issues at a grassroots level on their colleges or campuses?

  • Speak out, and get involved and don’t be afraid to say what you really think
  • Talk about the issues - it only takes one person to start a conversation and from there anything is possible
  • Make sure you have got evidence – but equally as important are hearts and minds [share a story or a real life case study to make your case]
  • Don’t give up when somebody says no (normally the president J)  –and trust me they will say no – if you believe in it fight for it
  • Support the liberation campaigns and officers – often welfare issues disproportionally affect liberation groups


Find out more about Ben's work at the University of West London Students’ Union by visiting their website at www.uwlsu.com or by following them on Twitter at @uwl_su

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