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Vonnie's opening remarks, conference 2016

Friday 18-03-2016 - 11:15
Vonnie sandlan 400x400 connect

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. There’s a spa somewhere in the building, so if I go missing at any point, that’s probably where I am.

Before I go any further I want to introduce our executive committee – so if you could stand up and give a wee wave. Our exec – you’ll hear people call it SEC – is the political leadership of NUS Scotland. They’re the ones that hold the full-timers to account and decide where we go next – 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. No matter what side of the debate you had been on, the referendum campaign saw all of Scotland be a part of an inspiring, uplifting and imaginative campaign, on all sides. We witnessed the engagement of millions of voters who had ordinarily stepped away from politics and civic engagement and, really importantly, we disproved the myth that students and young people are apathetic about politics and voting. 

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!

That was the challenge we had. To ensure we built on the engagement of the referendum campaign and saw it through to the building of our own campaign for the Scottish elections, which are now just a few weeks away. But I’ll get to that in a minute, because it was never about what was yet to come. It was also about ensuring that we never give up on our fight to ensure education and society – right here and now – is that bit fairer.

So what have we achieved since we met last year?

  • We have played a leading part in the campaign against grant abolition in England – not just recognising that there were severe financial consequences for Scotland, but also that solidarity doesn’t stop at a border.
  • We’ve continued our campaign to make access to postgraduate education fairer, securing really strong recommendations in a review of PG support, which we now look to the Scottish Government to implement, but also right now the extension of fee support to hundreds more PG courses.
  • We’ve secured really strong new protections and security for people in the private rented sector, through our work on the housing bill, which students make up a significant part of, and too often the ones that fall prey to minority of rogue landlords that still exist.
  • We’re leading the campaign for improved support for student nurses, making sure they’re properly supported for the – genuinely lifesaving – work they do.
  • We ensured that college budgets were protected after years of uncertainty and cuts, and we saw the abolition of the unfair variance that existed in FE student support that saw colleges able to reduce a student’s award.
  • We’ve ensured cross-party support for the reintroduction of post-study work visas (yes, even the Scottish Conservatives!), recognising the important social and economic role that international students, and immigrants more generally, play in our campuses and communities, and fighting against the damaging rhetoric and actions of the UK government.

And, from a personal and professional perspective, just this week we saw the release of the Commission on Widening Access’ final report. Despite many really positive achievements over the years, injustices in access remain. That’s what makes the report so important, and why it doesn’t mark the end of our campaign, but a new beginning. It’s a bold and progressive challenge to all of us who want to see a fairer Scotland, where access to education is never determined by background or circumstance, only by potential.

The report means that Scotland now has a clear set of recommendations to create a fairer education system. Now we need to see those matched by an equally strong response. That must start with politicians, but includes all those who want to realise our ambitions for a truly accessible, fairer education system. And we’ll be at the forefront of ensuring they do.

Be in no doubt, with the amazing campaigning that I know you’re going to be doing between now and polling we’ll ensure that no politician is elected without knowing our demands and ensuring we hold them to it. Students have had enough of broken promises and we’ll make sure they’re consigned to history.

And that continued fight for fair access means we still have much more to do, and we do it with one eye to the upcoming Scottish elections.

When a student in further education turns up at college and finds there no money left in the bursary budget, then either suffers as a result or drops out altogether – that’s not fair access. They deserve parity of support with their higher education counterparts, with a guarantee of support.

When a higher education student never makes it back after the summer because it made more financial sense to leave their course than carry on in poverty, that’s not fair access. We must see an improved, year round approach to supporting Higher Education (HE) students, which provides increased grants and a reduced reliance on debt.

When thousands of students are suffering in silence with horrible consequences because mental health provision is sketchy at best, if not missing entirely – that’s not fair access. Mental wellbeing improved, coordinated mental health support for students, ensuring that provision is linked up across NHS board areas and institutions.  

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.

And that’s what our election campaign, can, must and will be about. But only with your help.

Later this afternoon we’ll be formally launching our manifesto for students, ensuring we hold our candidates to serious, credible policies to deliver for students. We can’ allow them to shy away from that.

Next week we’ll be holding our national demonstration and rally, taking our campaigns right to the doorstep of politicians, and leaving them in no doubt as to the power of the student vote.

And next month we’ll be holding our party leaders election debate, ensuring that you are able to engage with and question parties and their leaders directly.

But as well as all that, we need to be out on our campuses and in our communities. We’ve provided students’ associations with a range of materials and campaign briefings to help you with that – but we need your help, too.

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.

This is a conference for all of us who won’t apologise for wanting to change society; who won’t apologise for never being quiet about the inequality that blights our institutions, our communities, and our country. And the next few weeks, up to, during and after the Scottish elections, need to use and build on that positivity and desire. 

Conference, a Scottish election doesn’t just give us the chance to change things for a year – it gives us the chance to change them right across the next Parliament. I am so incredibly excited about that, I hope you are too, and let’s get on with making it happen.

 

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