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What happened when NUS went to Conservative Party conference?

Friday 07-10-2016 - 15:41

This week’s instalment in party conference season saw NUS representatives head to Birmingham for Conservative Party conference.

The whole higher education sector seemed to descend on the West Midlands at the start of this week for the chance to get up close with government ministers and education decision makers at Conservative Party conference.

NUS representatives were there amongst them, speaking on numerous panels and holding different meetings to make the case for our vision of an accessible, transformative education system directly to those in charge of it.

Like at last week’s Labour conference, NUS partnered with MillionPlus for an event on the impact of Brexit on the HE sector and the HE Bill. Sorana Vieru, our Vice President for HE, spoke on a panel with Prof. Dave Phoenix (Chair of MillionPlus), Ben Howlett MP (HE Bill Committee member), and Jo Johnson MP (Universities Minister).

Focusing her comments on how important student representation and protections from the risks of an open HE market are – even more so in the wake of Brexit – Sorana prompted a lively discussion in the Q&A about whether the government has got it right for universities and students. She especially raised big concerns about the risk and uncertainty that has hit the HE sector since the referendum result saying: “the sector isn’t just licking its wounds after the Brexit vote; it’s still on the operating table.”

The event also drew attention to tensions around the inclusion of international students in immigration targets, with Ben Howlett joining the ranks of university vice-chancellors, student representatives and policy wonks in the audience to say they should be removed. This was notable on the morning of the Home Secretary’s announcement of a consultation to make it difficult for international students to come to the UK, as you may have seen covered here.

Elsewhere at conference, NUS spoke on a wide range of panels – getting students’ concerns on a raft of government policies heard and recognised. These included highlighting the challenges of making HE focused increasingly on ‘employability’ when the employability agenda isn’t working; highlighting the ‘double speak’ on access and participation when student support and grants are being cut but the access agenda is called a priority; and, calling on government to take action on student mental health.

As well as NUS’ own lobbying inside conference, we have been closely watching the Tories’ own announcements at conference.

As well as the Home Secretary’s ominous announcement, you may have seen Education Secretary Justine Greening’s commitment to grammar schools, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s announcement of plans to increase medical student numbers by 25 per cent (reducing numbers of non-UK born doctors in the NHS), and the Prime Minister’s announcement that Article 50 will be triggered by March 2017.

In the face of all of these announcements and risks to the UK’s education system, NUS will continue to get students’ voices heard on the national stage and provide support to SUs to protect their students’ education at their institutions.

Next up for party conferences, NUS will be heading to Glasgow for SNP conference – where our event on access and participation will ask what the SNP can do for students in Holyrood and Westminster. You can find the details here.

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