Thursday 10-12-2015 - 12:09
Last night saw the official launch of NUS Wales's Assembly Elections Manifesto at our annual Winter Reception. It was held at the Norwegian Church, Cardiff Bay and over 50 people attended from a variety of sectors; all with a vested interest in education and the student movement.
NUS Wales President, Beth Button, gave a speech on the night discussing her vision for Wales and how collectivism is the way forward to achieving results.
"Hello and welcome to our annual reception here at the Norwegian Church and the formal launch of our vision for the 2016 Assembly elections.
I promise I will try and keep this as brief as possible, as I know the wine won’t drink itself.
It’s great to see so many friends, supporters and colleagues here to reflect on a remarkable year for NUS and for politics.
We have watched as the world became a more dangerous place - bruised and bloodied by tragic events which threaten the very nature of our way of life.
We have gone through a general election which not only surprised the country, but changed the political landscape.
And we have since seen a re-emergence of the movement for a “new kind of politics” as voters clamour for politicians to not just to say what they will do, but that they’ll do what they say.
That move for a new politics is one that brings together our movement with many of yours.
So tonight we are sharing our manifesto for the next elections with a message – that we want to work with you to form that a new politics.
But even more than that – we want you to recognise that students and students’ unions are central and inseparable from the new politics.
Regardless of political persuasion, it is impossible to deny that students and young people all across the globe are beginning to mobilise. It is clear that we are ready and desperate to get involved in politics.
And if our political leaders want devolution to be truly representative – they need to be ahead of the curve. They need to work now to harness the political action of a generation.
So if you are serious about wanting students and young people to vote for you, we are serious about working with you to do it.
The year behind and the years ahead
But I’m going to begin tonight by using a couple of somewhat-overused political clichés.
This year has been one of the most pivotal in the history of the Welsh student movement. And next year could be even more important still.
I say that, not to the undermine the amazing achievements or minimise the challenges that faced those that came before me, but because the student movement is facing up to the fact that many things we’ve taken for granted are under threat.
We’re facing up to the fact that much of what my predecessors fought for is no longer automatically assured.
We are now just a few months away from national elections which are potentially the hardest students’ unions and NUS Wales will have faced in achieving our aims since devolution began more than 15 years ago.
We appreciate budgets are tight and that the demands facing the next Welsh Government are increasing.
We face another five years of belt-tightening, budget rationing and a Welsh Government that will be forced to cut its cloth, with all the casualties for investment in our public services that entails.
- But while students may have sympathy, we cannot underestimate what is at stake.
- We have already seen the effect of what austerity means in Wales reflected in the education budget.
- Support for living costs of students has been frozen.
- Hardship funds have ended for students this year.
- Further education has been forced to shrink for the last two years.
What that means is not just minus figures on a spreadsheet in Cathays Park or Tŷ Hywel.
It means people desperate to re-enter education to learn the skills to get a job are not able to go to college.
It means staff losing their jobs and courses disappearing.
It means more students taking out loans to cover the costs of their study.
So NUS Wales faces a huge challenge in the coming months - as politicians here would understand all too well.
We not only face a government in London with a policy to reduce public spending, but a government in Cardiff that may be left with few options but to follow its lead.
At our conference in at Glyndŵr University in Wrexham last month, I asked students’ unions to take a central role in driving forward the work of NUS Wales.
The message was one which recognises the true value of NUS - an organisation which harnesses the strengths of students’ unions across the country in promoting and defending how we support students and how we value their way of life.
Those shared values of collectivism are more important than ever.
Whether that’s in facing down the threats that face us globally, to our way of life, or organising against changes closer to home – the need to work together is clear.
I have spoken about the challenges that poses for the student movement – the challenges of being united when you won’t always agree. Of working together when you don’t always want the same things.
But we are operating at time of huge challenge – politically and economically.
Public finance austerity presents a massive challenge to the student movement to ensure our collective action does not always shut doors on those that disagree with us, but is targeted to ensure we influence the world for the better of students.
We face a hugely uncertain world where the threat of terrorism presents not just a threat to life, but to our way of life.
Students and young people have always combatted that threat through working together and collective action.
But we, as a movement, are not assured of the right to work together as we do now – we must demonstrate its strength to preserve it for the future.
No more will that be tested next year – probably(!) – in the referendum on membership of the European Union.
As a movement, we have pledged that EU membership is crucial to maintaining Wales’ reputation as a home for students from across the world. We face a huge challenge making sure Wales’ voice is heard in that debate.
I am determined NUS Wales plays a part in making sure Wales and the UK remains part of the European family.
As the UK representative at the European Students’ Union, I see first-hand how students’ unions play a huge part in mobilising young, enthusiastic campaigners who can get out there and speak about the value of collectivism, both here and across Europe.
But I know, as previous NUS Wales Presidents before me knew, that we can do more - and we can win more for students. Home and abroad.
So I ask you all - as political parties, allies, critical friends and interested observers - to join us in recognising the value of what students and students’ unions bring to Wales when you consider your policy offering next year.
To recognise investing in students’ education experience, housing, employment chances, access to services and in equality is an argument that cannot be ignored.
Our mission is to make the case that students are well worth that investment.
That prioritising, even in times of hardship and diminishing budgets, access to all forms of education is not a luxury for a forward-looking nation, but a necessity.
That students and young people shouldn’t be the ones sidelined, just because we are statistically less likely to vote.
So we publish our manifesto today with a message for our new government come Friday, May 6th.
A message that we believe education is worth paying for and that all students are worth investing in.
That we believe that students who can least afford higher and further education should be the ones helped the most to get there.
That we believe all forms of education can benefit Welsh society - from postgraduates, to part-time students, to adult learners, to college students, to apprentices, to full-time university undergraduates
And yes - that we believe that protecting students in Wales from thousands of pounds worth of debt is a morally-just cause.
Our national leaders have a responsibility to invest in a system that they get a lot of benefit out of.
Exposing Welsh students to a policy of making them the sole financiers of their tuition assumes they are the only ones that benefit from it.
In truth, we all benefit - economically and socially. And if we expect to share in the spoils, we need to share in the price students pay to produce them.
To do anything else is an abdication of moral responsibility – an admission that we no longer view education as a common, public good.
That is why it is absolutely right for the government to share in the investment students make to gain an education.
Our own work has shown the public support us in this - that seven out of 10 believe this should be an important priority for the next Welsh Government.
NUS Wales stands with students’ unions across Wales alongside Welsh students in the aim of preserving that principle for all students in our movement.
We stand together with Welsh students in their expectation that they shouldn’t be pushed into debt just to live during their studies.
We hope you will stand with us in that endeavour.
I stand here in the belief that NUS Wales is best-placed to promote and defend the student agenda to our national leaders and organisations.
But to do that with authority, we’ve been leading a consultation with students’ unions, for the last three years, on what they want to see prioritised in these elections - beyond those issues that we are most known for.
Our vision for the Welsh education system is to create a balance that does not pit one student against another. It aims to create not only an equal education system, but an equal society too.
What they have told us will not surprise those who are truly embedded in students’ experiences.
They have told us they want to be able to study without the fear of struggling to pay bills or being left with huge debts.
They have told us that students should be protected from massive, unfair charges just for renting a property.
They have told us that they should be able to access services regardless of their background, where they live or their personal circumstances.
They have told us they want to be offered a compelling reason to stay in Wales when they’ve graduated – with a jobs market that recognises the investment they’ve made in their own education.
They have told us that they want to see genuine commitment that allows them to study through the medium of Welsh when at college or university.
And they told us that you want to work towards a Wales which recognises all of those that live here - and teaches people the value of contributions made by each ethnic group, gender, sexuality and class.
What they have told us has informed our vision today.
Students’ unions that represent the best interests of their campuses. Students’ unions who know their students best = what they need, what they are experiencing on the ground.
This manifesto reflects the views of a generation of student activists.
Give ‘Generation Vote’ an offer
So we are asking politicians from all parties to come forward with an offer for all students - one which values our voice and recognises what we offer society. Not just in economic terms, but in social terms too.
Part of that benefit is that the student body is incredibly diverse. Universities and colleges are not factory lines churning out identikit students with identikit views.
Whether it’s pushing for access to student support, or fighting for a better settlement for further education, or for a standard of housing that we deserve…what unites all students far outweighs what divides us.
But if politicians want the “student vote” – we need to know what we are voting for.
For too long, we have heard students and young people are “disengaged” and not interested in politics.
In reality, issues like the response to the tragic events I touched on at the beginning of this address, like the refugee crisis and the response from the student movement to the debate over benefits, shows clearly that is not the case.
But students will not turn out, en-masse, just out of a sense of civic duty.
We must be a part of the democratic process, a partner in how our democracy works. Politicians must also show they care about earning students’ loyalty.
In a movement as broad and diverse as ours, parties must make an effort to not only “speak” to students, but make them part of the process of how they set their offer at election time.
If they do not, they have no right to demand our vote.
If they do not, they cannot claim to have true legitimacy when they enact their policies affecting students and young people.
If they do not, they cannot claim it is us that are “disengaged”.
The truth is, the parties - and all of those involved in promoting democratic engagement - must genuinely give students a clear offer and reason to get involved.
I’m determined to use the last few months of this campaign to sell devolved politics as a project worth students organising and campaigning to get involved in.
I hope that all of you will join us.
Thank you very much - and enjoy the rest of the wine and food!"