David Morris, a delegate from Durham Students' Union, writes about the fringe on 'the future of education' facilitated by NUS' further and higher education zones at NUS National Conference.
This discussion, led by the NUS vice-presidents for further and higher education, was refreshingly open in two ways.
Firstly, the discussion leaders were anxious to have attendees discuss their experiences of their own education. They wanted to hear these delegates speak openly on how they felt about learning, and they showed a real enthusiasm for listening, rather than lecturing.
Secondly, the discussion was open to novel ideas about the purpose of education, the impact it has on those involved in it, and how we might piece these together into a more purposeful model for future NUS policy.
Attendees were asked to reflect on a number of questions that could be holistically understood as ‘what good education feels like’. What is exciting and frustrating? What are our hopes and fears for the future? What communities does it serve and how?
From these discussions I got a real sense of how students, asked to step back from the usual slogans and invocations, understand the place of their institutions in public life, and the organic relationship that education providers and partners have with wider society and personal development.
The event reflected on the currently disjointed relationship between learning at school, learning at university, and learning in further education colleges. A vision for future education would surely develop, and perhaps break down, the links between each of these learning environments.
We also discussed how learners participate in wider communities, often through fundraising, volunteering, and political work, but also how institutions (particularly in higher education) could do more to offer their educational services to the communities they exist within.
The final point that particularly stood out for me was how education providers can respond dynamically to changes in the society and economy, particularly in providing employment opportunities and remaining relevant to the needs of wider society.
I’d like to submit that considering these issues can be a much more constructive way for NUS and its allies to articulate a vision for education that would likely encompass the already-held ideals and hopes of the majority of delegates: public value, free and equal access, support for the great diversity of learners, partnership with providers and public funding.
However, I feel that this approach, by reflecting how a quality education feels, is a more human methodology that will be more likely to attain wider public understanding and sympathy, and indeed be more relevant to the vast majority of the NUS membership. It could transcend some of the tired moralistic and political platitudes repeated ad nauseum at conference: ‘free education!’, ‘stop privatisation’, ‘end discrimination’, ‘action now!’ etc. All commendable aims yes, but which after just a day and a half of conference for a first-time delegate are already tiresome. I’ve found quite demoralising the language of a vocal minority of delegates, and the way it sometimes seems to dominate conference, not because of the ideals being fought for, but the way they are articulated.
Discussions like this fringe event, and vanguard policies passed at this conference, such as ‘the public value of education’, ‘student partnership’, ‘deepening partnership’ and more, are a step towards a more effective and mature discourse.
NUS’ vision for education should be about the good life, civil values and ‘making gentle the life of this world’ (to paraphrase Robert Kennedy’). Students' unions, like their trade union counterparts, are some of the largest and most active non-governmental civic organisations in the country – the ‘big society’, ironically.
Back in Durham I witness the virtues of personal development, civic engagement and promotion of the good life every day through the activities of my union. From my perspective, it is the essence of the student movement, and it should inform our advocacy of a quality and desirable education within the institutions we are a part of, and for the benefit of wider society.
I was very encouraged to see such an innovative approach to understanding and conversing about these values and their role in providing education at yesterday’s fringe meeting, and I look forward to participating in similar discussions in the future.