NUS Wales President Stephanie Lloyd opened the new Y Talwrn event calling on students' union officers and staff to re-imagine the education system and inspire a new generation of student activists. Here is her speech in full:
Welcome to the Y Talwrn. Before we officially kick off, I would like to thank Cardiff Students’ Union for hosting us. I’d also like to give a massive welcome to Cardiff Met Students’ Union on behalf of all the officers and member unions of NUS Wales.
As many of you will know this is the first ever Y Talwrn. This event used to be unfortunately named ‘The Big Welsh One’. However, this is much more than just a name change; the event signifies a new era for NUS Wales. Y Talwrn is about a meeting of minds, where people work together to try to move forward. It is the symbol of collectivism that is so special in our movement. Yes, the Twittershphere is right – it could also be seen to mean ‘cockpit’. If anyone wants to know more about that, speak to Geoff Jones, our resident translator.
So here we are. This is normally the time when the President stands up and tells you that they were a sabb and what university they went to. Then most of you will think that I have spent the past five years of my life planning exactly how I could get elected as [NUS Wales] President. I can tell you that I studied English at Swansea Met and that I was the union president for a year. I can also tell you that I spent the past year as Women’s Officer for NUS Wales. But what people will rarely tell you is that for me – and the same is true for many others – this all happened by accident.
When I turned up at University on the 22nd of September 2007, I was like so many others: nervous, hung over and had no idea what the next five years of my life where going to hold. The first time I heard about my students’ union was during a welcome talk from my faculty. To cut a very long story short, I only got involved in my students’ union because I wanted to be the editor of the newspaper, just for the work experience. It wasn’t because Ihad any ideas of a glittering political career. In fact, I will happliy admit that I would have never considered myself political.
What I thought was just going to be some work experience ended up transforming my life. When I thought I couldn’t complete my course, it was the union that kept me going. When I came out and was disowned by my friends, it was my other officers that got me through. And when I wanted to change something, it was the union that showed me how.
The fallacy that everyone gets in involved in the student movement to change the world and to smash the government is just that, a fallacy. I’m sure so many of you are exactly the same as me; we saw an opportunity and we thought it could be a good experience.
The reason I am telling you this is because everyone has their story. We all have the one person that made the union relevant to you. We all have a reason why we are sat in this room today, even if you don’t know it yet. We all have the responsibility to ensure that we become ‘that person’ for a new generation of students.
This year, NUS is celebrating its 90th birthday. What better time to stand back and look at everything we as a movement have achieved over the past 90 years. From the national wins to the wins on campuses across the UK, students have always been at the heart of driving for a more equal, progessive and, in the end, an empowered society.
We are collectvism. We prove year after year that working together will always achieve more than working alone. We are rightly proud of the history of our movement. In another 90 years time, when they talk about our generation, our part of history, what will they say?
Well, they could say we were the generation that has the right to be angry.
We have the highest youth unemplyment for 20 years.
When 50% of young black men are unemployed.
The cuts to disabilty services and welfare provision are blocking the most vulnerable in our society from accessing education and the basic support they need.
When the average age we can expect to buy a house is 37, and when we are the first generation that can expect to earn less than our parents.
We have a right to be angry.
With changes to the Tier 4 visa system being driven by xenophobic views of international students.
With student support in further education still blocking students from accessing the education that is right for them.
It is clear to see we have an education system that doesn’t work for everyone.
And just to top it off, we have an elected Westminster Goverment that is there through lies and broken pledges that have not only disenfranchised a generation of young people in our democratic system, but in fact, has made our democratic process untrustworthy and worthless to so many in wider society.
But everything is ok, right? Because we have the buffer of devolution.
Because, rightly so, issues that affect Welsh people are decided in Wales.
When we have the power to rip up the system and start again, is Welshfying UK – or more to point, English policies – good enough when we fundementally disagree with the ideology that lies behind them?
As I say, we have a lot to be angry about.
How can we leave our mark in the history books of the student movement? We could be the ones that thought bigger than those before us.
For the past year, students in Wales have told us to think bigger, bolder and to lead the debate on education – not just respond to it. They asked us to set out our vision for education in Wales. We quickly realised that it is no longer good enough to just tinker around the edges with a system that is broken and outdated.
Our education system was created for the elite.
It was created when 10% was the go-to target for university participation.
It was created from the industrial revolution at a time when production was the master of everything we do. But we all know the last thing we should be aiming for is students as passive consumers of knowledge.
But we don’t stop there. We have categories for every type of student, for every type of provision and every type of institutions each loaded with prestige and value, or otherwise.
Higher education vs. further education
Colleges vs. universities
Traditional vs. modern
Academic vs. vocational
Research vs. teaching
Formal vs. informal
And the list goes on and on.
These divisions are arbitrary and out dated, and create artificial barriers that disenfranchise and marginalise students at every level.
Our system is based on one that values one particular route of study over all others – the academic journey from A-level to undergraduate, right through to PhD study. We are trapped, seeing education as only a linear process. Our obsession with the ‘academic’ does us a disservice overall. Not only does it give an advantage to the most advantaged in society, but it devalues the wider value of education, especially the important areas of vocational skills training.
But I ask you to imagine an education where the divide between HE and FE no longer exists – where you could be simultaneously studying for engineering apprenticeship in a college and also a module in history. Where the student parent can dip in and out of a degree, studying on a truly flexible basis and not constrained by a three year full-time model. Where highly demanding and relevant skills based courses are given the equivalent prestige as academic study. Where higher education leads to further education, and not just the other way around.
This is an education system that is about a journey. Where the majority of society is invested and participating throughout their life. An education system that we can start to call universal.
We are on the beginning of our journey – our journey to re-imagine education to make it work for every potential student in Wales. We shouldn’t shy away from this.
But most importantly, the alternative that we present needs to be born out of our experiences, the experiences of those on your campuses and the experiences of the person that didn’t enter into post-16 education. We need to make sure we remove the barriers so we can start talking about a real choice for people. It needs to be born out of our vision, but most importantly it needs to be born out of the values we hold as a movement.
I will be honest with you: we are only going to be able to do this together. From north to south east to west, we need to unite around the idea that the students that come after us deserve so much more.
I can honestly stand up here and say I have never been prouder to be part of the student movement at this time – a time when we are daring ourselves to re-imagine and not just take the easy route of opposition. Because we can say no all we want, but the power comes in saying no because we know there is a better way.
We all know the power of education lies beyond a lecture theatre. Students are citizens in their communities. But are universities? Are colleges?
Students’ unions are already working with locally communities, with schools, and with local residents spreading the importance of education and its transformative power.
And we wouldn’t be anything without you. Because your unions are NUS Wales. They are the student movement. As much as we are part of history, they are our building blocks. They now they have recognition they deserve, with government demanding that your students’ unions have the funding you need to make sure you are changing the lives of your students no matter how big or small.
But what we can’t forget is that this is a deal for higher education. Our further education unions are still struggling. Can you imagine having a loan of £2,500 for your block grant? What you need to ask is “Why?” Are these students in FE any different just because they aren’t studying for a BA or an MA? Do they not deserve to shape their education in the same way in which we can? It’s just not good enough any more to sweep this under the carpet. As a movement, we have responsibility to change this. I hope you will be with us every step of the way.
Over the next year, or possibly two for some of you, when you are not sure why you are doing this, just think about how you want us to be remembered. As the generation that just gave up and accepted what we were given? Or as the generation that decided that something needed to change?
I really hope you enjoy the next two days and that you try and take as much as possible from the plenaries and workshops. But more importantly, that you learn from each other. It is the conversations you will have with someone you have never met in a workshop or in a kitchen at two in the morning that will change the year you have ahead.