Hot Seat: Jo Rhodes

Thursday 28-02-2013 - 00:00

For 2012/13 entrants, Northumbria University offered a fairly large package of financial support for students from widening participation backgrounds: up to £3,000 in fee waivers was provided. Officers at Northumbria Students’ Union, however, were not happy with the provision of bursaries, and seized the opportunity this year to campaign to scrap fee waivers completely, redistributing £16million into the university’s budget for bursaries. President of Northumbria University Students' Union, Jo Rhodes, explains.

Why was it important to campaign for a change from fee waivers to bursaries?

At Northumbria, we have a lot of home students and a lot of students from lower socio-economic backgrounds. We felt it was important to be able to provide them with financial aid, and Northumbria’s a university that was founded on being able to support its local community to get into education.

We felt that instead of providing fee waivers, bursaries and cash in hand would be much better for students. And students agree with us on that point.

What difference will the bursaries make to students’ everyday lives while they’re studying?

It will make being able to study much easier. It means that students will have to work fewer hours. It might even mean the difference between staying in education and dropping out for many of our students, because, sometimes, the financial pressure of being at university can be really quite great. Particularly when you are from a background that means that you don’t have the money to be able to afford to study. And when you’re relying on a maintenance loan, it often isn’t enough to cover your rent, let alone your expenses when you’re at university. 

So we think this will allow students to continue to study and to fulfil their potential as well, so they’re not working every hour of every day to be able to stay in education.

How did you achieve your campaign objectives? 

This campaign was different to a lot of campaigns we run in that it focused on lobbying the university really quite strongly. And the governors as well – the governors had huge involvement in it. 

It meant educating people who are outside the sector, or who haven’t been a student in the last few years, and don’t really understand how this could make such a difference to students. So it was quite a difficult task. We had various meetings with the university senior management team who came from a position of real opposition.

They really didn’t want to do it, but we managed to completely change their opinion and get full buy-in. It passed unanimously at the board of governors, which we were quite shocked about! But we were really pleased because we’d managed to argue our point convincingly.

Now you’ve won this campaign, what are you planning to do to make sure that the issue of student support doesn’t fall off the agenda?

Student support doesn’t just cover fee waivers or bursaries – there are so many more elements, and so many more things that can be done. We’ve worked hard with the university with their access agreement, but it’s not perfect yet, so we’re going to continue working with them on that. 

At the moment, we’re looking at issues around part-time postgraduate fees. Many postgraduates find that, certainly at our institution, they just can’t afford to study full-time. They often have to cut down to part-time, and some of those people could have been out of education for a long time. So I think it’s really important that we look at how we support them to re-enter education.

If another students’ union was thinking about running a similar campaign, what advice would you give them?

Know your stats, and know the policy inside and out. There is a lot of misinformation in universities, and a lot of the policies are quite complicated. But if you know them, you can really lobby on the issues, and you can really gain a lot of respect from it as well. 

We found that, because we were some of the most knowledgeable people in the room, people have started to view the students’ union in an even better light. So if you really know your facts, do your research and be prepared – it’s definitely a winnable argument.

What do you think the biggest issues will be for students starting universities and colleges in the next few years?

I think universities got off a bit lightly last year with applications. A lot of those students had already decided to go to university before the change in fees. Whereas, in the future, I think applications can only drop, because students haven’t decided whether or not to come to university yet.  So I think that’s only going to get tougher down the line. 

I also think it’s only going to become more challenging for students to use what is already quite a difficult and complicated process in order to get into higher education. I think it should be made much easier, and we should be supporting prospective students, instead of the future policies which will make it more difficult.



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