Students as workers, why students’ associations need to start leading

Friday 23-10-2015 - 12:15
Rob henthorn wall smiling 400x400

This is my first blog since becoming Vice President Education at NUS Scotland. You might wonder why it’s taken me a while to write something – but it’s because I’ve been busy coming out and seeing you on your campuses, working with you to talk to students and apprentices. And one of the things that almost always comes up when I’m out visiting students’ associations is how quickly the links between education and work - the employability agenda - keeps changing at our colleges and universities.


When I was a student officer the university was constantly discussing how they could make students and eventually graduates more ‘employable’ and how reaching the best graduate attributes or aspirations about what graduates should look like was the best way to achieve this.


But not once when I was student officer did the university engage in a discussion about how students are actually already workers in their own right and that they were likely to already be using their skills from their studies in the workplace. Nor was there ever consideration of how the world of work is about more than turning skills into wages, and that workers have to organise to defend and improve their conditions.


Firstly, a significant number of students at college and university do a work placement as part of their course. However, when I’ve been talking to students’ association very little is known about what happens on these work placements and who are supporting those students while they’re on work placements, or what happens to those students when they return to their course. In many cases, students’ associations are not aware if the students’ work placement is complementing their academic course at all.


One of the main pieces of work I’ll be doing this year, is continuing to come and talk to your students, but particularly those students who go on a work placement as part of their studies, and working with students’ associations produce comprehensive guidance to help students’ associations support students who go on work placements better, and so that students know what they should expect from their institution and placement provider.


And secondly, students are often working up to 30 hours a week or more just to help pay for their living costs while studying. These students are often on contacts which are not secure, which is convenient for term times and flexible for Christmas and summer breaks, but often horrendous for upholding workers’ rights. Another thing that I’ll be working with students’ associations on is encouraging students to join a trade union and working nationally with trade unions about how they can best support students. We’ll be working with trade union branches and the STUC to build relationships between Students’ Associations and trade unions to develop a culture of student trade unionism - particularly in industries that often don’t have a dedicated union to support workers.  


I believe that this work is absolutely vital for students’ associations to be able to contribute and challenge the discussions that universities and colleges are having right now. Especially with the Scottish Government’s Youth Employment Strategy this discussions are just going to happen more and more frequently. 


Blogs, NUS Scotland

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