A glimmer of hope towards accessible education 

Poverty Young people laughing
Photo by Sharefaith from Pexels
ViewsSeptember 21st, 2023

Orla Tarn, NUS Wales President, shares insights into the unprecedented pressures that the learners of today face, and some positive signs for the future.

We believe education is a fundamental right and that in a prosperous and fair society learning should be for learning’s sake, rather than to meet STEM targets, to pursue a better salary, or to bolster nations in the aftermath of several years of policy failure. 

The introduction of university tuition fees in 1998, followed by the removal of grants for English students from low-income families in 2016, created barriers to education that have been exacerbated by funding stagnation and austerity. However, the cost-of-living crisis has made those barriers significantly harder to overcome for today’s young people looking to further their education. 

Research undertaken by NUS Wales in June 2023 shows an increasing number of students abandoning volunteering work, social events, and most critically, study time to undertake paid work. 64% of those who do paid work reported an impact on their academic performance. Of course, many students and learners have no choice but to work, with the cost-of-living crisis biting deep. 32% of those surveyed reported being unable to pay their rent, while 36% are unable to pay bills. Most disturbingly, 8% reported experiencing homelessness during their education, while 35% have considered, or have already, abandoned their studies due to financial difficulties. 

The students and learners of today have experienced unprecedented pressures; a global pandemic, years of industrial action, and a cost-of-living crisis that has left over a quarter with less than £50 per month after housing costs. 

That said, there are some positive signs for the future.

  The publication of the long-awaited Welsh Government Green Paper on Housing Adequacy and Fair Rents is one such development. In calls for student testimonials, we’ve seen overwhelming support for action to control rents and, in many cases, (including one student with a ‘Poo Trench’ running through his garden), for appropriate monitoring of the quality and adequacy of student housing.   

When we consider the endemic crises students face, however, it’s clear rent controls can only be a sticking plaster. If we are to achieve an inclusivity that caters to individuals from all backgrounds, we need radical change to the funding systems and cultures that exist within both tertiary and higher education. The good news is the General Election offers an opportunity to pursue this aim. 

It is all too easy to stereotype the young as apathetic, and indeed, historically low voter turnout amongst the under-30s has encouraged the political class to ignore their concerns. This, in turn, has all-too-often reinforced the cycle, with young people alienated from a political arena that doesn’t speak to them. However, perhaps surprisingly, evidence points to the hardships of recent years inspiring a new political engagement within younger generations. 

  A recent study by HEPI (Higher Education Policy Institute) suggests that up to 85% of UK undergraduate students are intending to vote in the forthcoming General Election. This would far exceed levels seen in previous electoral cycles.  NUS has worked to secure free CitizenCard Voter ID for young people, and we have additionally launched the UK’s largest ever Student Voter Registration campaign, which has made its way across Wales over the past fortnight. At Freshers’ Fairs we have engaged with thousands of enthusiastic young people who are ready to have their say.   

The priority for NUS Wales and the wider student movement is to ensure students and learners have something to vote for and we regularly remind the politicians and policy makers we speak to, that with an ongoing cost-of-living crisis, and with evidence pointing to increased student dissatisfaction with current policy offerings, any political party hoping to harness younger voters needs to have a strong position on funding and housing reform, and equality law.

With an ever-growing number of Welsh students and learners so enthusiastically ready to engage with politics, many for the first time, I’m confident that the collectivism present within the Welsh student movement will see thousands turn up to play their part and have their voices heard when they get the chance. 

  Students can claim a free CitizenCard (valid Voter ID), worth £15, using the code ‘NUS’ here. 

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