The general election last month left the United Kingdom in an even more uncertain position than we were already in.
The Prime Minister sought a general election to “strengthen her hand” but emerged 13 seats down.
Jeremy Corbyn, for his part, is strengthened but could he realistically command the confidence of the House?
What version of Brexit did the public actually vote for?
Is the two-party system back and what does this Anglo-centric election mean for the devolved nations?
These questions may yet need answering. Regardless of the election, what concerns me as I start my term as president of the National Union of Students Wales is the future.
Our vision for 2022
Ahead of the election, we asked students what sort of country they want Wales to be by the (scheduled) end of this parliament in 2022.
They told us they want Wales to be a fair, inclusive, and welcoming country. They want the environment, and the most vulnerable people in society, to be protected.
They want us to be outward-looking and aspirational. They want a rich culture, vibrant communities, and genuine sustainable development.
We also set out three key things that politicians can accomplish for students and for Wales:
- Through the Brexit negotiations, ensure students’ right to free movement.
- Post-Brexit, ensure we’re a welcoming country and take measures to tackle hate crime.
- In the future, deliver a fair funding package that allows Wales to design and deliver an education system that everyone can access and in which everyone can succeed.
So, over the next five years, we will be using this vision for Wales as an ideal, against which to measure everything the Parliament and Government of the UK do.
Here in Wales, too, we want to see this vision shaping the changes in our education system.
Given that there is so much potential for us to build a truly inclusive and sustainable system, this is a really exciting and important time to be working in the Welsh education sector.
The Diamond Review
I intend to work with the Welsh Government to ensure that the changes implemented as a result of Professor Sir Ian Diamond’s review of higher education funding and student finance are inclusive of student parents and carers.
And further, I cannot stomach a situation whereby parents have to choose which of their children they can afford to send to university.
That’s why I want to see the income bracket for eligibility for financial support to be raised to £81,000—as recommended by Professor Sir Ian—for households with two or more children wishing to enter higher education.
The Hazelkorn Review
And over the next few months, we will be working on our response to the Welsh Government’s consultation on its proposals following Professor Ellen Hazelkorn’s review of post-compulsory education in Wales.
I warmly welcome the proposal to create a single body for tertiary education in Wales. Year on year, further education has suffered as a result of having to compete with higher education. I hope that the proposed new arrangements will help put a stop to that.
What is absolutely critical, as we design this new system, is that we put students, and the student voice, at its heart. We know that students do better, and institutions perform better, when the students themselves are part of decision-making processes about their education.
As part of that, I would like to see the new body making the existence of strong student voice structures—namely a functioning students’ union—a condition of funding. This already happens in Scotland, where every FE college now has a students’ association.
In due course, we will be working with our colleagues in Wise Wales to develop and publish a framework for what good student voice structures look like, and will be pressing the new body to insist that colleges have those structures in place.
Further, I am, of course, mindful of the potential implications for the Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol. If the Coleg’s remit is expanded to include the FE sector, as is thought, I will want to see its funding increase proportionally too. It is not acceptable to expect the Coleg to do more with the same amount of, or indeed less, money.
The Donaldson Review
I see this period of significant change across the Welsh education sector as a golden opportunity to get things right. So, the work around the new Welsh curriculum continues also.
For too long, Welsh pupils have been let down by an education system that doesn’t teach them about their bodies, about all the different genders, orientations, and relationships that they can expect to encounter in life, and about how to have healthy and respectful relationships with one another.
So, decent, inclusive Sex and Relationship Education in the curriculum simply must happen.
Leaving the EU
One of the saddest consequences of the vote to leave the EU is the division in society. We’re all tagged as ‘Remoaners’ or ‘Brexiteers’, and worse than that, people are still angry and divided.
Many people, whipped up by populists in the media or in politics, have a dislike of people from other countries that is leading to some very distasteful language being used, and worse.
It is incumbent on all of us who believe in an inclusive and equal society to call out such behaviour when we see it, and to advocate the sort of Wales that we want to see.
That includes maintaining the right of students and academics to free movement, including through Erasmus. It includes protecting the Horizon 2020 funding that is so crucial to our higher education sector. And it includes maintaining, as far as possible, our membership of the single market.
The openness of society that our membership of the EU affords us makes our communities more resilient, our heritage richer, and our workplaces more diverse.
As we leave the EU, we must find a way to maintain these and other things—including our worker’s, consumer, and human rights—so that we can realise our vision of the Wales we want to pass on to future generations.
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