Gwyneth Sweatman sets out her priorities for her year in office as NUS Wales President
I come into office at a very exciting time for education in Wales. With reforms underway in the funding and governance of the post-16 sector, the delivery of student finance, and the make-up of the curriculum, the end goal of an accessible, inclusive, and sustainable education system is within Wales’ grasp.
The student movement has a proud history of being a campaigning force all across Wales, shaping what education looks like, fighting for the rights of women, BME people, LGBT+ people, disabled people, Welsh speakers, and others, and building a Wales and a world fit for future generations.
But since devolution, we have also enjoyed a constructive relationship with Welsh Government, working closely in a number of areas, and speaking up for our members in conversations with successive Ministers and Cabinet Secretaries. I’m looking forward to continuing those relationships as I work on my priorities for the year ahead.
We’re looking forward to submitting our response to the Welsh Government’s technical consultation on post-16 education reform in the next few weeks.
I believe that these reforms hold a great deal of promise in making education a more realistic aspiration for many more people in Wales, and in delivering the parity of esteem that we and others have wanted to see for many years.
My priority in this area of work is making the case for student voice. Like in Scotland, we want to see the existence of fully funded, fully supported, student voice structures to be a precondition of all providers and institutions receiving public funding.
That doesn’t necessarily mean a students’ union everywhere. There are other student voice structures that will work better for the likes of apprentices and 6th Form students, for example.
But to work, these structures must be properly funded and supported. And it’s important that the principles of student partnership are embedded and performed across the wide range of providers’ and institutions’ activities.
The reforms to post-16 education may well turn out to be the single largest piece of legislation the National Assembly has ever considered. They are also going to take up a lot of time and resource across the sector.
It is imperative that we get this right. This is an opportunity to design an education system which works for institutions and for Wales, but first and foremost for students, and I will happily work with anyone who shares that view.
We know that 1 in 4 people experience mental ill-health, and students across Wales are struggling with inaccessible, underfunded services. I’m pleased that Welsh Government has remitted HEFCW (Higher Education Funding Council for Wales) to work with us and institutions to improve provision.
I am particularly keen to develop:
- Frontline support – academics, porters, accommodation staff, and many others all have a role to play in supporting students experiencing mental ill-health, but it’s important that they are properly trained to signpost students to the right care.
- Online support – many students don’t access services because they fear the formality of face-to-face support, or don’t want to ‘admit’ to their ill-health. Improving the availability of digital support services will be of great help.
- Availability of services – students requiring services face an average waiting time of 6 weeks. That simply isn’t good enough. Services need to be sufficiently funded so that students are able to access support when they need it.
- Welsh-medium services – students across Wales are telling us that services through the medium of Welsh are severely underfunded. I am strongly of the view that no Welsh-speaking student should suffer more just because of their language.
- Recognition of mental health problems – there remains a huge stigma around mental ill-health, which prevents students from accessing support when they need it most.
A member-focussed NUS Wales
As an organisation, we are driven by our 21 member students’ unions. Together, we represent over 350,000 students all across Wales – around 10% of our country’s entire population.
The people who lead our movement have a lot to offer their institutions, their communities, and our country. As President, I will be involving our members in our work, ensuring that they are able to directly shape their education and influence the public narrative.
It has become increasingly clear, I think, that there is little certainty about the UK’s future outside the EU. What worries me is that Welsh students will no longer be able to benefit from the opportunities afforded to previous generations because of our EU membership.
I am particularly concerned that our students will no longer be able to take part in Erasmus+. So I will continue to make the case, through our membership of the Education Secretary’s Brexit Working Group, for the UK to continue to take part in Erasmus+ through the transition period and beyond.
What concerns me also is the treatment of EU students here in Wales. Will they continue to be funded adequately? Will they be supported by their institutions? Will they feel welcome here? I will be working with students’ unions on this and other issues.
I am also extremely concerned that hate crimes have risen exponentially, as described by Uzo Iwobi in her piece for the latest edition of the welsh agenda, ‘Intolerant nation?’, since the referendum in 2016.
Related to that is the question of what happens to human rights once we have left the EU – what will happen to the principles of the Social Chapter, including paid maternity leave?
Leaving the EU presents many serious and difficult challenges, which, frankly, I would prefer us not to be facing. But I will be working with our member students’ unions, and using my platform in any fora I can, to raise these issues and argue that there should be no roll-back of rights, opportunities, or living and working conditions post-Brexit.
Just a couple of weeks ago, I launched our partnership with Cardiff-based international aid organisation United Purpose. They’re doing great work in supporting people in the Global South out of poverty, empowering women, and protecting the environment.
This is what sustainable development truly is, and is a great example of Wales playing an important role on the world stage. I am looking forward to working with United Purpose on a project which will involve students’ unions in lowering their carbon footprint.
It will also give them knowledge and skills about what they and their institutions can do to be more environmentally-sustainable, all the while supporting the amazing work of United Purpose in empowering women and tackling poverty.
When I talk to NUS and students’ union colleagues based in England, I am proud to be able to tell them that Wales is making great strides towards significant electoral reform. The proposed extension of the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds is an exciting development, which I fully support.
For me, Votes at 16 isn’t based on some idea that one has a number of other, limited rights at 16, such as joining the armed forces or getting married. It’s a matter of principle: that, coupled with high-quality political and citizenship education in schools, at 16 one is ready to play the part of an active citizen.
At 16, one should have a say in the politics of our country. It will be good for politics, good for young people, and good for democracy.
Likewise the proposals for electoral reform of the National Assembly. I share the view of Professor Laura McAllister and others that the Assembly is under-resourced for the task it has, and that more AMs are consequently needed.
I am also excited by Professor McAllister’s other ideas, such as job-sharing and gender quotas. It is true to say that Wales is in a much better situation than many other places, but we have fallen behind where we were, and there is always room for progress.
Politics is still too often a boys’ game. But public policy is made better by having women in the room. The more that can be done to make our National Assembly accessible to women – in fact, to people of any background – the better.
I will play my part in making that happen by participating in the work of the Welsh Government’s Electoral Reform Programme Board, supporting the work of ERS Cymru, working with others where possible, and speaking to my own membership.
I am joined in office by Deputy President Alex Rollason and Women’s Officer Chizi Phiri. Alex was an apprentice at Coleg Cambria – the first apprentice ever to be elected as a sabbatical officer anywhere in the UK. Chizi was President of Swansea University Students’ Union.
We’ll be working together as a team over the next year, and Alex will be focussing his work particularly on:
- Transport – we know that inaccessible, expensive transport is a huge problem for students and young people across Wales.
- The rights of apprentices and student workers – the gig economy presents lots of opportunities, but there are also challenges in avoiding exploitation.
- Supporting students’ unions – particularly building capacity in further education and continuing to support the growth of the National Society of Apprentices Wales.
Chizi will be focussing mainly on:
- Period poverty – too many women and girls in Wales face the indignity of period poverty. Chizi will be campaigning for Wales-wide, creative solutions to this issue.
- Supporting women in employment and leadership – particularly encouraging women to run to be student leaders, and supporting women’s employability and career aspiration initiatives.
- Violence against women and girls – holding Welsh Government to account on its strategy, as well as working to support universities to improve their own practices in this area.
If you’re interested in finding out more about NUS Wales, our work, or you’d like to discuss how we could work together, please get in touch with our External Affairs Manager Cerith Rhys Jones at [email protected].
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