The NUS referendum is an access issue. As the current co-chair of the Target Schools campaign and through tours, talks, Q&As, and conferences, I have come to realise which problems we face when we work on our outreach. To put it simply, access is intricately linked with class, race, gender, and higher education policy – intersecting areas on which the NUS is uniquely situated to campaign on.
The NUS, like OUSU, works tirelessly behind the scenes, with students sometimes only catching the soundbites. But no organisation can represent us quite like the NUS. This government is uprooting finance in higher education; the NUS has successfully led the charge against cuts to Disabled Students’ Allowance, held the Liberal Democrats to scrutiny over their false promises on tuition fees, and was the loudest voice against the end to maintenance grants. Perhaps most urgently for us, there is fresh news that we’ll see fees at ‘elite’ institutions like ours raised to £16,000. To load low and middle income students with yet more debt and interest if they choose to apply to places like Oxford is to build another wall around this university for the very students I want to see here. We must say no, and we need a seat at the table to do so. We must also consider the NUS’s work elsewhere to deal with the everyday expense of university. It provides advice on landlords and rent, pioneered a discount card still unmatched in scope, and extensively researches the financial wellbeing of students. We in Oxford, if we are serious about the barriers this city presents to lower-income students, cannot turn our backs on this.
Many have pointed out the vital work the NUS does for liberation campaigns. Not for a moment do I think my own aspirations as an access volunteer can be separated from the aims of these campaigns. Take just one example: when the Campaign for Racial Awareness and Equality began to push for a more diverse curriculum, the university listened. Now we have lectures on the Curriculum and Race, departmental workshops on curriculum diversity, and are fundamentally rethinking the ways in which our course is shaped. To make our university more receptive to the concerns and perspectives of marginalised voices is one and the same with making it more accessible.
Something that comes up constantly for those working in access is the way we speak about this institution to people who aren’t used to it, whether that’s at home, in our old schools, in the hairdressers. I am proud that so many of us work hard to redress the mythology of Oxford through Q&A sessions, nation-wide conferences, and shadowing days. But we cannot deny that, everything considered, Oxford is a harder place to be for marginalised groups. What we can do point out is that things are getting much better. It is imperative that we listen to the students leading that change, and from what I’m hearing, the message could not be clearer. In Oxford, many from the Women’s Campaign, the LGBTQ+ Campaign, the Disabilities Community, are backing a Yes vote. I am too.
As I said, so much of my work is based in bringing students and teachers to realise that Oxford is not quite what it can look like. So, an important question: how would it look if we left the NUS? My fear is that we would be perpetuating an age-old myth of Oxford exceptionalism. Our university might be exceptional in some ways, but it should never be exceptionalist. We should not shy away from the fact that we are institutionally linked to other universities and further education institutions, and that we can make common cause. Many concerns students currently hold about the NUS are valid, and if we vote Yes, I’m hopeful this referendum will re-engage many students with an NUS they were distant from. But in my day-to-day life, I’m constantly reminding others that Oxford, if a bit quirky, is just one among many universities and colleges. Disaffiliation, I fear, would send the opposite message.
Think about this the other way: how might the NUS need us? In short, I think that we need to stand in solidarity with other students. We need to bulk up the argument against rising fees and rent. This referendum is bigger than us. To say #YestoNUS is to remind ourselves, even in its turbulence, of the importance of a student movement focussed on access, affordability and justice.
It is my belief that we should stay within the NUS. We need to support our liberation campaigns, put forward a united front on student fees and costs, and work against stereotypes of arrogance and elitism that haunt the application process. This is why in sixth week I’ll say #YestoNUS, and why I hope you do the same.