Posted by: sarahwakefield | June 30, 2011

Final thoughts and thank yous!

As I leave my position of General Secretary today I present to you my final swan song about the future of student representation and the University of Manchester in the coming years, whilst also using this as a platform to express my thanks to all those people who have helped me over the year.

Three themes which I have been talking about continually in this year to the University have been Partnership, Personalisation and Quality. I believe that these will be the core areas which Universities will be looked to deliver on in relation to students in the coming years. With the increase in fees, students will be looking for appropriate levels of quality, whether in the teaching experience or in the availability of learning materials.

However, I have always felt that students add an immense amount of value to a university, whether through their research, their impact on the local community or to the reputation of their institution. As such, they must be treated as partners in the future of Universities, or risk becoming detached from the community which they exist within which would mean the University would lose the value they can add.

Although there are base standards which students will, and currently do expect, if a culture of partnership with the student body is nurtured students will retain a loyalty to their institution and the researchers and teachers who work there. These standards will now be laid out in Student Charters, but it seems important that these documents also lay out how students are accountable to the wider university community. If this is compounded by a greater personalization of the student experience where, even in the biggest University in the UK students know who to turn to for advice and academic enhancement, the University of Manchester can become an exemplar of excellent teaching and true academic community.

On the broader topic of changes to higher education; there have been a large number of reports on the social impact of universities and, as the outgoing President of NUS, Aaron Porter, said in a speech to the members of UMSU this year, “a well developed and supported system of higher education is surely the sign of a civilized society”.

One of things which has genuinely upset me throughout this year is the failure of the press and broader public opinion in the UK, but particularly England to articulate the value of the research and teaching for members of society who may think they are not touched by the existence of Universities.

Where limited public funding should be spent is a sensitive topic at the moment, and I write on a day when there are strikes around the country on the future of public service pensions, but we must keep sight of the fact that education is something which impacts upon the innovation and productive levels of society for decades.

Whatever your personal views on whether society or individuals should pay for the provision of higher education and research it is undeniable that the policy of the coalition government has been a disaster for the sector and tax payers. The policies on student visas, tuition fees and cuts to teaching, research and capital budget will only result in a weaker sector, which ironically is likely to cost the tax payer more, whilst their say over education is reduced.

The future of Higher Education in this country is being offered up to private providers who, although accountable to individual students, will not be accountable to the wider society which they will be impacting on. Furthermore, the much debated fees structure will not created the system of choice and social mobility which it has offered and is likely to have hidden economic consequences such as discouraging those with high debt levels from taking out mortgages. The fact the government failed to anticipate that Universities would need to charge high levels of fees to cover cuts which were disproportionally high compared with other sectors, and other gaffs has left me convinced that this government is unable to think through the broader consequences of policy and shows a lack of  insight and maturity which is desirable in those we elect to run the country.

I would encourage everyone to look at the No Confidence Campaign in the governments policy in higher education which is being led by students and academics in Oxford, but has been taken up across the country. http://www.noconfidence.org.uk/

To end on a lighter note, in a last word blog I couldn’t end without thanking everyone who has given me massive opportunities this year, starting with the students who elected me to be part of leading a students’ union in such as challenging year, both for UMSU and for higher education nationally. When I was elected I had no idea that in the next year I would sit down for dinner with the Nobel Prize winners for Physics 2010, be interviewed by the BBC News at 10 after meeting Nick Clegg (and saying he should be ashamed of himself), march with 50,000 concerns students and lectures in London over the future of education and take UMSU through structural changes in staffing and governance which will change fundamentally the way we represent and support students.

My second thanks are to the fantastic executive team I have had the pleasure of working with – Robyn, Jeremy, Hannah, Emma, Miles, Kate, Amanda, Joe, Luke, Mark, Hisham, Mo and Sadia – your dedication to improving  representation and services in UMSU has been a great inspiration, I often feel we have turned into parodies of our roles, but that has been what has made us such as strong team.  It’s been a difficult year, but the professionalism, dedication and maturity with which you have all taken the challenges of this year has been breathtaking and I wish you all well in the future.

Thank you to the staff at UMSU for staying dedicated to serving the students of Manchester in what has been a year of change and transition. I have been honored to be part of appointing so many talented new members of the senior management and staff to UMSU. I know you will help take support future executive officers to lead UMSU from strength to strength.

The University have been true partners this year in understanding the changes UMSU is going through and supporting us in that processes. Alongside the Vice Chancellor, board members, Vice Presidents and senior managers who have been both advisors and challengers in UMSU’s conversations with the University, I must extend a particular thanks to Pat Sponder and Martin Conway who have worked incredibly hard this year to rebuild a fractured relationship and allow the student voice to come through clearly once more.

I am grateful for the University’s engagement with difficult and challenging topics. We have not always agreed, but a defining moment for my meetings with the University was the atmosphere and debate in the room when the decision was made on tuition fees. It was the hardest meeting I have had to sit in, but I was touched by the Board’s acknowledgement that the government policy did not reflect their views on how education should be treated by the state and their knowledge that students are much, much more than consumers. I hope this belief is carried by future Boards and management.

Thanks to the officers and staff of NUS who have helped students’ unions come together so effectively over the past year – your training and support has been incredibly valued.

To my long suffering friends and family who I assured that ‘It will be better in two weeks’, I am now anticipating that as of tomorrow my work load will drop and I can catch up on the many phone calls and social engagements I owe. Thank you for your support, patience and provision of food.

Finally, I would like to wish the very best to all those involved in improving and enhancing the student experience, higher education and research in Manchester and nationally. My very best wishes go to Letty Newton UMSU’s new General Secretary. I have every confidence in her and next year’s exec team to take UMSU from strength to strength and I believe that the future of student partnership is safe in their hands.

I will continue blogging in a personal capacity looking at issues of wider social change and campaigning.

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