Liam McCabe, NUS Scotland President 2018/20
Zamzam Ibrahim, National President 2019/20
Robert Murtagh, NUS-USI President 2019/20
Claire Sosienski Smith, VP Higher Education 2019/20
In January 2020 NUS Scotland faced one of the greatest challenges in its history: the devastating impact of the Coronavirus pandemic on students and the education sector. This obviously had a major impact on our work, resulting in the outgoing president spending day-in, day-out in constant video conferences with government Ministers, officials, members and the media.
On 23 March the UK Government announced a national lockdown, with the closure of schools, colleges, universities and offices. Students were told their lessons would be online for the remainder of the academic year, faced uncertainty about their exams, assessments and future studies, as well as having to pay for accommodation many could no longer access. In April 2020, NUS launched a nationwide campaign for a student safety net seeking help for those affected by disruption to their education during the Coronavirus pandemic.
As soon as it became clear that institutions were going to suspend face-to-face teaching and that we were on the brink of a sustained lockdown, many students understandably chose to leave their student accommodation and spend quarantine with family and loved ones. We quickly became aware of students who had indicated they wanted to cancel their accommodation contracts but were facing providers who were insisting on payment of rent for a home they could no longer use.
In response we launched #NotStayingNotPaying under the umbrella of the UK-wide #StudentSafetyNet campaign, calling for all students who had left accommodation early, due to COVID-19, to be released from their contracts. In addition, we also made clear that accommodation and all necessary services must remain available for those who could not leave, such as international, care experienced and estranged students.
We also released a survey of nearly 10,000 students which showed that Covid-19 had wreaked havoc on education. 74 per cent were worried about the risks to their final qualification, 95 per cent of students expressed fears about the impact of the virus on the wider economy and 81 per cent expressed concerns about their job prospects in the wake of the pandemic. Meanwhile student officers from around the country told us how #COVID19 has impacted their education, and explained what support was needed from government.
As a result of the hard work of everyone involved in this campaign, we've secured major national success. Across the UK, NUS helped win back £500 million for students in cancelled rent, as more and more providers recognised it was the right thing to do. In Scotland, the remaining stragglers were forced legally to do the right thing, after the Scottish Government introduced a 7-day notice period for students who had left their accommodation due to COVID-19. The emergency Coronavirus Act also guarantees that new contracts taken out while it remains in force will be subject to a 28-day notice period.
Besides homes and rent, students' income is also a major issue, with students facing loss of employment in sectors where students would traditionally have found summer work as the academic year came to an end; hospitality in particular has been devastated by the impact of the Coronavirus. That's why we lobbied the Scottish Government tirelessly to do more to support students' incomes. As part of our Student Safety Net campaign, we noted First Minister Nicola Sturgeon's comments that the COVID 19 pandemic had strengthened the case for a Universal Basic Income and called on the Scottish and UK governments to begin work on implementing one.
More immediately, we succeeded in winning the case for additional hardship funds, with £5 million being made available so far across Higher and Further Education, a further £14.5 million being brought forward from next academic year, and criteria relaxed so that students can use this to purchase equipment they need to allow them to study from home.
Picking up where the former president left off our new president has also found his days full of back to back meetings with government Ministers, officials, members and the media as the pandemic continues. And, while some important wins have been achieved, we have been crystal clear with the Scottish Government that students continuing to have to go cap-in-hand to their institution in order to survive is not sustainable, and that we need action to address the cost of learning sooner rather than later.
We continue to advocate for students facing further lockdowns or potential study disruption as we approach the new term and the rights of students to be treated fairly as part of our #StudentsDeserveBetter campaign.
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