NUS Scotland President Ellie Gomersall's opening remarks at NUS Scotland Conference 2023 in Edinburgh.
We’re meeting this week at a crucial time for students. We faced two years of a global pandemic which changed all of our lives, but now the cost of living crisis continues to threaten students and our right to access education.
Today is a symbolic and historic day for Scotland – and not just because it’s the NUS Scotland Awards tonight. Today is Nicola Sturgeon’s final day in office and she made crystal clear that she wanted to be judged on her record on education. So, as she hands over to Humza Yousaf, let’s do just that. What is Nicola Sturgeon’s record when it comes tertiary education?
45% of students in Scotland have gone without heating because of lack of money…
a third have been able to pay their rent…
over half have skipped a meal…
and 12% have experienced homelessness.
That is utterly shameful. The Scottish Government should be embarrassed, and Humza Yousaf as an immediate priority once he receives the keys to Bute House later today must take urgent action on student poverty. Sturgeon’s key commitment on reducing the poverty attainment gap in Scotland’s high schools means nothing when 37% of students in Scotland’s colleges and universities are considering dropping out because of their financial situation. How can working class students expect to access education when we know we’ll face such horrendous rates of poverty that even if we don’t drop out, we’ve got no chance of getting the grades we deserve?
Scotland’s education system is fundamentally broken – it’s not widening access, it’s narrowing it.
On almost all measures, estranged students have amongst the highest levels of poverty and homelessness – and are still waiting for the bursary support they were promised.
Disabled students, care-experienced students, student carers, student parents, mature students – all are struggling to heat, eat and put a roof over their head.
International students continue to pay eye-watering tuition fees, only to find inadequate housing when they arrive and no access to hardship funding.
Let me make one thing absolutely clear: international students are never cash-cows, you are so welcome here and you deserve so much better from our education system.
Despite this, the increasingly fascistic Westminster government wants to ban thousands of international students from even being able to study here in the first place. The same UK government threatening our academic freedom. The same UK government who dragged us out of Erasmus+ against our will. The same UK government who in just a few weeks will spend millions on the coronation of an unelected monarch whilst setting the minimum wage for apprentices at a measly £4.81.
They couldn’t give a shit. They’re quite happy for their pals running the banks and the energy companies to get richer and richer, while all the rest of us get poorer and poorer.
And even within education, it’s not just students who are bearing the brunt of this crisis. Over the past months we’ve stood proudly with staff at universities across Scotland who have been forced into taking industrial action over the horrendous pay and conditions they face, and as they ballot their members now, we’re ready to stand in solidarity with staff in our colleges as they prepare to take similar action. Staff and students alike are facing homelessness, missing meals and going without heating, while principals live it up with their private chauffeurs, six-figure salaries, and are rewarded for their troubles with the occasional knighthood. It’s disgusting.
It's not that there’s a lack of money in this country, it’s that it’s being hoarded by those in power. This isn’t a broken system for them – for them it’s working exactly as intended.
Yet when it comes to putting in the solutions, no-one wants to take responsibility. In December the STUC published a report showing the ways the Scottish Government could utilise the full powers of devolution to tax the rich and redistribute wealth. But the budget that followed took baby steps when what we needed was confident strides.
The Scottish Government is quite comfortable lying in their bed of complacency, happily blaming Westminster for everything while they sit on their hands.
Now last week, in the final days of his leadership campaign, Humza Yousaf told us he was a socialist. He said he was a socialist and that he would use the powers of devolution and implement a wealth tax. Now despite almost every decision he’s ever taken in government suggesting otherwise, if he says he’s a socialist, I say let’s see it. Redistribute the wealth. And do it pronto.
Because if the pandemic taught us anything, it was that change can happen and it can happen fast.
Over the past two years NUS Scotland won more than £80 million of funding to support students, including:
£70 million of discretionary hardship funding (including £20 million for students during the summer months)
Almost £10 million to help students facing digital poverty
£4 million to support the mental health of college students
And three quarters of a million to support the valuable work of your students’ associations
We won the right to leave accommodation early and we won commitments to a student accommodation review, a mental health action plan and raising student support to the real Living Wage.
Now it is time for the Scottish Government to deliver and the only way we’ll win is by loudly, proudly and forcefully fighting for students together.
And that’s exactly what you’ve done this year – YOU have shown up.
Thanks to the work of students’ associations our cost-of-living survey reached 5,300 students.
Over 2,200 emails were sent to Members of the Scottish Parliament demanding better support for students.
Over 1,200 signed-up to our Fighting for Students campaign and we’ve had an incredible 1,500 signatures to our Save our Counsellors petition.
You helped us take the fight to Holyrood, with 200 of you showing up to our rally and thanks to students’ associations in Aberdeen, we rallied in the North East too.
And what did we win?
We won a rent freeze and eviction ban for private renters and, briefly, for all students.
Support for postgraduate students has gone up – the tuition fee loan will increase by £1500 next year.
£5 million for student digital poverty.
Scrapping peak-time fares on trains for a six-month pilot.
Two weeks ago we won £900 more from next year for every single Scottish higher education student and care-experienced student in FE. That’s an ABOVE INFLATION increase.
And just last week the Scottish Government confirmed all public sector apprentices would be paid the Real Living Wage.
The fight is clearly not over, particularly as we await confirmation of support for further education students.
But by working together across the student movement and working with our comrades in the trade union movement, we’ve helped thousands of students survive this broken system at a time of national crisis.
I don’t know about you though but I’m fed up of sticking plasters on a broken system.
Over the next year we’ll work to imagine and build a better education model.
The potential for change has never been greater, this is a moment of opportunity for our movement – we cannot waste it.
Our Imagine campaign will seize that opportunity, co-designing a uniquely Scottish model of vocational, further and higher education…
…one that values solidarity with students across the UK, Ireland and Europe
…where we create opportunities to study abroad
… where we truly value international students
… where apprentices get paid a fair wage and get time to learn
…where no matter your background or circumstances you can access the education that meets your needs and helps build a better society
THAT’S an education system worth fighting for.