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2010…will this be the year that we Vote For Students?

Posted by Tobin Webb on February 1, 2010

Today NUS launched our biggest ever General Election campaign called Vote for Students. Between now and the election we will seek to register, educate and mobilise thousands of students nationwide, ensuring our members are fully informed about the position of the candidates seeking their votes.

Students represent 15% of the voting population, yet too often our voice goes unheard. Many students fail to get registered on the electoral roll and many are simply ignored by local candidates who choose not to engage a significant percentage of their constituency.

Well, not this time.

This election is tipped to be one of the closest elections in a decade, and our votes could mean the difference between someone winning and losing. That is why NUS is today launching the Vote for Students website. We are asking students, parents and general members of the public to join us and fight against a rise in fees by committing to using their vote to protect education and protect future students. Those that sign up to the site will be informed before polling day about where each of their candidates stand on the issue of fees, helping to educate voters, and keep our issues at the forefront of this general election campaign.

Last November (see “Come Clean on Fees Blog below) we issued a warning to candidates. We urged MPs and PPCs to Come Clean on Fees and sign the NUS Funding our Future pledge stating that they would; “pledge to vote against any increase in fees in the next parliament and to pressure the government to introduce a fairer alternative”. Since our emergency lobby of parliament we have had over 200 MPs and PPCs sign up, with more joining the list every single day.

The Vote for Students website is a crucial tool in our long standing fight for a fairer funding system. Students have determined election results before and we can certainly do it again. I hope you will join us in the fight against a rise in fees, pledge to use your vote and together help protect and preserve education for the students of today and tomorrow.

For more information about the site and how you can get involved in the campaign, click here.

To pledge to use your vote for students go to here.

To see how your students’ union can be involved, click here.

I will be keeping you up to date here with my work on this campaign, which I am making my priority within my NUS work for the next few months. I plan also to blog more generally on the events on the run up to the election and hope to spark some comment and debate on here. So get involved, get registered, and get voting in 2010.

(via Susan Nash’s blog, with some edits)


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The rest of 2009 – being a student!

Posted by Tobin Webb on February 1, 2010

After a series of months packed full of activity with NUS, I took a bit of a back seat for a few weeks as I reminded myself that I was still a student… Masters deadline looming, I put my head down and I got it done. By mid-December “Notes in the Margins: African-American Music, Race and the American Cinema” was complete and handed in. After seven years, finally my student days are over… Honestly, the debt I have now as a result is really frightening, especially the “real” debt incurred by taking out bank loans to fund post-graduate study. Couldn’t have graduated at a worse time really – since finishing as President at UBU, I am still yet to find full time employment, and believe me I am looking hard! It’s really tough, but it only proves to galvanise me to fight event harder for NUS in 2010 as we focus our efforts on putting students near the top of the agenda for the general election.

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Come Clean on Fees – November 11th 2009

Posted by Tobin Webb on February 1, 2010

The fees review panel and process finally announced and low & behold, NUS is not on it. To many the panel looks like a bit of a stitch-up and, of course, it won’t report back until after the general election. So, feeling very despondent about all this a few of us sat around a table decided we needed some snap action on this – a show of strength if you like – alert the media, the public and the politicians that we won’t take this lying down. And so “Come Clean on Fees” was dreamt up, and three days later it happened.

"oooh, oooh Mandy, we want to know-oh-oh-oh if you'll pay our fees!"

I was really overwhelmed with the strength of support from students’ unions up and down the land who just dropped everything and came to London. Students in their hundreds descended on Parliament spending the morning distributing literature to the public, followed by a stunt on Parliament Square that was very well attended by media, and the feeling amongst us all was strong – the message was getting across.

Next, we were piling into a Parliamentary committee room where, really, we had no idea what might happen. Over the previous three days we had been asking students to e-mail their MPs to tell them that we will be there and that if they valued the student vote and had something to say about fees – they better turn up. Over the course of the afternoon, over 60 MPs shuffled in and out of the room and corridor taking their turn on the “open mic” to give us their views on HE – yes even David Lammy turned up and gave a (surprisingly) impressive speech highlighting his commitment to widening access and genuinely welcoming the NUS’ work and the lobby that day.. But it was astonishing, MP after MP just kept turning up and agreeing to sign our pledge. For a full article and set of photos see here.

So the campaign well and truly has momentum, the public are on our side with a YouGov poll commissioned by pressure group Compass revealing that only 12% of the public think the review should even consider increasing fees, while a majority believes that it should look at alternatives to fees. We have MPs’ and PPCs’ attention and now we have a pledge to roll out across the country. Next stop – general election – we need to prove that the student vote is strong and the student vote matters. MPs and PPCs that don’t sign up to the pledge will be named and shamed and if they don’t come clean on their position on fees before we are asked to vote for them, may they see the error of their ways at the ballot box.

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NUS HE Zone Conference, Manchester Oct 28/29 2009

Posted by Tobin Webb on February 1, 2010

After two years of campaigning to make these new zone conferences happen, I was very excited about attending and interested in how it was all going to work… It was two days packed full of really interesting discussion, debate and events that I have never experienced at an NUS event before – very impressive in terms of engagement and a great learning opportunity for officers and activists that attended. My only criticism would be the “democracy-lite” approach to the promised policy discussions and zone committee elections. Now don’t think for a second that I am harking back to the arguments of the “save NUS democracy” crowd, because at the end of the day what did happen was 1000 times better than the total lack of provision for participation in policy formation before conference that we had under the old system, but I do think that we missed a trick and I hope that whoever is VPHE next year takes a look at this. Ideally a lot more time needs to be given over in the schedule to talking about NUS policy, as walking around the room with bits of flip chart paper for ten minutes really didn’t cut it for me.

Highlight of the event for me though was the speaker event with David Willetts the conservative shadow Sec. of State for Universities. Firstly, I think it is really positive that the tories are engaging with NUS and that we are engaging with them, at the end of the day the British public may well be fool-hardy enough to vote them into power at the next general election and they will hold all the cards in the review of higher education then – and either way they hold such a significant number of votes in parliament that it can only be a good thing if we can influence their decision making.

But can we…? I think the tories have listened to our message and translated it into their language. I’ve always talked about the danger that the student movement faces in being idle with their rhetoric when it comes to issues of quality in education – never, ever, ever utter the words “value for money”. Willetts (and now Mandelson unfortunately) talk about the need for Universities to deliver a quality education if they are to justify the fees they charge… ok, that makes sense, but if we nod along with it too vigorously, we end up being used by politicians like Willetts who send out press releases saying “I went to an NUS event and talked about value for money – look at me, aren’t I great, and you know what the students gave me a warm reception – clearly they agree that they need more contact hours if they are going to pay a couple more thousand pounds in the future…” .

And there you have it, linking money to quality in education is a dangerous game, because whilst it makes sense for the here and now, it is a slippery slope towards a justification for higher fees – I’ve sat in countless university meetings where the mantra “premium fees for a premium education” has been repeated, the Universities that can justify prestige now are poised ready to start charging the full whak if the cap came off because they have a “premium product”. And then the whole market in HE develops.

Willetts was impressive, yes, but he really didn’t say anything substantial beyond this “value for money” message, which I think we need to be very, very careful about endorsing.

You can get the resources from the HE conference here:

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Bristol Taken-over

Posted by Tobin Webb on February 1, 2010

Woah…serious blog neglect over the last few months – it’s been a crazy time, so much going on – lots of blogs coming your way today to get us up to date starting with this.

The Bristol town takeover has come and gone and that’s a relief I can tell you. The day itself went reasonably well, but the gods were not on our side as we had to contest with a serious downpour of rain during the outside activities. That aside, a decent amount of dedicated protesters turned up to the council house and stuck through the cold and wet to make their point known – after all the rain won’t stop the government putting up fees will it….?

In the evening came the debate, and this was really very interesting indeed. With an exciting panel of both leading academics and prospective parliamentary candidates (PPCs), we had a really varied debate following a very challenging presentation from Wes Streeting which highlighted the divide in access to education across economic demographics as demonstrated here in Bristol, which I have blogged about before.

The academics gave very well rounded and interesting speeches on their views of the future of higher education, but the real interest for me, and indeed the power of this campaign, came in listening to the PPCs. Unfortunately Adeela Shafi, the conservative PPC for Bristol East did not turn up, but Paul Harrod the LibDem PPC for Bristol North West gave robust defence for a progressive future for higher education funding, but was unconvincing when challenged on how the lib dem policy for free education actually works and whether his party leadership will be putting it in the 2010 manifesto.

Aaron Porter, Wes Streeting & Paul Smith

But pretty much everyone agreed that the star speech of the night came from Paul Smith, Labour PPC for Bristol West. Now – “you would say that” I’m sure you’re thinking, and yeah I am a political supporter of Paul’s – but it is true to say that he got the warmest reception of applause and I talked to many students from across the political spectrum that agreed he hit the nail on the head. I have to salute PPC’s like Paul who stand up and say that their party got it wrong, that he is worried that the leadership is heading in the wrong direction on HE policy and will do everything in his power to campaign for a fairer solution – that takes guts, and it’s politicians with that kind of integrity that we need in the House of Commons to restore public faith in the system.

As the town take-over truck rolled out of town, it was to gather momentum, a lot of publicity and soon…a lot more PPCs like Paul…

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Funding Our Future & the Bristol Town Takeover, Sept 09 round-up

Posted by Tobin Webb on October 12, 2009

campaigners sign up at freshers' fairs

campaigners sign up at freshers' fairs

September has been a jam-packed month of activity for me and NUS as a whole on the funding campaign, I’ve been on the road (well the trains really) and visiting your unions to help roll out and launch the campaign to a new audience of freshers up and down the country. It’s been a fantastic experience so far, the level of student opinion out there is more unified than ever before – I’ve met a scandalous amount of students who are terribly affected by the current situation with Student Finance England still waiting to hear as to whether they are going to have the loan/grant money to pay their rent with deadlines looming closer. They, like me, all agree that the time has come for wholesale reform of the University and student funding arrangements in higher education.



What is even more encouraging are the number of students who enthusiastically answered the question “if we get in contact with you about some action we are taking as part of this campaign, would you be interested in playing a role?” – we have signed up a whole raft of new student volunteers and activists to mobalise the campaign. In particular, at the UWE and Uni of Bristol freshers’ fairs where I have been working in particular as Campaign Organiser for the Bristol town takeover, we asked students to take a little ‘action today’, by writing down their views, feelings and demands on the placards and hold them up for the camera, as we build a campaign base – just a few of our new campaigners are pictured above.

It’s getting really exciting here now as we gear up towards the takeover in a couple of weeks’ time – places for the panel debate at the townhall meeting have been really popular with local politicians in particular prospective MPs – which is fantastic news in a general election year as hopefully we will be hearing something substantive from them that we can hold them to at the ballot box.

But why is it important that this debate is being held here in Bristol – I think this kind of city is crucial, not only politically because it contains a number of marginal seats up at the next election and the student vote/student issues make a real impact, but because of the make up of our city – something many people who attended NUS’ “APL” this year will have heard about.

Bristol is a divided city, split by a river and by the stark differences in the fortunes of its young people. Look to the west of the city and you will find the highest concentration in one parliamentary constituency of independent schools and an area where 50 per cent of teenagers are expected to go to university. A few miles away, on the other side of the river in Bristol South, (where I live) only one in ten teenagers went to university in 2000, ranking the area in the bottom four in the country for post-secondary school attendance, and these areas are little more than a stone’s throw from two thriving universities – although, for some children, they may as well be a thousand miles away.

what's on...

what's on...

The 2001 Census statistics for Bristol mask the economic extremes that divide areas such as Clifton and Stoke Bishop, the suburban retreat of professionals and home to the University of Bristol, and areas such as Knowle and Hartcliffe, which are dominated by council estates. At 8 per cent, Bristol has a higher proportion of students in full-time education aged 16 and over than the national average of 5 per cent. The city also has a higher proportion of graduates (24 per cent) than the national average (19 per cent). In Clifton, where 50 per cent of homes are owner-occupied and 39 per cent are privately rented, 51 per cent of the population has a degree and only 6 per cent has no qualifications.

Yet in Bristol South, where 41 per cent of homes are rented from the council, 51 per cent of people have no qualifications and just 6 per cent have degrees.

NUS Funding Our Future Campaign in Bristol promises to be a truly community orientated event with people coming from all areas of our city to be involved and talk about the realities of how a fairly funded and fully accessible higher education could and would benefit them – I for one am really excited about seeing a campaign about higher education funding that takes into account the views of the community at large as it will here in Bristol – make sure you get involved and here’s how:

Join the Facebook group:

Come to the town hall debate:

Come to the flashmob on College Green:

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Labour Party Conference, Brighton 09

Posted by Tobin Webb on October 12, 2009

Well the Sun really did shine on the conference this year (the one in the sky I mean) as I spent a beautiful week in Brighton working with NUS and Labour Students.

100_1368NUS Funding our Future Fringe

As part of the party conference programme NUS hosted a fringe with Million+ at the Labour Party Conference that I attended where Wes our National President challenged David Lammy Minister for Higher Education and Intellectual Property to define what the Labour Party’s position is on higher education funding.

Wes warned the party not to hide behind the review stating: “It’s shameful that the government will not discuss higher education funding. Labour should set out its position on higher education and recognise that it is not in the interests of opportunity, access or mobility for fees to continue.”

I have to say, the atmosphere was electric – David Lammy was really on the spot and retorted with a list of Labour’s achievements on Higher Education in the last twelve years – all true, all laudable, and not to be forgotten, but it has to be said, Wes definitely commanded the room’s opinion on demanding that Labour put forward an HE funding policy ahead of the next general election and their was a real buzz of talk after the fringe and beyond about Wes and Lammy’s exchange. I talked a great deal about it with people I bumped into later into that week, especially whilst attending a regional reception where I talked with both sitting MPs and candidates for Bristol and the South West many of whom are keen to get involved with our town takeover campaign. I get the sense that there is a real appetite amongst a good deal of candidates especially in cities with Universities to be able to come out publicly and say something to students and their families about the future funding arrangements. With Labour and the Tories saying little and the LibDems grabbing headlines with their leadership disagreeing with party policy on free education – it’s really open season for one of the big three to seize the opportunity and run with this towards the election. I personally hope it’s Labour and I am certainly reassured after attending conference that the Labour membership base and a good deal of its elected officials out there are also hungry to see a progressive and positive policy on HE from Labour in the near future. Come on David – deliver the goods!

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The Trades Union Congress 2009

Posted by Tobin Webb on September 25, 2009

Well, what an experience. TUC 09 was a really interesting and exceptionally productive few days.

NUS Funding Fringe Panel

NUS Funding Fringe Panel

1. NUS Funding Our Future Fringe

I had the great privilege of chairing the NUS fringe at TUC with panel members: Wes Streeting (you know who he is), Alastair Hunter, President of the UCU and Carly Doyle, Student Organiser with the NUT. Earlier that day a motion had passed on conference floor about backing the call for a fairer funding system for HE in the year ahead and opposing the cuts and closures. We were also joined by two UCU members who were on strike from Tower Hamlets College where the cuts recently has meant massive redundancies and course closures – their story was moving and it’s great to see UCU and their students’ union working together and, it seems, making a difference – drawing much needed attention to what is going on there and bringing these issues out from under the carpet where college principles and vice-chancellors want them to be swept. They are still on strike there and we wish them all the best in solidarity. Their facebook group is here.

The fringe went really well, in particular there was a warm reception to the Blueprint from NUT and UCU which is encouraging – the debate went well and it is clear that NUS is starting to build a coalition for action on the funding our future campaign. Just as with NUS, there were many people who disagreed fundamentally with our approach, feeling that it must be a campaign for free education or nothing, but that was by no means the prevailing attitude. There really was an atmosphere of enthusiasm for NUS’ work – indeed when you start seeing such positive media coverage such as this, you can really see how NUS had made an impact, it’s genuinly exciting.

2. CALL Fringe

A really interesting fringe the next day which Wes was speaking at and another area where NUS is leading the way in building momentum and collective action with the Campaign Alliance for Lifelong Learning. I could write for ages about how important this campaign is, but instead I want you to watch this video – it says it all better than I can:

3. Meeting the NUT

This was my first engagement as NUS NUT Scholarship holder – and we’ve got off to a great start. I sat down with the General Secretary, Christine Blower and other members of the national organising team. We discussed plans for the year and we are due to meet soon for the official NUS NUT Liaison committee. In the meantime I am starting work on the teaching students campaign that I intend to roll out later this term. First of all I am looking for Unions with existing relationships with the teaching students or education depatment who would be willing to work with me to survey a decent sample of students to find out what their issues are, what their experience is/was like and what they want to see their union/NUS/NUT working for them on to improve their experience/sort out major problems. This will inform where we go next with the campaign. I am also interested in hearing from Unions who already have established working relationships with teaching students, whether that be an NUT teaching students society or some campaigns that education officer have run in the past. My longer aim is produce materials to help officers in member unions better engage their teaching students and highlight issues that they need their unions to be fighting for on their behalf. So if any of that rings a bell with you – get in touch and be part of our Teaching Student Campaign – e-mail me on or leave a comment below.

One last video I really recommend you watch – these are the winners of the TUC 60 second challenge, all aimed at getting young people involved in trades unions – there’s some really good ones in here, watch:

(My favourites are the Dalek one and the Obama one)

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Sept 09 – Town Takeovers kick off

Posted by Tobin Webb on September 25, 2009

students are taking meeting at a time

students are taking meeting at a time

That strange month of September is upon us again…summer is fading and the nerves of a new term ahead are kicking in…and what a busy term its going to be for NUS. Funding our Future Campaign is chock-a-block, first the finges as TUC, Lib Dem, Labour and Conservative part conferences, then the freshers fairs up and down the country before October sees its first town takeovers in Liverpool and Bristol.

I attended the national training event for officers and local campaign organisers, and will be playing a big role in organising the Bristol Town Takeover – so watch this space for more info on that. The TT plan is to take the debate about higher education funding out to the public – if the politicians in westminster are refusing to engage, we need to put the pressure on in their constituencies and make HE funding an issue in the spotlight again.

In Bristol we have a number of marginal seats up for election including Bristol West, where the Lib Dem spokesman for Higher Education,  Stephen Williams took the seat at the last election after students rebelled against the incument MP for abstaining on the vote for top-up fees in 2004. Since we’ve seen Lib Dem policy wavering on HE funding, just this week at their party conference, I feel Bristol’s TT will be an interesting one to watch as we have the opportunity to have some real influence on a major political party. But it’s not just the Lib Dems – with the general election coming up, hopefully this action from NUS will make the candidates from all parties in seats like Bristol West put student issues on their agenda and, if we are successful, make commitments and promises on HE funding and take the student vote seriously.

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July & August 09…times are a-changing

Posted by Tobin Webb on September 23, 2009

July was a month of goodbyes and hellos, a bittersweet month that saw the end of my two-year ‘reign of terror’ at the University of Bristol Students’ Union and my Chairmanship of the Aldwych Group – but I couldn’t be happier – to have passed those jobs on to two exceptionally talented officers – Owen Peachey at Bristol and Emmanuel Akpan-Inwang from LSE who is already doing great things at Aldwych, I wish them both the best of luck in the world, every success to you both. Meeting the new Aldwych officers was great too at our training and handover weekend in Newcastle – 09-10 seems to have seen a particularly talented bunch of union officers out there and I’m excited about working with you as an NEC member over the coming months.

Later in the month I attended Active Political Leadership training at UWE and participated in everyone’s favourite roleplay; Fibchester. Playing the part of a Pro Vice-Chancellor was a cathartic experience for me as I channelled two particular PVCs from my old institution, often using their exact words and giving the officers a real hard time. It is sad though really that the Fibchester worst-case scenario is so rooted in reality, it’s great that we prepare officers to face these situations, but I really wish the University management out there would get a grip and see the value of strong and active students to their institutions – how there is such a strong mutual benefit when it all works the way it should.

Interestingly this month also saw me defending those access policies I mentioned in my last blog in a number of radio interviews I took part in for NUS. In particular LBC with James Whale was a ‘delight’ as he informed listeners that giving lower grade offers to students from failing schools who showed potential was “devaluing the degrees” as Universities were being asked “to let any old tom, dick and harry get in, in the name of political correctness and hitting targets”. Well, he was a nice man wasn’t he. I want to draw people’s attention to this graph taken from “Unleashing Aspiration”


Evidence from HEFCE shows that, once at university, a typical state-educated pupil will perform at the equivalent level to an independently schooled pupil with A-Levels between one and two grades higher (see figure 6e). Put another way, a state-educated pupil typically outperforms an independently schooled pupil with the same grades.

I (again) recommend reading the whole report. From my own experience also at Bristol where they have this access agreement in place, a long term study due to be published later this year shows that those students admitted with the lower entry grade have gone on to succeed and in many cases out perform their peers.

Where institutions employ these kinds of access agreements, they work.

These policies are a life line to those students who are not failing, but being failed, and that quite clearly would shine if given the opportunity and the support.

I want to see this kind of agreement in every university, especially in the Russell and 94 groups. It’s fair to say that if we had a perfect, fair and fully funded school system, such measures would not be needed – true. But we don’t, and until that time (and all the private schools would go broke) we have this one thing we can do – and for this generation, it’s the right thing to do.

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