NUS VP Welfare: “we need to make it impossible for government to ignore us”

Shelly Asquith, NUS VP Welfare 2015/16

Shelly Asquith makes her speech before the VP Welfare election at NUS Conference 2015 (Photo: National Union of Students)

Shelly Asquith was elected as the National Union of Students (NUS) VP Welfare at the union’s conference last month after an impassioned speech that stirred up the conference crowd. Yet she’ll be taking up her position at a time when all regions of student welfare are hotly debated topics, from cuts to the Disabled Students Allowance and the welfare state to a cost of living crisis and low standards in the student housing sector.

Speaking to The Linc, we asked how she hopes to tackle those crises and how the policies she ran with relate to them:

  • She wants to do more “talking about the welfare state and making NUS’ campaign part of the national campaign to save the welfare state,” she explained. “I want to see a remodelling of student finance, so students who are out of work have access to enough funding to live as well as things like state benefits.”
  • She believes there should be more “action on anti-racism. I’m defending no platform, but also saying no to the PREVENT agenda, which people have seen NUS as being very complaint with over the last few years. I also think the NUS has been way too quiet on issues affecting black and Muslim students, and a lot of those students thought it wasn’t supporting them and that it was time for a big change”.
  • In her role, she looks to take “a more community-focused approach – so not just being a top-down, ‘here’s a VP doing things for people’ person, but actually getting students to link up with trade unions, local anti-cuts groups, save our services groups, that kind of thing”.
  • Finally, with regard to housing, she intends to “actually campaigning on the issues; fighting for things like rent controls and using tactics like rent strikes” in conjunction with local community groups. She added: “Obviously, the housing crisis is really bad, and I don’t think there’s been enough action in the student movement”.

In Lincoln, the latter is a particularly pressing issue, with the recent implementation of Article Four, the revelation of disproportionate rent charges, and an ongoing student union boycott of letting agents Lighthouse. The Linc asked Shelly about the tactics – especially rent strikes – she proposes, and when they should be used:

“Rent strikes are essentially where a group of students get together and say, ‘okay, our rent is too high’, or ‘the conditions for which we’re paying our rent aren’t good enough’, and collectively agree to withhold their rent payments. A bit like a workplace strike, where people collectively decide to withhold their labour, students would start to refuse to pay their rent – not just students though, any kind of tenants can go on rent strikes.”

She points to the example of University College London, where students have defied university management and gone on rent strike: “There’s an ongoing campaign around their really poor conditions – they’ve got things like cockroaches, rat infestations, mould; all kind of disgusting things going on in their halls.

“Yet students are paying in the region of £150 per week for it, while the university’s management have refused to take action, offering them very measly amounts of money in compensation. They’ve refused the offer – it’s not been a good enough offer as far as they’re concerned.

“In terms of when they should be used, I think that’s for students to decide amongst themselves. When you’re in a situation like the students in UCL are in – not being listened to or not being taken seriously – they see a rent strike as the only leverage they have.

“There are so many situations like that across the UK where I think rent strikes are quite a reasonable tactic to use, and hopefully very effective too.”

Shelly would also like to see the beginning of tenants’ unions for students angry about their housing. None have been set up yet, she admitted, but has spoken to many interested in gathering student dissatisfaction in this area.

“I think they would be a very good way for students to organise collectively in the housing market, being a forum where students could publish blacklists of the worst landlords or letting agents in the local community,” she suggested.

“A lot of the focus in recent years has been about having accreditation lists and asking ‘who is the best landlord to use?’, which is fine and can drive up standards, but means a lot of the worst offenders are getting away unnamed.”

At the moment, accreditation for student accommodation in Lincoln is largely done by the University’s accommodation department, with the Students’ Union taking a secondary role.

Yet Shelly believes students should take the driving seat when it comes to accreditation and/or blacklisting: “Students should be the ones using their first-hand experiences to inform that, rather than some university department deciding ‘these landlords are good and these ones aren’t’.”

Another Lincoln issue is the recent proposal of a new student advice centre to be run by the University of Lincoln Students’ Union. If Shelly could start a student advice centre from scratch, we asked, how would it look?

“It really depends on the student demographic,” she considered. “I’d start off by researching what the students are like at the institution, what issues students are currently seeking advice for, and invest around that.

As the outgoing president of SUARTS, the student union at the University of the Arts, London, she’s already done work in her own institution, she explained: “At our university, there’s a university advice centre, but there’s also a student union one, and this year is the first time we’ve started offering advice on housing and employment, whereas we used to deal solely with academic issues.

“I’d look at whether those are big issues as well – around students’ rights at work, or unpaid internships. If there’s loads of international students, you might want to be offering immigration advice.

“I guess counselling also comes under advice more broadly – I think it’s important to have different kinds of counselling, because universities’ approach is often ‘one size fits all’; there’s often waiting lists or caps on sessions, and then you get referred to a private provider. I’d want to get rid of that and make sure that international students have equal access as well, because some of these things are only offered to home students.

The importance of pay for advisory staff was also on the wishlist for Shelly’s perfect advice centre. “I’d want to make sure that the staff are all on permanent, well-paid contracts, because a lot of the time there’s outsourcing and pay freezing going on. I think when you’ve got well-paid and well-supported staff, then that makes for a much better advice service.”

Amongst this hope for the future, though, Shelly had some concern over the newly elected government and what a Conservative majority might mean for student welfare.

“I guess it will make our jobs harder, because even though I didn’t have much confidence in a Labour government to deliver exactly what students need, it wouldn’t have been quite as drastic as what’s ahead of us,” she said.

“I read an article today on what was in the Conservatives’ manifesto, because until Thursday I was convincing myself [a Conservative return to power] wasn’t going to happen. I was having a read through, and a lot of the stuff when it comes to education isn’t mentioned. They don’t mention tuition fees in their manifesto at all, for example, but I think we can assume that they’ll try to put tuition fees up.

“Another really alarming one is the £12bn cut to welfare – although a lot of that is about cutting benefits for people who aren’t students, it does also impact students who claim the Disabled Students’ Allowance, and students’ access to council tax benefit.”

Recent graduates could also feel the burden of austerity, she added: “When students finish college or university – what are their chances going to be in the midst of mass unemployment? Are they going to be able to sign on? Are they going to be able to pay their rent?

“I think we need to be ready to fight back on the welfare cuts, working with local groups and trade unions.”

Yet she seemed optimistic about what the NUS and the student movement as a whole would be able to achieve in the coming year. “I think we’re in a good position,” she said.

“In 2010, we had a big mobilisation against the rise in tuition fees, but the student movement at the time was quite fractured, and the NUS leadership didn’t believe in free education. Now, I think we’re much more astute in what we believe in.

“Even though the government won’t take us seriously, they haven’t really for the last five years either; we just need to make it impossible for them to ignore us.”

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