As the government raises fees in disregard of a generation of British youth, the National Union of Students Conference 2012 made it clear that education and social justice can no longer be abandoned
I have recently returned from the National Union of Students (NUS) Conference 2012, the largest policy-making gathering of students in the UK. Every year, over 1000 delegates from affiliated Universities and Colleges gather for three days to discuss and debate policy for the academic year.
Toni Pearce, Vice President of Further Education at the NUS, stated: “We are witnessing an entire generation of young people not just being forgotten by their government, but being completely abandoned.” As a Muslim and British-born Bangladeshi, I technically belong to the largest community of those ‘abandoned’ by the government. Statistics show that British Bangladeshis are among the major groups of people unable to access higher education. Parents who could not even afford £3, 000 fees cannot dream of sending their children to university now. For these young people, higher education has become almost completely inaccessible.
This is incredible in a country which should be at the forefront of educational progression. In reality, our government’s current system closes doors, cuts off access, and forces communities to continue in a cycle of deprivation. But education is a driver of social change. Coming from the privileged position of attending university, I cannot help but question the point of education if it does not give back to the community.
I therefore went to the NUS Conference to support a candidate running for this year’s presidency who said he could fight for the changes in the education system, and bring justice to our abandoned communities. This candidate was Usman Ali.
I have only met Usman twice. Manchester-born, and growing up in the heart of the Longsight district, he comes from a community where education generally closes its doors at the age of 16. Usman is the first-elected Muslim Vice-President for Higher Education of the NUS. Running for Presidency, his vision was to transform the National Union of Students through the promotion of social justice. My first impression of Usman was that he was genuine, motivated, and most importantly, driven by experience. An article in the New Statesman describes his home city of Manchester as a place where “27 of 32 wards rank in the most deprived nationally, the Longsight district seeing low numeracy and literacy rates; with rising unemployment.” Usman is therefore a living example of why access matters. He states that his own motivation to attend university arose from a student youth club. Six years later, he had inspired countless young people in his neighbourhood to follow in his footsteps.
The student movement clearly needs leaders who understand the issues that the less-privileged members of our youth face. Usman was pushing the student movement to spread its wings: to engage with communities that needed its help the most—communities like the Bangladeshi, Pakistani and black communities, living in the poorest wards of cities.
I completely support the idea that students should be advocates of social justice. You only need to look at the recent events within the Arab world to see the impact that students have on their societies. Usman himself visited Libya to witness the state of students in Tripoli since the collapse of the Gaddafi regime. In an article in the Huffington Post, he writes that:
“Stepping outside and engaging with other students internationally is healthy…my time in Libya reminded me that students have always been the courageous force of change – which is precisely why Gadaffi targeted them. It hit me when I realised that to be a student in Libya, is not just to be a student in education. To be a student is to be a force for social justice.”
During the presidential elections, Usman advocated his point of view clearly and extensively, but was up against stiff competition from other very competent candidates. Unfortunately he did not win. Yet, after an initial feeling of deflation, I ceased to be disappointed. This was because I knew that Usman had achieved his main aim, which was to inspire people around him. He inspired me and other students from many different backgrounds. I know that his objectives are not lost, because other students will follow in his footsteps. Usman and his campaign team certainly spread the message of social justice widely.
Undoubtedly however, the fight for social justice must be fought by students of all backgrounds, and not just the ones from affected communities. Re-elected President Liam Burns made a point of asserting that the NUS is about students uniting to fight the education reforms of this country. I can only wait and see what the NUS will do this year to help people from the most deprived wards of cities, for whom education has become inaccessible.
During his leaving speech, Usman brought his mother on stage. A woman who sacrificed her studies to support her family, she has been his inspiration. He made it clear that without her, he would not be standing on stage at the NUS, presenting a speech to 1,500 students. Thus, very rightly, the last round of applause went to her. Inspired by this exemplary woman, and the son she has raised, it was many a tearful student that left the conference hall to return home.
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