UUSU President Kevin McStravock attended the 34th European Student Convention in Cardiff last week, hosted by NUS Wales. Kevin was part of the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) delegation along with the USI VP Academic Affairs Oisin Hassan and Southern Regional Officer Michelle Byrne.
The convention runs on a bi-annual basis and brings together student leaders from over 45 national unions, representing 38 countries. The theme of the event was ‘Securing Our Future’ which looked at the major challenges affecting the future of education across the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) from Brexit to minority language rights.
The first day of the event included a keynote from Kirsty Williams, Education Secretary in the Welsh Assembly. Kirsty oversaw the major reform to higher education finance in Wales last year which scrapped tuition fee grants, replacing them with generous maintenance grant support to help students with the additional costs of studying. Speaking at the convention, Williams reinforced the idea of “students as citizens rather than simple consumers within higher education and wider society”.
Other key points of discussion on Day One were the Bologna Process which ensures comparability in the standards and quality of higher education within the EHEA and the barriers facing minority groups of students within higher education. Throughout all discussions, it was clear that no matter the difference in the higher education structure of each member union, what we have in common are shared ideals of inclusiveness, accessibility and equity of experience.
Day Two kicked off with group discussions on ESU’s strategic priorities for the next three years. The shared ideals previously mentioned had a strong influence on the proposals put forward by delegates with freedom of movement and increased accessibility being amongst the points raised by almost everyone in the room.
The afternoon saw proceedings take a more local flavour as everyone’s favourite word was up for debate – Brexit. A panel, chaired by NUS Deputy President and Vice President for Education Amatey Doku discussed the ins and outs of the topic and answered questions from delegates including whether Article 50 had been triggered at the correct time and what they thought the deal would mean for international students. As UUSU has current policy on freedom of movement and student mobility post-Brexit, I was particularly interested to hear the panel’s thoughts on these with the general consensus being that both should be maintained regardless of what deal, if any is negotiated.
The day, and the convention concluded with some general thoughts on the issues facing students on a European level. From freedom of movement and student mobility to accessibility and equity of experience, the majority of the key priorities for students here in Northern Ireland are the exact same as those of our neighbours and friends across Europe.
Reflecting on the convention, USI Vice President for Academic Affairs Oisin Hassan commented: “International student cooperation is incredibly important for USI, and conferences like the ESC in Wales provide an opportunity to collaborate in the pioneering work of the student movement across Europe. With Brexit looming, it’s important for our membership across Ireland to know we’re hearing their concerns, and it was a valuable opportunity in Wales to continue to foster our close friendship with NUS UK at a time when European relations are strained.”
Kevin McStravock, UUSU President commented:
“The convention was an eye-opening and enriching experience. It was heartening to see that the struggles that many students here in Northern Ireland face are reflective of the barriers facing students elsewhere in Europe. Although we remain very much an outlier in terms of the fees charged to students here, many of the challenges and difficulties posing the Higher Education sector here are consistently across the continent.
It’s important that the experiences shared at this event are generated into something positive and having the ability to summon the power of a collective European voice on issues such as freedom of movement and the quality of higher education will help us to deliver a clear message to decision makers on the direction that students want to see Higher Education taking.”
If you have any thoughts on higher education funding or Brexit and would like to be involved in UUSU’s lobbying efforts, you can contact Kevin on firstname.lastname@example.org