For a global public higher education: my experience as an NUS Delegate

KCLSU Logo

The National Students Union (NUS) held its National Conference in April. I ran to represent on the issue of fee reduction or total compensation for students. In my case, as an international postgraduate student from Latin America, I saw the topic as an opportunity to address the differences between fee rates, not only between home students and international students. Also, there are many differences between international students. As a result, the national motion proposed by several student unions, including King’s College London, was accepted. Moreover, the motion was amended with the necessary distinction between home and international students. Finally, the amendment re-frames the focus of the fee strike towards a public financed higher education system.

The original phrasing of the motion referred only to a refund of fees based on the pandemic experience and had no explicit mention of international students. However, as I addressed my fellow delegates by presenting the motion on behalf of the KCL delegation, quality of treatment by universities was just the peak of the iceberg of significant problems: fees became another burden for students and their families, home and abroad, and the pandemic showed how the privatised system of public education is not oriented to change lives, just granting degrees in exchange for profit.

As many international students pointed out during the online workshops wonderfully arranged by the NUS Conference staff, their families lost income. Part of their funds collapsed because most currencies depreciated in front of the Great British Pound. Reportages by several news organisations have shown how international students have recurred to food banks, debt, or charity. Even when the government says that they allocated funds for international students struggling, the images of international students in queue lines waiting for food showed the harrowing reality. The idea of the wealthy international student broke down before our eyes. We are middle income, or even working-class students, looking for better education opportunities in the United Kingdom.

This is not about a service provided by a company. It is about a model that profits with one of the most valuable public goods: education. The education we received during the pandemic was hindered by the conditions that universities put forward. At the Conference, I called for solidarity with teachers, lecturers, and staff of universities. They have done miracles with scarce resources and support from universities after struggling with authorities about pensions and salaries. Education is a good that has to be cared as a public investment. It should not be fees for profit that causes stress in families home and abroad.

As a result of the discussion by the NUS delegates, especially international students, the motion was amended, aiming for a more integral approach to the fees question. In the short term, the fee strike for the refund has to be re-framed as another COVID-19 relief measure for working families home and abroad. For a long campaign, the relief has to be a breaking point to shift the discussion to public-funded higher education. Erase the discourse against teachers, or differentiate fees between national or international students, and unite around the idea that public-funded education through a student movement is possible. In Latin America, there are examples of this: Chilean student unions got public funding after long strikes recently. In 1999, Mexican students avoided a financial reform in the National University (UNAM) by opposing fees. And public higher education is a reality in Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America. 

Global public education in the United Kingdom is possible. Quality does not equate to cost for students. Education is also about how universities and governments treat and invest in their students to be the best and change lives. Suppose Britain wants to be a Global influence again. In that case, it needs to treat its students as the best potential ambassadors to the world. The government must not expect students to pay to maintain a structure out of touch with the necessities of students and university workers. I hope you join the strike and the mobilisation in favour of public education around the world.