NUS-USI has published all of the policies that will be discussed at our upcoming NUS-USI Conference in April. These are all policies that have been submitted by delegates and will now be discussed at Conference.
At conference we will have the space to discuss each of these issues and delegates will have the opportunity to find out more information on all the key issues.
We would appreciate delegates taking the time ahead of conference to read more about the policies that have been submitted
The problem: Universal Credit was introduced in NI as part of the UK-wide welfare reform strategy, adopted in NI under the Northern Ireland (Welfare Reform) Act 2015. It was introduced in NI on a phased geographical basis on 27 September 2017 until December 2018 (first introduced in Jobs and Benefits Centres in Ballymoney and Limavady). Its purpose was to replace multiple claims for six state benefits with a single claim form for those aged over 18 and under State Pension age. Applicants apply through an online system who then receive access to the online management system and are expected to maintain information regarding their individual claim using this. The continued use of Universal Credit by the Department for Communities is detrimental to students with additional needs and/or caring responsibilities.
Current rules for students who meet the eligibility criteria dictate that although grants made by Student Finance NI are not considered as income, Maintenance Loan payments are. Therefore, their benefit entitlement is likely to be reduced pound-for-pound after an initial disregarded amount. The impact of this is that many students who may already experience barriers to higher education may also experience a higher rate of poverty compared to other students. Due to the circumstances of the individual, they may not be able to supplement their income through paid employment or additional support.
Proposed Solutions: NUS-USI could call on the Northern Ireland Executive to review the eligibility of students who receive maintenance grants for Universal Credit andthe President could lobby the Department for Communities to ensure better access to benefits and support for students, particularly those with caring responsibilities. NUS-USI could undertake research to determine the effects of Universal Credit, its eligibility criteria and the impacts of a reduction in income due to the income threshold on students in the FE and HE sector.
The problem: Renationalising Apprenticeship Provision - Over 70% of apprenticeships are delivered by private training providers. These providers not covered by the education act (1994), no requirement for learner representation, do not fall under the scope of college insolvency protection and are not required to have learner or staff representation on their boards. Alongside chronic and endemic underpayment of apprentices the most pressing issue facing apprentices across the UK is the quality of their education. Governments across the UK have attempted to address this but we have seen no significant shift in the number of apprentices receiving the training that they are entitled to; that education that providers are paid for and that entitles employers to pay apprentices a reduced rate. Apprenticeships have developed two competing models of training. Those professions that maintained historic apprenticeship provision, construction, engineering and hair dressing continue to deliver their training predominantly through day or block release. Employers understanding that to develop new skills and understanding the apprentice needs to take time away from the workplace.
Employers and industries that have adopted apprenticeships more recently, Early Years, Retail and Business administration, have developed a different model. The Assessor visitor model ensures that an apprentice is in the workplace full time and must arrange their off the job learning around their duties at work. Rather than learning with other apprentices their training is delivered through online blended learning. An assessor will then visit the apprentice in their workplace once every 4-12 weeks. It is disgraceful that online learning in schools, colleges and universities is a national priority to be ended as soon as possible, but remains the norm for most apprentices. The day release model also allows apprentices to engage with other apprentices, compare experiences and access support services available within an FE college. Despite a decade of cuts FE colleges still provide access to childcare, student support, mental health support and sex and relationships education. In the 2019 election we also saw FE colleges support voter registration drives ensuring young people were not disenfranchised. Whilst we do not take the view that this cannot be considered off the job learning the risks that either:
The apprenticeship pay survey show that less than half of apprentices were receiving their off the job training. At the moment the guidance allows for a very broad definition of what constitutes off the job training. We propose that this guidance be changed as follows:
Who benefits? As we see from the Apprenticeship pay survey the apprenticeships that are least likely to be delivering the legal minimum requirement of off the job training are those apprenticeships that are predominantly done by women. It cannot be right that we have an apprenticeship system that ensures high quality training and education through day release for young men, in engineering and construction, and another in social care and retail where an apprenticeship simply means low paid work with no education or training.
Finding the Funding - This change would incur no additional funding year on year. These apprenticeships are already receiving funding but apprentices aren’t receiving their education. We believe that this change would significantly improve the educational experience of apprentices. It would also allow apprentices to meet from other apprentices and enjoy access to services most efficiently provided centrally. It would shift the focus of our apprenticeship programme from “what employers and providers can get away with” to a skills system fit for purpose.
The problem: During the pandemic, students have struggled financially due to unemployment, loss of income, limited access to benefits, rent and accommodation, paying for internet access, technology and supporting their households. Students have been driven to Student Hardship Funds and Student Support Funds for one-off payments to help them get through the pandemic. However, these funds have lengthy, complex and demanding application processes and can be a barrier to students accessing the funds they need.
Proposed Solutions: NUS-USI and its MOs could work to make the SSF and SHF more accessible across higher and further education by calling for additional support staff to Finance Offices, to eradicate means tested processes and to make processes less invasive of a students' private expenses.
The problem: A massive issue facing our students is that students in further education colleges are often left behind in government decision making. We saw this throughout 2020/21 when it came to developing alternative assessment arrangements for BTEC students, clarity on FE students receiving access to Erasmus+ through the Irish government sponsorship program and being largely excluded from NI Executive financial support packages. Its essential that further education students receive parity of esteem. This is important to us as a movement as students in further education make up the vast majority of our movement, and cannot wait any longer in being prioritised by government. We need equal support for the FE student voice alongside greater investment in further education Unions who are representing thousands of students with little financial investment.
Proposed Solutions: A solution to this would mean that Unions would have enough investment to develop student voice locally without the current intense workloads Unions are facing. It would mean investment into student mental health services, Clubs and Societies, academic representation programs and the development of a learner engagement framework. The past academic year has shown how incredibly strong Unions are, and how essential they are to students lives. Students’ Unions are the basis of community building within colleges and now more than ever we need prioritisation of funding into student services, particularly further education Unions.