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April 09, 2013

The future of the student experience: NUS President–elect Toni Pearce

Writing about web page http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/knowledge/business/gus

Photography of Toni Pearce NUS President elect 2013/2014

Humbled and excited: Toni Pearce at NUS Conference 2013. Her first tweet as President-elect read "Incredibly humbled and excited to have been elected the next @nusuk national president. Thank you! #nusnc13."

Alex Miles (University of Warwick) speaks to the Toni Pearce, President-elect of the National Union of Students (NUS). Toni is the first NUS president to be elected from an FE (further education) background.

AM: Will MOOCs (massive open online courses) transform student representation for the better or for the worse?

TP: It’s a complicated issue. I think it’ll be a challenge for all student organisations, including the NUS – as we’ll have to start making more of our activities online. That’s about saying, actually, what do these people want – do these people want formal debates, do they want nights out, do they want a masculine model of democracy, where you stand up and have 'for' and 'against' arguments or do they want forums and discussions online? Do they just want somewhere where they can raise issues with the academic quality on their course? If you’re a mature student who’s studying in the evenings then you probably don’t want the wine and cheese evening that’s traditionally laid on for you but you might just want somebody who will campaign for child-care on your campus, and I think that’s the really important thing: identifying things that our students need and delivering on those.

AM: And if your student population is scattered around the globe and watching online, how do you ensure that quality and student rights are maintained? Indeed, how would you (completely hypothetically) ensure that the sense of community and student solidarity is maintained, despite the disparate nature of that education model?

TP: I think that we have to be really clear that solidarity doesn’t just mean solidarity when something goes wrong. It doesn’t just mean protests or occupations or placards - and all of those things are absolutely key to lots of the student movements, to activism – but it can be about so much more than that. We have the technology and the capability now to engage with thousands of students online and, actually, if we put our minds to it, could absolutely engage with them and create a sense of community and make sure that those people feel engaged. It’s not like we have only one student studying in Dubai, for instance, where students' unions are outlawed; we have to look at how we work around that model because, when they’re enrolled with institutions in the UK, it’s really important that they have the same rights to access student voice structures and democratic structures as our students studying within the UK have. That’s a really difficult one to navigate. Maybe that’s about bringing those students together on their campuses internationally, maybe it’s about creating students’ unions internationally that aren’t just based on institutions but are based purely on the nature of being a student, so being able to organise between institutions rather than just within your own institution. I think that will be really important in the future.

AM: And so, would you create a students' union for each online course provider?

TP: I suppose the example that I’d use is the way that we’ve begun to set up the National Society of Apprentices in the UK. Usually our constituent members are students' unions of each institution, but what we’ve actually done (because apprentices are so spread out in the UK, and you could have maybe one studying with one private training provider) is given them the opportunity to have individual membership to something called the National Society of Apprentices which is, in itself, affiliated to NUS, so they can have a democratic voice through that structure. And I suppose that’s how we might think about doing it internationally. I know that there’s obviously a lot of thought that would need to go into that but we shouldn’t underestimate the power of a better link between the students' union movement and the trade union movement because a lot of people who are studying online or are studying part-time are doing so because their own life commitments prevent them from being full-time (possibly because they’re working full-time). Making sure that we have a much stronger commitment between the trade union movement and the students' union movement will allow them to work together and ensure that those people who are working have the opportunity to access, not just education but also quality education.

AM: The University of Warwick is hosting the 2013 Global University Summit later this summer, which will issue a formal declaration on higher education to the G8. Let’s say that, for some reason Bono has decided that higher education is his new raison d’etre and he is going to lobby the G8 Summit of World Leaders to make one commitment on this matter - bearing in mind that this year’s summit is going to be focusing on free trade – what would you like that commitment to be?

TP: I think that it’s impossible, and perhaps unhelpful, to single out higher education as something that you can change within itself because it’s so subject to the changes in society around it, and not just within the UK but internationally. If I wanted Bono to campaign on one issue that would have an impact on the higher education system, and a positive impact on students in higher education, it would be to change the whole way that our higher education system works, and the way that it allows students from different backgrounds and different classes to access all types of education, (whether that’s young people from the poorest backgrounds accessing the most prestigious higher education institutions or people from the most privileged backgrounds accessing some kind of more vocational opportunities) but also making sure that that’s freely available throughout the world.

Some of the issues coming up, particularly around the Scottish independence referendum, really give us a glimpse into the future of how students will be prevented from moving around, not just around the EU but nationally, and actually I think that’s really important as we move into a much more technological age. I think it’s only right that more information is shared freely throughout the world because our education system should be about just that - educating people and not about the marketization of knowledge and information. I think that’s a really big concern for me, the fact that you wouldn’t be able to freely access knowledge, and I think with the opportunities that are given to us through technology, the internet and even MOOCs, I think people should have absolutely the opportunity to access knowledge and information freely. That’s one of the really exciting things that the Open University does. So I suppose that it’s very difficult to ask one thing from Bono, but I suppose it would be a massive overhaul of the whole of the university system in the UK.

Image c/o the National Union of Students.

This blog is part of a regular series on the Knowledge Centre looking at issues in higher education ahead of the Global University Summit (May 28-30 2013), hosted by the University of Warwick in Whitehall, London. As part of the GUS, a declaration of commitment and policy recommendations will be drawn up for the G8 summit of world leaders, taking place in Northern Ireland in June.


November 13, 2012

What is in an acronym? WIDS 2012

Writing about web page http://www.wids.org.uk/index.php/

WIDS 2012 US_Navy Haitian workers Port-Au-Prince international airport
Haitian workers move cooking oil supplied by United Stated Agency for International Development (USAID) at a distribution centre at Port-Au-Prince international airport. Image c/o Wikicommons.

Higher education is full of acronyms – from HEFCE and BIS at the government/funding end through to the likes of ‘WBL’ and UWWO that students at the University of Warwick might come across during their time on campus.


Sometimes, once the acronym is spelled out, the purpose of the phrase or organisation is self-evident (WBL is work-based learning and UWWO is the University of Warwick Wind Orchestra if you haven’t already googled the terms). But over the past month there’s one acronym that keeps popping up at Warwick that I’ve struggled to get my head around. It’s ‘WIDS’ – the Warwick International Development Society. It’s not because the group’s badly named or that I’ve not come international development before, it’s just that the acronym and name cannot fully sum up all of the ideas and work that WIDS embraces. It’s a failing of the English language rather than a poor choice of name. WIDS is the student society equivalent of ‘Espirit d'escalier’1 or ‘Tatemae and honne’2. Sadly, the English language lacks a succinct term that fully sums up the work, aspirations and feelings involved in WIDS.

Think about it, what comes to mind when you say ‘international development’? Is it a mixture of:

  • Community-based development
  • Poverty reduction
  • Sustainable development
  • Self-sustainability
  • International relations

WIDS as a society covers all this but it does so much more. It:

The upcoming summit, taking place this weekend, is promoted as providing “an intellectual platform to discuss and present original means of tackling these diverse issues. [WIDS] strives to involve a range of speakers from varying backgrounds and distinct perspectives, as well as engage students from across the globe to form a truly international summit”.

If you take a look at the WIDS website, you can see that this year’s summit is clearly aiming high on the guest speaker front.

Jeffrey Sachs speaking at WIDS 2012Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute (left), Columbia University and Special Advisor to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, will be speaking to the summit via video conference. Professor Sachs, who is also co-founder and Chief Strategist of Millennium Promise Alliance, is one of the world’s leading economists and has been named as one of Time Magazine's "100 Most Influential People in the World" twice. Amongst the many people who work closely with Professor Sachs is U2 frontman Bono. Speaking of Sachs, the singer said “In time, his autograph will be worth a lot more than mine.”

WIDS 2012 World Bank Managing Director Mahmoud MohieldinOther speakers at WIDS 2012 include the head of the World Bank Group, Mahmoud Mohieldin (left); Meghnad Desai, Emeritus Professor of Economics, London School of Economics and Labour Peer in the House of Lords; and Professor Alan Winters of the University of Sussex. The full list of speakers is on the WIDS website.


The variety of those presenting talks this weekend speaks very highly of the students involved in WIDS and their ability to both approach interesting speakers and convince them to give up their time in the hope of finding new answers to some very old questions.

Bengali famine 1943
Bengali famine 1943. Image c/o Wikicommons.

I’ll be attending the conference, running from Friday evening (16 November) to Sunday (18 November). Hopefully I’ll see you there but, if not, I’ll be producing an overview for the Knowledge Centre to accompany some audio-visual content from the Summit later this month.

1 Espirit d'escalier is a French phrase for the moment when you come up with the perfect verbal comeback but too late for it to be of any use.

2 Honne and tatemae are Japanese words for ‘what you choose to believe/publically display’ and ‘what you actually believe’ respectively.



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