As the Association Area Rep for Wales, I was delighted that we were able to publish the OU Students Association manifesto for the 2021 Senedd Elections last week. OU students are not represented by NUS Wales, and although we may agree with many of their policy positions, it’s vitally important that we work to get our unique voice heard in the corridors of power.
Much of the focus of our manifesto is on building on recent policy improvements for part-time distance-learning students in Wales. And while things have got better for OU students here, there is still more that can be done to improve the student experience and improve access to higher education. We therefore wanted to focus on asking Senedd candidates to support policies that are realistic but will make a real difference to current and future OU students.
For example, OU students in Wales are fortunate to have benefitted from recent reforms in student finance that have extended the availability of maintenance loans to part-time students. These reforms have made obtaining higher education qualifications so much more accessible for people of all ages across Wales. However, we can’t afford to take these improvements for granted, which is why we’re asking all candidates to commit to keeping them in place if they are elected.
Additionally, the cost of living continues to increase, which has a direct impact on the cost of participating in higher education. The equipment and materials that we need in order to get a full student experience is not cheap, and so we want to make sure that the amount that students can borrow increases at least in line with inflation.
Similarly, we know that many OU students juggle their studies with parenting as well as full- or part-time employment. We want to ensure that the cost of parenting isn’t a barrier to accessing higher education qualifications, which is why we are asking for the amount of support that part-time students who are parents receive through the Childcare Grant to increase in line with the cost of living.
One of the major barriers to accessing distance-learning across the whole of the UK is the disparity in broadband speeds, particularly in more rural areas, which also compounds issues around social isolation and mental health. Wales has some of the slowest broadband speeds in the UK, and this is why we want the next Welsh Government to prioritise making high-speed broadband available to every household in every community in Wales.
Finally, events in the summer of 2020 surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement raised the public’s awareness of systemic barriers faced by Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities. With this in mind, we are asking the next Welsh Government to support the higher education sector to better understand and overcome barriers faced by people due to their race, gender, sexual orientation or disability by carrying out a nation-wide review into the issue.
While we want politicians and candidates to hear and understand the issues that OU students experience and make commitments to addressing them, it is also important to us that OU students themselves get involved and support the campaign to get our voices heard. There are OU students in every constituency in Wales, and so we have an opportunity to connect with Senedd candidates on a local level, which will have a significant impact.
Over the coming weeks, we will be announcing simple ways for you to raise these issues and share our manifesto with your local candidates. In the meantime, you can raise awareness of the manifesto by sharing it on social media using the hashtags #PartTimeMatters and #SeneddElection and tagging the OU Students Association at @OUStudents.
Visit oustudents.com/wales to read the manifesto in English or Welsh, and to find out more about registering to vote and getting involved.