Aidan is Membership Engagement Manager at NUS. He explains how he manages relationships with 25 UK students’ unions.
What are your main responsibilities at NUS?
My role is mostly account management. We're a membership organisation with 550 members. 140 of those are in higher education the rest are in further education. I manage about 25 of those accounts and manage people who do outreach to others.
It's about building a personal relationship with each institution's students’ union. Ensuring they're informed about what we can offer them and that they’re getting the most possible value out of the relationship.
How do you foster the relationships with your members?
For the 25 unions I look after, I visit each one on campus at least three times a year.
I probably do 100 visits in a calendar year. What we speak about is completely down to the SU and what their current priorities are.
Being on campus is invigorating. There's always an energy, even in the summer – universities don't stop. It re-energises you to go there and talk about the issues students are facing. It's the most direct part of the relationship and I always get a buzz out of it.
What are the main trends at universities at the moment?
Across all 25 of the unions I look after, students are most worried about employability, student finances and mental health and wellbeing. The context is so different at each university, though.
For instance, take University of Arts and LSE. They're the opposite ends of the same road. You'll talk about the same trends and issues but in completely different ways because of the institutions’ differing structures and student demographics. You have to make an effort to understand how trends relate to local context. And you have to take the local context back to the office with you afterwards.
What are the most rewarding parts?
Working with students. I work with student officers who are elected for a year’s term. They’ll explain their ideas and we'll provide some good practice from other institutions, help them make connections and do everything we can to facilitate their ideas.
Then you go back two or three months later, and you see how they've achieved something. For example, they've made the case for more student counsellors or they've managed to do some partnership stuff or get something funded. You can see the link between what you did six months ago and what they've achieved. You're just a small part of the process but they've done it all because you've helped along the way.
Seeing the officers’ personal journeys and their growth is amazing. That's what keeps me getting up early in the morning to get on a train to Bristol or Macclesfield or Brighton.
When did you decide you want to work in education and how did you go about it?
I got pulled in gradually. When I was studying at Hull, I got involved in sport. In my second year, people said I should become the sports officer. From there, I ended up running for president and got elected.
I studied politics so it was kind of the middle of a Venn diagram. After my term as president, I became aware of a job at Lincoln SU. I took that and went from there.
How has Brexit impacted students’ unions?
Lots of SUs are concerned about how Brexit will impact students’ rights, how international students will be affected by the pledges around reducing immigration, and what will happen to UK students studying in the EU.
Over the last five years, we’ve seen that international students increasingly feel less secure studying in the UK. Over the last year, there's been an increase in hate crime against international students. The numbers of students coming from India over the last few years has completely collapsed because of the immigration controls brought in. We're trying to articulate this evidence to the government while also helping SUs ensure their campuses are safe places for all students.
We know students are frustrated by Brexit and worried about the possible loss of opportunity. They're one of the only demographics that want access to the open market and free movement because they see that as an opportunity.
In what ways is diversity an issue for students’ unions?
A diversity of cultures and religions enriches your education. The evidence points to that. It's not a popular thing to say in broader society. But we're not here to be popular: we're here to create a fairer and more just education for society.
SUs are charities and their objective is to be representative of students. One of the main things coming up across campuses is equality and diversity. This means widening access to universities so that the student population mirrors the wider population.
It also means greater diversity in educational content. For example, if you study history, your reading list will be predominantly white male authors. How does that impact students who aren't white and male? People need to be inspired by what they see.
Over the course of your seven years working in higher education, how has the industry changed?
Students act more as consumers now. The £9,000 fees have been a big part of that.
A recent article in the Guardian stated that, on some metrics, our HE system is the most expensive in the world. If you look at the international trend, we're an outlier.
If Hillary Clinton had won the US election, she was going to make college tuition free. Angela Merkel's had to do it in Germany. This 'education for public good' argument is actually starting to win in some of most industrialised countries of the world. That wouldn't have happened six years ago.
What are your predictions for industry trends in the next five years?
I think there has to be a concession on funding. Student bursaries, scholarships and loans have to be increased because the costs for students outstrip what they’re being given to support themselves.
I think the biggest impact Brexit will have on HE will be on research funding. We as a nation spend very little on R&D. We're gonna have to start spending more on it. We currently rely on EU grants to fund our research. It will hit the larger institutions disproportionately because they get more from the EU.
What does education mean to you?
It means opportunity. The reason I do what I do is because, between the ages of two and five, I didn't have very good hearing. I couldn't really speak and I ended up taking speech therapy. It meant I was behind in my reading for a long time. From very early on, education became a personal priority for me.
As I've grown up, I've learnt that education goes beyond opportunity and that it's about privilege. If you have a good education, you have certain privileges in life. Where I've had the privilege of going through the education system to the full extent of my desire, I now have to work hard to make sure I share that privilege with people who don't have the same opportunities.
My job in higher ed is a monthly feature. Read the full series of interviews here.
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