On November 1st, David Gilani, the President of SUSU, published a blog article titled ‘Ending Student Poverty’. The article contained eight policies that Gilani plans on achieving in an attempt to reduce the level of student poverty in Southampton. To satisfy my burning questions about the practical implementation of these policies, I got in touch with the top dog himself who kindly agreed to an interview. Questions were asked about each of the policies but not all of the answers made it on to the article.
*Original recording transcript has been edited in line with article word limit*
Firstly, how would you define ‘Student Poverty’?
So student poverty, for me, is not just about getting a degree but about having a full university experience and not having finances being a barrier to that.
Remove Hidden Course Costs
How does displaying the information about course costs reduce student poverty? Is it not more of an information-orientated policy?
Some elements of this student poverty campaign are about making sure that people are aware what the costs are beforehand because at least you can know and budget for it, and can prepare in some ways. It’s a fair point, sometimes information isn’t enough which is why some of the other policies then go into making sure people have enough money.
But isn’t there a risk that this policy will put off those students from less economically-beneficial positions applying for certain courses?
It is definitely true that if people see these costs before they apply, they might think that. But, at the same time, I’d rather people realise that before they come to university and we lobby the government to make sure there are more ways to provide financial support for those students – rather for them to come to university, start paying £9000 worth of fees, and they drop out half way through because of hidden costs.
Ending International Fee Disparity
You, David Mendoza-Wolfson, and Oli Coles have worked together to end international fee disparity – how successful have you been?
Actually, fairly well … Next Tuesday (26th)*, I’ve got a paper going to the University Executive Group meeting where they are going to discuss, and vote on, this proposal and they’ve been nice enough to let me come along so that I can say why the students want this to happen. So, hopefully, next week I’ll be able say that – from the future academic year’s cohort – international students will no longer have their fees increased between each year of study.
(*Meeting has been postponed until December)
More Bursaries for Students
What work has been done by you and the University to make those people that are not claiming bursaries, claim them?
SUSU has lobbied the University to move from just giving students a fee waiver, to allowing the students to choose which one they would like to actually have – whether that would be a bursary or a fee waiver. The difference we’ve made this year is educating students about the benefits of a bursary and why that will end student poverty in the sense of giving students some money back.
Have you commissioned research into the different areas of financial funding for postgraduate students? And can you give us some more details about that and when it would be completed?
Yes. So we’ve sent out for a PGR student to do some research to look into, at the moment, what Southampton provides in terms of financial support.
With regards to improvements of SUSU’s lobbying, have there been any examples in which SUSU has successfully lobbied the financial framework that exists for postgraduates?
As far as I’m aware, no – not yet. The University of Southampton, the Vice-Chancellor, and SUSU – for a number of years – have been trying to lobby together to get a national postgraduate taught loan scheme … But there has been no progress since this issue came to be quite a big talking point and it’s terrible, it’s a real shame but all we can do is keep fighting for it.
So would you say that lobbying, thus far, has been ineffective?
I think that, for the students who would have liked to have been able to do postgraduate degree but haven’t had the money to, we’ve let them down; it has been ineffective. But at the same time this is talking about a national solution to a problem that affects thousands of people. I would be being very idealistic if I thought that this could be solved in just a few months by anyone.
Southampton Student Living Wage
Where currently is the research up to in regards to working out a living wage for students in Southampton?
So this is something which we’ve just recently commissioned so the data hasn’t come back yet. Once it does come back, we can start analysing it and see how possible it really is. I’m very happy to say that SUSU, in terms of the staff that we employ, have recently been able to move up anyone who is being paid below the living wage to the living wage… We should have [the data]back probably just in time for Christmas so we can start analysing it after that and put it into effect early 2014.
So we can expect some change to the pay structure for SUSU part-time staff by 2014?
I think that it’s important that, once we have the data about how much students need, we then have the conversation on how we can find resources to make what that suggestion is work. I wouldn’t want to promise that we’re going to increase it if it’s suggesting a massive jump in wage because that would mean we’d have to employ less staff … So, once we have the research back, we can look into it; that’s my goal, to make it happen at some point next year.
If this is a principle that you believe very strongly in – that people should be paid a living wage – would you at least agree to pay all SUSU-employed staff the official living wage by 2014? If it turns out that the Soton student living wage is unrealistically high, would you then use the official living wage as a guide for increasing the pay of SUSU part-time staff?
I think that that’s fair in principle but, at the same time, the reason why I wanted to do this research first is because the living wage is based on people being able to work 35 hours a week which is just not true for students. So I don’t think the national living wage should necessarily be reflected for our students and I wouldn’t necessarily like to promise you that because I think that might be a bit arbitrary.
So we’ll hear back about this issue in December, if not, January?
Stop Loan Repayment Changes
What role did SUSU play in lobbying the Coalition government to not sell off the Student Loans Book?
Our role in that was just to make sure that students were aware of it, that they – where they could – sent letters to MPs about it, signed petitions. We wanted to make sure that, although we weren’t part of the NUS movement which did most of the lobbying nationally, we made our voices clear and got our students to be part of that discussion.
Success of the Policies
Will there be a measure of the overall success of these policies and how will you measure if they actually reduce student poverty?
The way we’re going to measure this is by the success of the individual targets. We’ll be able to see the increase in bursaries, an increase in the number of bursaries claimed – that sort of thing but across all of the individual goals. We’d also love to have some sort of totaliser at the end of the year so that we could see the prominence of student poverty in every academic year to follow.
Thank you to David Gilani for participating. A follow up article is planned for January.