Feel-real factor sweeps NUS

March 31, 1995

Student leaders have prepared the ground for a wholesale review of their policy on funding tuition and students in the further and higher education system.

Eighteen university unions proposed a motion - due to be debated at the National Union of Students annual conference in Blackpool yesterday - for research into all methods of paying for post-16 education.

It is the first time the union's commitment to restoring maintenance grants to their 1979 value has been challenged at its national conference, and reflects the prevailing mood of pragmatism among the 1,400 delegates.

The motion on student financial support called for a document explaining the welfare and cost implications of all funding options, including graduate taxes and course fee contributions.

It should be completed by the end of May and circulated to student unions around the country for discussion, with a view to policy changes next year.

Re-elected NUS president Jim Murphy said: "In previous years, conference may have suspended reality for four days. Now our decisions relate far more to the reality for students."

The conference eschewed radical politics for a series of "student-centred" motions. And no one screamed into the microphone, for fear of offending the students with hearing aids. Even the discussion on the rise of religious fundamentalism was limited to its impact on British campuses.

There was unanimous agreement on de-politicising the NUS attitude to Northern Ireland, which drops Troops Out in favour of promoting the union's forthcoming conference, Building Peace. The NUS is using a European Union grant to sponsor community relations initiatives.

However, the conference's lack of extremism did not signify lack of concern for problems facing students. It coincided with another NUS hardship survey, this time showing accommodation costs rising while grants were falling. Hall fees have shown an annual rise of 5.5 per cent to a national average of Pounds 37.66 per week, while private rents are up by 7 per cent.

One of Mr Murphy's main aims for his second term include improving accessibility for disabled students. "Students with disabilities are debarred proper access to libraries, lecture theatres and sadly even student unions," he said. "There is a need for a national plan of action."

Although the Government this week announced a review of further and higher education for disabled students to see if their needs could be better met, the conference renewed its call for stronger disabled rights legislation.

The Government move followed the defeat of an Opposition bid to include greater educational rights in the Disability Discrimination Bill. In higher education, the review will explore how capital spending could be used to improve facilities for disabled students. In further education colleges, ways of improving staff awareness of disabled students' needs and the quality of provision will be analysed.

* Dundee University is to house a Pounds 170,000 training and assessment centre for students with disabilities, funded by the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council as part of a national move to support students with disabilities.

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