Fergal McFerran, NUS-USI President
Last week I received word from the Committee on Standards and Privileges that the application to form the All Party Group (APG) on Students in the Northern Ireland Assembly has been accepted. The Group are now formally allowed to meet and our plans to make sure that the voice of students are heard by those in power have taken a massive step forward.
By convening the first ever APG on Students, our political parties have fulfilled one of the key asks from our #OwningOurFuture Student Manifesto, and demonstrated their commitment to engaging with the student movement.
But the formation of an APG is not an end in itself; it is very much just a beginning. Making sure that we understand the potential of this forum is the key to using it to improve the lives of students. Over the next year NUS-USI will be engaging with Students’ Unions across Northern Ireland to make sure that student officers understand what the APG means to them, and that they are given opportunities to engage with it. In the meantime, I’ve tried to give a brief list of answers to some of the key questions you may have about it.
What is an All Party Group (APG)?
In a nutshell, an APG is a group of MLAs from different political parties who share an interest in a particular topic, and have decided to meet regularly to discuss it. There are rules surrounding how APGs are formed and operate, and in Northern Ireland APGs have to be truly cross party; they must include at least one member from a unionist party, a nationalist party and a party that is neither. You can read up on the rules of APGs on the Assembly website here.
APGs don’t have many powers of their own. There are not like a Committee that has power to summon witnesses or launch an official inquiry and nor do they have any formal role in policy development. However they are incredibly flexible in terms of how they operate; they can meet as often or as infrequently as they like. Members can invite external organisations and individuals to inform the work of the APG, and the APG can write to Committees, Ministers or Departments to raise their views on a particular issue. Often, as the result of a topic discussed in an APG, the individual members may decide that they would like to investigate further by submitting Assembly Questions, engaging on a constituency level, or even, in some cases, putting forward a Private Members’ Bill.
An APG is designed as a way for MLAs to collaborate on issues that they care about, in the public interest, and engage directly with organisations and members of the public in that sector, so that they can work together to find solutions to problems.
What is the role of NUS-USI in the APG on Students?
NUS-USI provides the secretariat support for the Group. NUS-USI is not a formal member of the APG as only MLAs can be members. This means that we do not have formal voting rights, and we play no role in electing its officers.
As secretariat it is our role to advise and support the APG. We can speak at meetings and offer our views, however ultimately the topics, terms of reference and forward work plan is decided by the MLAs. We assist in organising the meetings and prepare documents for each meeting, including writing briefings, preparing research and preparing the agenda, in collaboration with the APG’s elected officers.
How can SUs and student officers be involved?
At the discretion of each Group individuals are welcome to attend APGs to inform and support their work. NUS-USI intend to make sure that we use our role as secretariat to make sure that SUs are given opportunities to engage with the group, and make it an effective tool in our wider campaigns.
We will be inviting students and student officers to attend meetings of the APG and we will be seeking your views on the themes as chosen by the members. We will be asking you to help us publicise the group, in the media and through social media to make sure that it is a visible, and dynamic presence in the NI Assembly. We will be asking you to help us lobby members of the group to strengthen their engagement and to reinforce the messages put forward at each meeting.
You can also use the APG on students to strengthen your own campaigns. By joining the APG, MLAs have made a clear statement that they are willing to engage with the student movement. Today we’ve also launched a new section of the NUS-USI website which lists all of the current members of the APG on Students and their contact details. Write to them, meet with them, tweet them, and invite them to your events. Let’s make sure that the student voice is heard loud and clear, and put student issues at the top of the agenda.
As agreed by members at the inaugural meeting in October, the APG on Students will meet three times per year in addition to its AGM. Each meeting will last for 30 minutes and the following themes will be discussed:
- Legislation to protect SUs
- Higher and Further Education Funding
- Mental Health in the Student Population.
These themes are reflective of not only NUS-USI’s key priorities, and the Asks in our Student Manifesto, but also the current priorities of the NI Assembly. Prior to each meeting NUS-USI will contact SUs to let them know about the upcoming theme and invite them to send representatives.
How can we make the APG on Students a success?
Many good things have already come out of APGs. The Autism Bill (NI) was passed in 2011 largely as a result of Autism NI’s significant work the APG on Autism. The Children’s Bill 2015 can trace its origins back to the APG on Children and Young People. Through consistent and effective engagement the work of APGs can result in real and concrete change.
NUS-USI cannot make the APG on Students a success without engaging SUs in the process. We know this. And we are looking forward to working with you to create a strong, engaged, effective APG on Students which can play a significant role in finding real solutions for students.
For further information on the APG on Students please contact firstname.lastname@example.org