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Still standing for students: An interview with Josh Sanderson-Kirk

Joshua Sanderson-Kirk has been the ULaw Student Association President for over two years now and, having been called to the Bar in 2018, is already planning to continue helping fellow and future students. Josh has now been appointed as a member of the Student Panel of the Office for Students, a prestigious position that allows him to pursue his passions for diversity and the promotion of student mental health. We caught up with Josh to find out about what this position means to him and what his aspirations for the future are.

As President of the Student Association (SA) I’ve been able to visit all of ULaw’s campuses. With nine campuses across the UK, I put in a fair few miles – probably over 17,000 miles of train travel in my first year alone. I got to meet students and staff at all our campuses and hear from them about what it was that they wanted from their university experience. Off the back of those visits I introduced SA Vice-Presidents at each campus, but I think that my proudest achievement has been the creation of the SA Liberation Officers, who ensure we remain inclusive and diverse in everything that ULaw and the SA gets involved in.

I’m going to be joining the Office for Students (OfS) as a member of the Student Panel. The OfS is the independent regulator for Higher Education in England. They’re a public body that reports to Parliament via the Department of Education. Their aim is to ensure that students, no matter their background, have a fulfilling experience of higher education that enriches their lives and careers. It tries to achieve its aim via regulation of the institutions that provide higher education in England. My role will largely entail advising the OfS on both its strategy and the activities it undertakes. By providing a representative student voice we can ensure that there is meaningful student engagement with what the OfS is getting up to.

What I’d really like to achieve with the OfS is to increase awareness of just how broad a spectrum of students they serve. Often niche institutions such as ours are overlooked when talking about universities and it’s important that the views of our students are also represented on a national level.

Another key area for me is student mental health. This is something that’s always been important to us in the SA, and it’s clearly an ever more important topic for students generally. I believe that the regulator has a role to play in ensuring that all higher education providers take the mental health of their students seriously and provide appropriate services to them. I deal with the consequences of failing to support young people’s mental health every weekend in my voluntary role, so I hope to be a powerful advocate for them at OfS.

I think that the first step to good mental health is talking about it. We shouldn’t fear discussing what is going on in our lives. I would also advise students to practise some self-care and take a few moments out every day. It’s so important to take time away from studying, work or other responsibilities where you can. I play rugby most weekends and for me that is a great way of unwinding.

I want to be involved in the still huge amount of work that’s needed regarding diversity too. I’m optimistic that being a voice within the OfS will mean that more will be heard and subsequently done. I hope to highlight the injustice of a black attainment gap which exists at so many institutions that it means our fellow students who are black are 25.3% less likely to receive a 1st or 2:1 in their degree and that only 0.6% of professors in the UK are black. I’m also passionate about the role the higher education sector can play in promoting diversity and equality in the legal profession and specifically the Bar. As a profession we should mirror the society which we serve.

My advice on diversity is to be a vocal advocate for yourself and a good ally to other groups who experience disadvantage and oppression. I took the decision when I first joined ULaw for my GDL (now PGDL) in 2014 to be fully open about being a proud gay man and I have no regrets at all. I would encourage everyone to live their own truth.

I was called to the Bar last year and it was one of my proudest moments. I hope to practise at the Bar and I am currently on the hunt for pupillage like many of our students. My dream area would be in Human Rights, particularly LGBT+ asylum or social housing, areas in which I have worked before. I also find the cut and thrust of criminal advocacy exciting so specialising in criminal also appeals. If it’s possible I would of course also like to continue to support ULaw students in any way I can. I think the most effective way I can support students after my term of office is to leave an effective legacy in the Student Association through enhanced student engagement and a better welfare service.

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