The NUS has Failed Students, We Deserve Better

Where the NUS belongs is at the heart of government fighting for improvements for students in areas like education, housing, public transport etc. It cannot do that job if it is shouting incoherent babble from the fringes of politics. The only time the NUS should be overtly political is as a facilitator of student campaigns. The whole point of a student movement is to be the mouthpiece of students, rather than telling them what they should think. If the NUS was an apolitical body amplifying the voices of all students, then it would be able to support the campaigns it does currently, but it would also be able to encourage those who feel marginalised within it to find their voices once more.

They claim to represent all students, they do not. They show students in the worst possible light. They are a major cause of apathy about student politics. Students on the ground don’t feel represented and, worse, know that whatever they do they cannot make a difference. So they don’t take part, they drop out of student politics, they stop listening, and the NUS continues to elect delegates who belong to the governing clique on ridiculously low turnouts.

The fact that someone elected on a ‘moderate’ platform is on record as having such a left wing position which will put her directly at odds with the Conservatives she represents is remarkable. How exactly a President with such beliefs will engage with Conservative Societies and the political campaigns that they may desire support from the student movement for is unclear. Perhaps she will follow the path of her predecessor, and not bother?

If the NUS believe that kicking out the Tories is a suitable agenda for the student movement, then they should hand back the money that Conservative-supporting students send them every year through their Unions. That’s my challenge to the NUS: if you seriously believe that you represent students with these sorts of policies, offer them the chance to prove it. If you won’t reimburse dissatisfied students, then perhaps the best way to show that you represent them would be by letting them vote directly, with a One Student, One Vote system. We all know that that is not something that you’ll do.

The time has come for a new movement. The student movement cannot be reclaimed from within the NUS – Tom Harwood’s fantastic campaign for real change securing only 35 delegates showed us that much. The systems and the structures simply prevent anyone beating the out-of-touch elite who build careers off the back of gesture politics and pointless protests. Outside the NUS though, there is a way.

Non-NUS Unions are much more capable of reform. Building a student movement that works for students is not a short-term process, but if we can show NUS universities that there is a better way outside of the NUS, then we can play an active part in facilitating a better student movement. So lets. Let’s set an example by building Unions which do not vilify you for having an opinion, but support you.

Unions should lend their resources, their expertise, and their support to student campaigns, even where those campaigns are conflicting. Most importantly, we should facilitate actual change, working pragmatically with local government and with any politicians who will listen to us to pursue an apolitical agenda that seeks to improve the outcomes for students in policy-making. If we can work in politics without being political, then we can ensure that our Unions do not alienate those who they represent, and by delivering real change we can show our members that there actually is a point to SUs.

SUs aren’t better together all of the time. The NUS is a formalised version of a set of relationships that should be much more informal. Its existence numbs the voices of individual SUs where they disagree with the overarching power structure – because it speaks for us, no one is interested in hearing us speak for ourselves. Yes, student unions should work together on important issues, but we don’t need a formal body to do that. The NUS hears the words ‘student politics’ and believes that the most important word is ‘politics’ – if they stopped playing politics and started representing students, we’d have a much better student movement.

One of the best things about university is discovering that not everyone agrees with you. That the NUS doesn’t reflect that is why it is no longer fit for purpose. One of the best things about Unions are their power to amplify the voices of their members and tackle apolitical issues on their behalf. That the NUS only tries to represent one small group of students is why it is not fit to represent all of them. The NUS is obsolete, the time has come for a new movement.

Let’s stop playing politics with students, let’s start listening to them.

Dear NUS

Dear NUS,

I’d like to start this open letter by congratulating you on successfully building an organisation out of your echo chamber. For most people, that is merely a pipe-dream, but you have successfully transformed the Twitter feed of a member of the Socialist Party into an organisation of unparalleled incompetence. Whether you are arguing for the abolition of prisons, failing to condemn ISIS, or single-handedly attempting to overthrow the government, you are certainly consistent in leaving your main legacy: a student body largely disengaged with student politics. One of the highlights of 2017 so far has been your attempts to destress our exams by providing light relief in the form of a group representing students at UK universities bickering about the relative merits of Israel-Palestine.

As a student at a Students’ Union outside of the NUS, the motives behind this letter may at first be unclear (not of course, that I expect anyone at the NUS to read it, you’re probably too busy correctly asserting that Donald Trump is not, in fact, your President), but the problem with the NUS affects all students, whether we finance your grandstanding or not.

First off, you do not represent all students. That became abundantly clear last year, when several Students’ Unions decided to depart your organisation, but has also been the case for some considerable length of time: Southampton, St Andrews and Imperial are just three examples. You also do not represent all of the students over whom you govern. Only 731 people voted in the election in which Malia Bouattia became President of the NUS – while we cannot play with turnout in the fashion so often used after general elections to invalid the mandate of the group elected, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to assume this isn’t a particularly high percentage of your membership, given that your own website boasts of representing over 600 Students’ Unions. Additionally, turnouts for delegate elections seem (from a scan of Google search results) to be generally low, suggesting that you do not in fact represent many students in any real sense.

This is problematic, because your pretence of a monopoly on student opinions, and the fact that due to your position as the ‘National Union of Students’ you have the most recognisable voice, mean that when people look at you, they think that all students are like that, degrading the ability of other student campaigners to lobby the public and politicians successfully.

Secondly, and following on, your very existence makes student politics a joke. There are real, genuine, important student issues to be debating and discussing. Transport, accommodation, education quality. Important issues like equality and diversity, representation of minority groups and international students are vital areas that always need to be looked at and addressed. The problem is, when an organisation that pretends to represent students is busy talking about ISIS and prison systems, that takes time away from its ability to actually represent students, and it makes student politics even more of a joke than it often is already. The truth is, while you say that you exist because no one takes student issues and student politics seriously; no one takes student issues and student politics seriously because you exist.

When students look to their Unions, they want to see them representing them. That means all students. A Union which has representatives who actively talk about overthrowing the Conservative Party does not speak for Conservative students, and breeds on university campuses a mindset in Conservative-backing students that they should keep their heads down and not express the fact that they are Conservatives. The compounding of shy conservatism may not seem like a bad thing to you, but it is – it is a bad thing because it disengages a whole generation of students from participating in student politics and encourages them to adopt a mindset of not admitting what they believe in. That is bad for them, and it is bad for you, as the voice of the Left on student campuses, because if Conservative students won’t argue with you, then you will never be able to convince them of your position because you won’t understand theirs. While your construction of a monumental safe space for your views will be welcomed by yourselves, it just means that more people will be put off politics, and that more Conservatives will drift to a place where they will constantly vote against you, but you won’t know enough about them to convince them back.

Disengagement isn’t just reserved to politically-active students who disagree with you, but it also extends to those who were disinterested in student politics in the first place. Let’s put it like this: if you aren’t interested in politics, are you more likely to become interested by watching quiet debate and discussion which you can engage with, or by watching angry protests and gesture-politics? What all of this disengagement does is weaken your voice and strengthen your echo chamber. It also weakens all of our voices, as a student body, because there are fewer of us willing and able to stand up and fight for students.

Equally, your latest hair-brained scheme is to thwart the government by boycotting the NSS. As a student at a university which will not be boycotting it, I have a natural inclination to welcome this particular policy, as the likelihood is that my university will shoot up the league tables, but this is a policy which is deeply damaging for current and future students, and shows a level of muddled reactionary thinking which is (even by your own standards) deeply misguided. If students don’t fill in the NSS, then the value of their degree programme goes down, by simple merit of decreasing its position in the rankings. Additionally, the value of the degrees done by second and first years decreases, because the NSS is used by universities to make vital improvements to the way in which courses and programmes are delivered – failing to provide that feedback means you are inflicting second year students with existing problems in degrees. Finally, you are robbing future students of an opportunity to accurately assess their university options. As a body that claims to be for students, you are acting against them in this. Not only that, but it is amusingly ironic as an action. You don’t wish for the government to increase the cost of courses, so you are boycotting the NSS and thus decreasing the value of them instead – with either policy the cost per unit of the course goes up, you just feel better if it is the latter case.

If you want to overthrow the Tories, NUS, then set up a political party. If you want to abolish prisons, or not condemn ISIS, or have schisms involving Mossad, then please do them in your own time – I’m not saying that you shouldn’t be engaging in your politics, I’m asking you not to do it in the name of all students. As a student who is not in the NUS, I ask you not to degrade my ability to make a difference.

Stick to what you do best, facilitating grassroots campaigns and providing people with cheaper stuff. Leave the politics to the students.

Oxford Votes to Remain in NUS Amongst Referendum Controversies

In the latest of the recent referenda on disaffiliation from the National Union of Students, Oxford University have voted to remain in the NUS. With 57.1% voters at the University coming down in favour of affiliation it will be a blow to many campaigners who have fought valiantly for disaffiliation.

It has been a referendum campaign marred with controversies, including allegations against NUS Vice President Richard Brooks. The NUS Vice President has been accused of violating referendum regulations by using a banned mailing list to promote the Yes to NUS campaign, who have emerged victorious. The Yes to NUS campaign were accused of breaking rules on a separate occasion earlier in the week by campaigning on another set of banned mailing lists, with campaign leader Becky Howe calling it an ‘innocent mistake’.

Campaigners on both sides at Christ Church College broke regulations, with a No Thanks NUS campaigner campaigning in a JCR Facebook group and the Yes to NUS campaign accused of ripping up opposition posters.

Of course this is not the first time an NUS referendum at Oxford has been controversial, with the University’s 2014 referendum experiencing similar accusations.