A lot has been written on the NUS conference, so I will quickly summarise my argument to avoid re-reading: the NUS is not great, but we have to stick with it.
To even begin to list the problems one can find with the NUS and the way it operates will go far beyond the scope of this article and its humble 600 words.
Let’s start with the facts. Over a thousand delegates from Higher and Further Education can attend the annual conference but around 800 actually do. Between them, they represent 7 million students. Conference lasts three days, in which NUS steering policy for the year is decided, the old committee is held accountable and the new committee is elected.
Three days will never be enough to navigate an organisation which attempts to unite a movement of millions. It won’t be enough to ensure that the motions we vote on are implemented (allegedly only 40% ever do). And it certainly won’t be enough to make informed decisions on electing a new committee. With all this in mind, however, the last thing to do would be to try and stifle the national union or simply ignore its efforts.
Institutions like the NUS evolve. Not through angry newspaper articles. They do so with thorough reform and slow reform. Attitudes move faster than institutions, and that will always be frustrating but we cannot abandon institutions altogether. If we did so, the 50/50 representation would not have passed this year. I am proud to say I will be the last only-female delegate from Oxford. That was not achieved through disaffiliation. Abandoning institutions which we consider rigid will cause nothing but their absolute stagnation. Next year the NUS will look completely different. It will probably sound quite different too. Two years from now it may be a complexly new institution altogether.
And yes, right now, there is a lot that is disheartening and frustrating about conference. Given the time limits, ‘voting on steering policy’ translates into a discussion on no more than 30% of proposed motions which usually descends into a spiral of amendments to amend amendments and passionate speeches filled with empty buzz words like ‘smash the fascists’ and ‘uniting against austerity’.
‘Holding the old committee accountable’ translates into a flashy video of their achievements, followed by five minutes of questions submitted via an elected democratic committee and asked two or three at a time. ‘Electing the new committee’ turns to 90 minutes of candidates reciting a speech they’re re-drafted into artificiality about how they are not-another-artificial-candidate. This amidst a sea of ‘hacks’ all assuring you a brightly coloured t-shirt is informing you of the best person for the job.
What remains at the heart of the NUS’ creation, however, remains intact. It was conceived as a body to campaign for the issues most pertinent to students; all students. Thus, giving them the weight of national unity and some concept of an easily identifiable ‘student stance’ on political decisions which far too often affect without actually considering us. It is a novel, and perhaps naïve ideal to ‘give students a voice’.
Student unions across the nation achieve some fantastic things (see the 3 Cosas Campaign at the University of London Union) but when it comes to student representation in politics on the national scene, it is safe to say, we are a stigmatised, and media-misconstrued body.
Rather than attempting to publically demonstrate our discontent and feed media obsessions with students as a group of petulant kids who can’t help but talk behind one another’s back, we need to confront and consider the NUS within its capabilities. This we can only understand through participation.
The NUS struggles with a lot. Representation is expensive. Providing a venue, accommodation and even the paper required for NUS Conference is a heavy load on NUS finances. The National Union of Students itself has a yearly operating profit of around £30,000. This is less than what most college JCRs spend a term. To contrast even more starkly consider – telethon campaigns in Oxford raise between £100,000 and £900,000 over a matter of weeks.
Financial stigma hangs over positions of representation too. In simple city-terms, representing students is a cheap job, not a prestigious one. It doesn’t happen in a suit, in a shiny glass building. It doesn’t provide a yearly bonus larger than the endowment of the University of Kent. This makes it somewhat self-selecting, but fundamentally only goes to reinforce a societal conception of ‘value’ which is given to politics but not for student politics. Student representation is not taken seriously, even at such a national level.
Yes, there is a lot that does not work as well as it could in the NUS’ systems of representation. It is clique-y and self-referential. Motions have underlying party affiliations. But until representing students is viewed as seriously as representing “adults” and the NUS can afford to function in due fashion (see – House of Commons then NUS Offices in King’s Cross), it will remain difficult to connect idealism with pragmatic realities: both for those arguing fervently for motions to ‘smash fascism’, and for those thinking of ways to present student opinions to parliament without being dismissed as naïve or immature.
There is nothing bad about idealism, whether on representation, education, or policy in general. Right now, however, the NUS cannot afford idealism. It can’t even afford another day of conference. Without us it will simply be a further affiliation fee away.
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