A Fresh Two Years, Same Old NUS Presidency

The NUS has just voted in its new President (in a ‘democratic’ method not far removed from the US electoral colleges). As the tectonic plates of national politics hover and shift uncertainly, it’s a difficult time for the Union. Stability appears to have won the day. If nothing else, President-Elect Gemma Tumelty will be a steady pair of hands. This is not what students need.

NUS campaigns on tuition fees have not achieved their goals. I have little faith in the Union’s ability to effectively lobby politicians either: the fact is, through a combination of apathy and low numbers, students are a negligible political concern. The fee controversy in parliament had more to do with an internal Labour schism (and Liberal Democrat populism) than any kind of concerted student activism. To be honest, the National Union is stuck in a rut, forced into defending the same old self-serving, intractable positions. The NUS brings nothing new to the debate, and certainly proposes no alternatives to funding shortfalls. As for daily student life: it is at best an irrelevance. It was ever thus. Lured in by the veneer and glamour of power, the NUS can easily become a political tool for its leaders rather than its members. Jack Straw, Charles Clarke, Stephen Twigg: it’s like a New Labour training ground. This lull in the fee debate is a good opportunity to inject some much needed life into the stagnant Union, and brave leadership is needed to drive the NUS forward. Sadly (and, perhaps, unsurprisingly) I doubt that Tumelty is the person for this job.

Brilliantly, the NUS is stoically supporting the AUT’s continuing strike action and demands for more wage increases, while vigorously campaigning to cap/reduce/end tuition fees. It’s a lose-lose for students: on a micro-level, their fears about the impact on examinations and graduation are forgotten; while on the national stage the same old hypocritical student stereotypes are perpetuated. At this point, step in our fearless new leader, who wants to “[work] with colleagues in trade unions” to build a coalition to fight for change. Change? Sounds more like a return to the 1970s to me.

Her manifesto is a depressing tour through boilerplate left-wing education arguments. Fairness in admissions must be matched by an abolition of funding; burdening students with a lifetime of debt; our right to education. We’ve heard it all before. Alarmingly, it also dives into some rather hard-line attacks against privatized education infrastructure and provision: “our campaign plays a vital role in a wider fight against the apparent drive to put business and private interests, not learners, at the centre of our education system.” It’s unqualified political rhetoric like this that makes me suspicious of senior NUS figures. The executive should focus on its core task of representing student interests, rather than chasing personal political and ideological agendas under the guise of national campaigning.

Her debate also leaves something to be desired:

Now we’ve seen the effect of the introduction of top-up fees with a decline in students applying to education by 3.75% yet in Wales where no top-up fees are being introduced we’ve seen a 0.5% rise in applications. This illustrates that finances are a massive deterrent and is a critical factor in the choice to enter education.

This illustrates nothing of the sort, and is a rather cheeky piece of spin from Tumelty. She apparently fails to remember the huge pressure on places in 2005, when applications rose by 8.9% on the previous year in a concerted effort to beat the new fee deadline. Ultimately, Miss Tumelty and her Union may be right — though I suspect the figures with be considerably less conclusive, if at all, than she makes out — but we will need application data for the next few years before anyone can be certain of the new fee regime’s impact.

On the plus side, the new President’s democracy heritage (she was previously National Secretary) shines through. Accountability and communication appear to be given a high priority on platform. She has blogged frequently throughout her previous tenure, and has taken the unusual step of publishing her mobile number next to her email address. Brave stuff indeed: and the NUS needs to find a similar courage in innovation if it is to regain its relevance and significance. I would be very surprised if this comes from Miss Tumelty.

7 Comments on this post.
  • tim2p
    9 April 2006 at 13:57
    Leave a Reply

    As you know, I’m no fan of the NUS, but perhaps they are not guilty of everything that you suggest.

    “The executive should focus on its core task of representing student interests, rather than chasing personal political and ideological agendas under the guise of national campaigning.”

    Surely it is in students’ interests to get rid of tuition fees. The policy may be unjust and inefficient, and, consequently, not in the country’s interests, but are you advocating that turkeys should vote for Christmas?

  • James
    11 April 2006 at 21:02
    Leave a Reply

    I disagree. There is only so much money in the government pot, and it is absolutely in students’ interests to have a well-funded higher education system that can teach them at the highest level and train British graduates to be competitive on the world stage.

    The NUS shouts from the rooftops about the injustice of tuition fees, while proposing no alternative whatsoever. How does this serve the interests of students? I see no reason to think that the new President will change this.

  • ajn
    12 April 2006 at 03:55
    Leave a Reply

    I agree with you on top-up fees. For students, top-up fees was one of the most important debates – and protests – of recent times. But after the fight was lost the NUS practically became the organisational equivilent of the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Top-Up Fees passed in England – pah! Just a flesh wound! Come back here and take what’s coming to you!

    It’s true also that the NUS often forgets that the little things – like exam marking – matter much, much more to us than loftier and invariably more interesting ideological issues. But that’s not to say that the loftier matters are outside the NUS’ remit. Top-Up fees were part of a larger initiative rooted in a particular ideology, so I feel that the NUS is justified in framing the debate in ideological terms, if it needs to. I would say that to ignore the political and focus merely on the administrative makes for a impoverished union.

    Finally, with regards to Tumelty’s bravery in the printing of her number. I doubt more than a few dozen people know who she is – let alone that she has a blog. With the murky world of student politics being more incestuous than the most backwater of Mississippian towns, anyone finding it is probably on first name terms with her anyway. Although with the advent of Facebook, who knows…


  • Quantrill
    15 April 2006 at 00:17
    Leave a Reply

    Personally I cannot see how or why Tony Blair would listen to the views of any student president and I doubt that the issue of top fees keeps him awake at night. I think that the job of the student president should be to focus on issues to which they can actually make a differance, lobbying for change to the way universities are funded is landing on deaf ears and from my own experiance tuition and top up fees have done little to put me or my brother off university (my brother hoping to go to uni in September). I agree with Alistair above that the smaller issues matter much more to students, I’d like to see the union sort out the opening hours of the library (24/7 opening times would be so useful) and the portland buildings SU shop, I’d like the SU radio to be more accesible and more importantly the cost of the internet connection to student rooms should be at the least reasonable. £70 I had to pay at hu stu, Trent students pay £30 for the year for a much faster and more reliable internet service.
    If the students union can’t make a differance at that level then I see very little point for there existance other than to give those elected a swelling sensation in their skulls.

  • Mister Christopher
    23 April 2006 at 21:40
    Leave a Reply

    We’re talking about the national union here though, so ‘bigger picture’ issues like funding are the main concern, along with supporting the development of strong students’ unions at all universities and colleges so that they can fight those smaller battles locally.

  • Leave a Reply