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.