Something is rotten on the student ship of state. While this is not yet a partisan issue at Nottingham University, the National Union of Students is in the midst of an existential crisis. Last February, NUS President Wes Streeting argued that “For Durham to leave the NUS would be seen as a vote of no confidence in the entire thing.” In the second of two referenda on the issue this academic year, the University of Durham narrowly voted to disaffiliate from the Union. More than a dispute over the organisation’s ‘no platform policy’, though, this is indeed a debate as to the worth of the NUS in its entirety.
It was, however, the ‘No Platform Policy’ which has sparked Durham’s eventual disaffiliation. The policy states that officers of the Union are not to share a platform with a fascist or racist even to argue with them, denying them a platform and, arguably, legitimacy. As a small side note it seems appropriate to quote John Stuart Mill, who famously argued that “If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”
The Durham flashpoint came as a result of a planned debate on multiculturalism which would have included two BNP members. The NUS Black Students’ Officer and LGBT Officer sent a joint letter to the Durham SU and Vice-Chancellor to call for the event’s cancellation, suggesting (mistakenly) that such an event was illegal. The letter concluded in what was perceived by many to be a threatening manner: “Should you fail to listen to our advice you will have a colossal demonstration on your hands…This will no doubt bring with it a lot of negative media attention and if any students are hurt in and around this event responsibility will lie with you.”
Sent to an SU already seriously discussing the prospect of disaffiliation (a referendum held earlier in the year had conclusively rejected the idea), the letter was met with sufficient condemnation from Durham students that Streeting attended a forum at the university in February to try and quell the sedition, arguing that “I honestly don’t believe that a no platform policy is an anathema to free speech…we can decide who we let in.” Students noted that NUS officers seemed to have a habit of only visiting when disaffiliation looked like a possibility.
This particular incident in Durham, however, is only the tip of a more general movement against a perceived ‘top-down’ approach by the NUS – an approach which has led to the disaffiliation of Southampton, Sunderland and Aston along with Durham over the past decade. Imperial College – which was a founder member of the NUS – has been in and out of the organisation but voted to disaffiliate in 2008. One pertinent criticism is of cost-effectiveness – the Durham disaffiliation campaign argued that their Union spent around £20,000 per year on membership, £6,000 on purchasing training from the NUS and £5,000 in travel costs for conferences related to their membership. Streeting has pointed out that “If you want to view NUS membership as purely a financial transaction…then no, joining the NUS does not make you a profit. [Paying for NUS affiliation] is paying for representation nationally and a national voice.”
Leaving aside the costs of membership (and the irksome, money-grabbing NUS Extra Card), many students might be wondering how valuable their voice is when it is so far removed from the actual workings of the unions which purportedly represent them. At the national level, the NUS leadership is not directly elected, or accountable to, the rank and file student body – they are elected by delegates. In our case, delegates are bound to abide by SU policy even where it conflicts with their promises to voters, muddying the representative waters even further.
This lack of a mandate is even more harrowing when considered alongside the party political nature of the organisation. By 2004, the Labour Students-backed candidate had won the Presidential election for twenty years running. 2004 saw a brief change towards a slightly stronger left wing position than Labour, but since then normalcy has been restored. We’re paying for a national voice of some variety, true, but for many this may prove to be a voice which is directly contradictory of what they think, and it is done ostensibly in their name. Even ignoring party political issues – would a truly representative NUS really campaign to increase the price of beer in SU bars? It’s the kind of ‘we know best’ attitude which leads students to disregard unions as a representative tool, instead seeing their leaders as, well, tools.
One example from a little closer to home is the decision by the NUS to replace tuition fees with a ‘graduate tax’, whereby a certain percentage of a graduate’s salary is paid every month for a fixed term of twenty years into a national trust. Graduates earning less than £15,000 per year would not pay anything, while the payment rate ranges from 2.5% to those on £25,000 to 4.5% on £60,000. A graduate earning £40,000 will pay £126 per month on fees, for example. Clearly quite a large shift in tuition fee policy, the NUS has received a mandate from the University of Nottingham’s Students’ Union to campaign for it on your behalf. If you don’t remember being consulted, that’s because you weren’t.
Another example of the NUS’ reach extending beyond its legitimate grasp was the ‘Vote for Students’ campaign, an effort to persuade students to vote for candidates who would oppose an increase in fees and “fight for a fairer education system” following the general election. Considering not only the NUS’ institutional party leanings but also its (lack of) representative ability, this raises the question as to whether an organisation such as the NUS has the moral authority to play politics. From where does their mandate to do this come from? At what point do students confer upon the NUS the right to try and influence elections in their name?
While we’re on this topic, let’s not let our own university’s union off lightly. Just what are faculty coordinators for, and how many of us actually know who ours are, let alone feel represented by them? If our Executive members are elected by such a small segment of the university population, how much right do they have to lead? Are rep officers actually representative, or is perhaps SU Council a mere ivory tower, a clique which has forgotten what its job description is?
Fundamentally, the NUS provides a voice which students do not seem to want. If even our own Exec elections see a turnout of only around 7000 (the highest ever), how much legitimacy can the NUS – an organisation at least two degrees of separation away from representing real students – claim on our behalf? Perhaps their only redeeming feature is that for all of their bluster, they aren’t actually that good at influencing real policy – the paucity of information in the ‘Our Successes’ section of their website is an embarrassing reminder of that fact.
With its democratic illegitimacy challenged only by its lack of effectiveness, the NUS is far from a benign blemish on the face of student life; it’s a clear example of representational deception. We would all rather just get on with life, I admit, but we can expect more from those who claim to represent us without being drawn into the maelstrom of student politics. It’s about time to exercise that option.