The failure of the NUS protest in November 2012, which resulted in leader Liam Burns being assaulted with eggs and fruit, has left the National Union of Students facing many questions. Critics point to disorganisation, apathy and an irrelevant approach to student issues as the root of their problems. Perhaps Burns agrees, admitting: “We’ve got to get better at campaigning.”
The turnout in November, a mere 4,000 people, was two-thirds of what the NUS hoped for. These unpromising figures highlight the clear weaknesses within the organisation.
It is easy to point the finger of blame at the NUS for not effectively conveying to the government that paying triple the amount in tuition fees is not only financially crippling, but can also act as a deterrent to academically able students with monetary worries. Others are shocked with the means used to try to combat the decision, with the notorious protests of Demo 2010 marring the Union’s image.
Many Nottingham students also have concerns, “The only connection I feel that I have with the NUS is my card and sure, that’s good for discounts, but it doesn’t feel like I’m truly represented by them,” says Tom Griffiths. Comments like this are a far cry from the NUS’s claim that they are “the definitive national voice of students.”
However, there is much more scope to the work of the NUS. Successes in more niche areas are worthy of credit, such as the “Out in Sport” report, which explores the experiences of LGBT students active in university sport, and has sparked a campaign to oust homophobia from student life. Commendable projects like this offer a contrast to feelings of disunity between some students and their union. Other lesser known policies of the NUS include improving childcare and working for better timetabling.
In time to come, perhaps a more feasible approach for improving student/union relations would be to increase awareness about such projects, and although the paramount issues of finance and funding will remain a priority, students disposition towards the NUS would certainly be more favourable if they had knowledge of the work that the organisation is doing to improve student life.
First year student Talia Yilmaz highlights this, saying: “Apart from financial issues, I was unaware that the NUS was working for, let alone making significant progress, in other parts of student wellbeing. Knowing this makes me think of the NUS in a more positive light.”
Another problematic aspect of the structure of the NUS is that a considerable fraction of policymakers for the Union are using the organisation as a stepping stone for a career in politics. Perhaps this is unavoidable. Undoubtedly those interested in working in the political sphere would gain valuable work experience within the NUS. But the question remains: are the motivations for the driving forces behind the strategy of the NUS career-minded, or for the genuine interest of the student population?
Fortunately, democracy remains at the heart of the NUS, who pride themselves on using “open democratic structures.” Delegates are voted for by students at their respective universities, with the successful candidates then going on to represent them and voice their issues. Concerns can be raised at events such as the Annual Conference, held in April this year. In theory, this seems to be a logical and effective system that allows the average student to get their opinion heard.
Unfortunately, there is a definite disparity between delegate and student. This is the first point of breakdown in connection between the NUS and who they represent. Nottingham undergraduates felt that the number of candidates was too high, and there was too little information available to choose between them to be able to narrow down their choice. Others were unsure on how to formally voice an idea to a delegate.
The overall lack of confidence in the NUS is due to a dearth in student understanding about their delegates. This illustrates a key point; it is essential that the National Union of Students works first on raising awareness and informing students of the issues at hand. If the public perception of the NUS is to improve, critics must first know that they are more than a protest group with the sole objective of lowering tuition fees.