Four of Newcastle's delegates to the 2016 NUS Conference in Brighton shared their thoughts on the conference and the controversy surrounding it.
I went to the National Union of Students conference doubting what could realistically be achieved by a union that has consistently failed to defend its members. I had seen an NUS running and losing “campaigns” to fight against attacks on students, such as grant cuts, fee rises and a reduction in quality of life. Campaigns based around hashtags and asking MPs really nicely to stop savage attacks to student welfare, instead of making use of the real power that the student movement has - strikes, protest and solidarity. I had seen the NUS wasting its time and money on irrelevant policies which bore no resemblance to the real opinions and attitudes of its members. I had seen the NUS fail us, those it claims to represent, over and over again, and I had no faith in the NUS leadership to turn it around.
I was right.
I was elected as delegate on a platform that was severely critical of the NUS from a left-wing perspective. I argued the NUS had failed us, it did not represent us, and that we needed a strong, fighting union. As a committed socialist I find it difficult to be critical of unions, I believe that only if workers and students stand together can we make progress towards a better future for us all. However, having attended the conference, having done my best to represent the students that elected me, I can no longer say I see any course of action to reform the disastrous NUS, and instead advocate that Newcastle University Students Union disaffiliate entirely.
"I saw on social media selective and powerful cliques among candidates"
Leading up to the conference I was already growing disheartened by the attitudes of candidates for NUS leadership. The pandering began early. Weeks in advance I was inundated with Facebook messages and friend requests, each of them begging for my vote, to represent the student body in one way or another. There was little talk of reform, very few seemed to acknowledge the fundamental failings of the NUS’ democratic process or its reputation.
Instead, what I saw on social media were selective and powerful cliques among candidates and current leadership figures, scrambling to praise and endorse each other, brushing off criticism of the NUS or their campaigns as racism, sexism or just right-wing lunacy. Meanwhile it appeared many of them cared little for the position itself or their own policies - and who can blame them when the NUS allows them to live in Neverland, where student leadership can be so many years older than the average student, and almost every president from 1969 to the present has been catapulted into a cushy Labour party job.
The conference began with a video on appropriate behaviour (luckily I’d already brushed up on the leaflet provided beforehand, which felt the need to remind grown men and women to pack a toothbrush and a change of clothes), delegates were asked to keep their appreciation to an “inclusive level”, this meant no cheering, whooping and whistling - a rule which we were reminded of no more than six times during the course of the day by staff. A full hour of self-congratulatory speeches followed before the motions began.
"A growing dissatisfaction with the NUS has spread across campuses around the UK, and I would like to add my voice to that dissatisfaction"
Things began positively, several motions passed demanding more, that the NUS step up and do its job: defending student interests. My hopes were soon dashed when I was reminded of who would be implementing these changes: the careerist, out-of-touch student politicians who’d been popping up all over my Facebook feed. The series of speeches by candidates all seemed painfully false, and I left the conference hall unconvinced that any of those issues would ever be addressed.
These feelings grew as I witnessed the debates surrounding subsequent motions. Instead of using NUS resources to mobilise against the biggest fee-rise in British history, conference-goers voted to use them to campaign to see “e-sports” (competitive videogames) recognised as actual sports, and provided facilities accordingly. Instead of acknowledging without question one of the largest genocides in human history via Holocaust Memorial Day, delegates chose to applaud speakers who claimed it wouldn’t be fair to other genocides to do so, despite the fact that the HMD website itself states that the day is committed to honouring the Holocaust among many other tragic mass-killings. Instead of acknowledging that roughly 20% of their members admit to using legal highs, with a further third of members having taken illegal drugs, the “progressive” NUS made a ridiculous decision: lobbying to criminalise its own members through the Misuse of Drugs Act, a law famously criticised for being used to target ethnic minorities and the poor.
The final motion worthy of note was the One-Member-One-Vote policy, which was swiftly voted down, and would’ve allowed any member of the NUS across the country to vote in leadership elections. This would have done away with the idea that just six delegates from Newcastle University could vote for the 24,000 students who make up the student body. It was doubtful that the cliques within the NUS would’ve allowed it to pass and end the stranglehold they have held on leadership elections for years, but I believe it was the last hope for the organisation to save its credibility as the “voice of seven million students”.
"It’s time Newcastle had its own referendum, rightfully giving students the choice"
In the wake of the conference, a growing dissatisfaction with the NUS has spread across campuses around the UK, and I would like to add my voice to that dissatisfaction. Proponents of the union are quick to label those who denounce it as racist, Islamophobic and sexist - painting the calls for disaffiliation as backlash at the election of the first black, Muslim, female president. This simplistic view disguises the real problems with the NUS, my argument stems from a disagreement with the way the organisation is run, the damage it does to the reputation of students and its complete and utter lack of real action on behalf of the majority of members.
It’s time Newcastle had its own referendum, rightfully giving students the choice of whether to remain within a union with such little regard for them.
Generally speaking, the NUS conference was quite good - although it could definitely have been better.
For me the highlights were obviously the election of the first black female president of the NUS (after 94 years) - it’s fair to say we made history!
We saw so many women of different races and background standing up and getting involved in leadership. In addition are the progresses made so far with the fights against the Governments education reforms and cuts, campaigns for free education for everyone, fights against racism and anti-semitism, social media bullying etc.
"We dare not put down our hands until this process has been concluded"
So many motions were put forward, both important and arguably unnecessary ones.
The process of voting for motions and amendments was something I personally was not pleased with. I find it really disappointing that the NUS still uses the manual process whereby one votes by raising his/her hands (with some green paper) and the chair of the council says a motion is passed based on his view of how many hands were raised; and God forbid it’s unclear to him/her, the delegates would have to endure an excruciating 20-30 minutes of holding their hands up high while someone comes to count everyone voting one after the other. (We dare not put down our hands until this process has been concluded). Here in NUSU we use clickers, not only is it very much efficient and fast, but way much more reliable than manual counting done by people.
I also felt that the infusion of politics and political party banter into the conference was too much and not appropriate. The major reason being if the NUS supposedly is to represent and uphold the views and welfare of millions of students across the UK, how does it seek to achieve this without a bias? It would have been more appropriate if the council and these leaders kept their personal political interest and beliefs at home and tackle the affairs of diverse students without sentiments.
I was also not pleased with their time management as most of the motions were shifted to the NEC, how do we ensure the motions delegated to the NEC will be reviewed in an unbiased manner, considering how they’re politically involved? More so I felt a democratic process would be a better reflection of the level of importance students (through elected delegates) attach to these issues. Not forgetting some of these NEC members have been out of university for over a year now, and hence could be out of touch with things important to students.
"The other delegates were fun to be with"
There has been concerns on whether the NUS is really efficiently representing the interest and welfare of its students. To be honest, after attending the conference one cannot help but think about this, however I feel entirely pulling out of the Union might not be the best solution at the moment. I believe first ensuring a better accountability process can remedy this. The question is how? I think a method where we evaluate these leaders/executives (president and zonal VPs etc) either midway or at the end of their tenure through a secret ballot where university unions and sabbs (who should be in a good position to evaluate them) anonymously critique them. If there’s a poor performance they, too, secretly vote to warn or outrightly impeach them. In addition unions/delegates could also demand detailed reports on how the un-debated motions were addressed by the NEC.
Moving on from there, it was an EXPERIENCE. Met with wonderful people with passion and beautiful ideas, those who’ve made positive changes in the society and welfare of other students. It was a good break from uni, the other delegates were fun to be with and Brighton lived up to its reputation.
This year the NUS chose to host their national conference in beautiful and sunny Brighton.
The conference is the “largest student gathering in Europe” and it was interesting to see students coming from all over the UK with a wide range of political ideals who were all given their chance to speak.
The democratic procedures within NUS are quite confusing for a first time delegate, but you catch up after a couple of motions. Their elections are strange as only the 1,000 delegates in the room get to vote for officers to represent all seven million students. This is the equivalent of Newcastle University Students’ Union Council electing our officers. This gives the officers a weak mandate and a motion by York University to make the elections national and more representative was voted down.
"This is the real tragedy of the NUS; it is not that they are awful but just that they could be so much better"
Although several motions passed were beneficial to students, many of them were not. The NUS has been criticised for treating its membership like children in the past, and the motion to lobby for a change to the law on legal highs means the NUS are attempting to criminalise some of their own paying membership.
Additionally, their VP for Society (who has given me zero help with Newcastle’s divestment campaign this year) was almost censured for not bothering to respond to arranged phone calls or emails. The officers appear to be voted in on a popularity contest based on passion and buzzwords, which, whilst being important, needs to be matched with professionalism and competency.
When I walk through campus and speak to students I am regularly in awe of the great things being achieved. I know that out of the seven million students NUS claim to represent there are much brighter eggs who could be achieving so much more with the resources available. This will not happen until there is governance reform and “ordinary” students can infiltrate their clique. This is the real tragedy of the NUS; it is not that they are awful but just that they could be so much better.
Coming out of the conference we can see that delegates from around the country have voted in both elections and in policy for an NUS focussed on a stronger more definitive challenge to changes being implemented to Higher education. Elected officers who have been at the centre of the direct action movement, organising and supporting students from the ground upwards, such as at the 2015 national demonstration. Motions calling for the boycott of the NSS which will be used to implement the Teaching Excellence Framework, linked to further fee hikes, and the #GrantsNotDebt campaign. A huge landmark has been passed with NUS being lead for the first time by a black Muslim woman.
"A huge landmark has been passed with NUS being lead for the first time by a black Muslim woman"
The most important motion for me on a personal level that I am thrilled passed, having seen it fall at NUS LGBT conference a couple of years ago, was for a full time Trans Officer! I was of course disheartened that we didn’t have time to talk about the NUSU motions ‘drug policies supporting students’ and on self certifying PEC forms, which will still get to the National Executive Committee. I also thought that the motion making NUS elections open to vote nationally would have furthered NUS engagement and given it a stronger mandate. However, whatever your opinion on NUS, the student movement is going to have a louder and firmer response to the changes being carried out to university and college education for 2016-17.