On Friday 23rd November, a student-organised debate over the upcoming referendum on Newcastle University Student Union (NUSU)’s membership of the National Union of Students (NUS) took place.
NUSU voted to leave the student-led organisation in 2016, entering into a minority 5% of universities in the UK who are not members. Constitutionally, NUSU must have a referendum on its membership of the NUS at least every three years, however a referendum can also be called through a petition signed by at least eight trustees.
The debate was chaired by Harry Parsons, station manager of NSR. Emma Dawson, leader of the ‘Vote Yes’ campaign and Welfare and Equality Officer, Jack Green, spoke for the student body to re-enter into the NUS. Speaking against NUSU’s becoming a member of NUS were leader of the ‘Vote No’ campaign, Scarlett Rowland and Education Officer Johnny Hall.
The debate focused on four main issues: representation, finance, politics and what the future will hold for the relationship between NUSU and the NUS. Emma Dawson began by highlighting the achievements of the NUS, including the introduction of 16-25 railcards, council tax exemption for students and the implementation of postgraduate loans.
"We’ve invested a lot in our union in the past few years... we wouldn’t be able to run these as well without the £50,000 we would have to pledge to the NUS" - Jonny Hall, Education Officer
Scarlett Rowland’s response was that these were brought into effect during the 1970s and 1990s. “In more recent years, what have NUS actually achieved for the wellbeing of students?” she asked. According to NUS’ website, the most recent policy response is from April 2017, a response to their ‘Building our Industrial Strategy Green Paper’.
The financial discussion over the referendum was one of the most prominent of the debate. “We’ve invested a lot in our union in the past few years, with refurbishments and campaigns for people like our course reps and part-time officers. We wouldn’t be able to run these as well without the £50,000 we would have to pledge to the NUS” argued Education Officer, Johnny Hall. “The money can be better spent on students here.”
In January this year, an email was sent to all presidents and chief executives of students’ unions across the country, informing them that the NUS was “looking at a £3m deficit for the group in this and future financial year.” However, the NUS also offers financial benefits for students, with initiatives such as Totem Cards, which offers over 42,000 international commercial discounts on the likes of travel and clothing for paying members.
"It was incredibly difficult to find people to speak in favour of the NUS" - Chris Wilkinson, Racial Equality Officer
This however, according to Welfare and Equality Officer Jack Green, is missing the point. “We need to look at the bigger picture,” he explained. “Unless we are willing to join the NUS we won’t have a voice on the reforms on how it works. NUSU was in debt about ten years ago- did everybody leave our union? No. We worked together to make it better.” However, student politics has suffered across the country, with NUSU’s own student council struggling to reach its full 82 voting members attending meetings, which, according to ‘Vote Yes’, is a result of no longer having a national voice as a student.
Racial Equalities Officer, Chris Wilkinson, who organised this debate thanked those who attended, but commented that, “it was incredibly difficult to find people to speak in favour of the NUS, we asked Northumbria students’ union who are affiliated with the NUS if their sabbatical officers would like to sit on the panel, but they were unable to provide representation.”
Despite the importance of this issue and its potential for significant impact on the future of our students’ union, attendance for the debate was very poor. There was widespread concern across the panel that the 5% voting threshold in order for a constitutional change to occur would not be met.
Voting opens for the referendum on Monday 3rd December and all students are eligible to vote online at www.nusu.co.uk/vote. The debate is available to watch NUTV’s YouTube channel.