by Elliot Folan
In the last month, two student unions have held referendums on whether to be part of the National Union of Students (NUS). The first, in Oxford, saw 52% vote in favour of leaving the NUS – a result which was later reversed after it was discovered that 1,000 anti-NUS votes had been cast fraudulently. The second, in York, saw 65% of student voters back the idea of remaining in the NUS. In both cases, the referendums were held in exam season, with turnout at 15% in Oxford and just 7% in York. Although neither referendum ultimately saw the unions leave the NUS, both the campaigns and the initial Oxford result brought to the fore the many issues that students have raised with the NUS.
Arguments against the NUS are not confined to one political viewpoint. Criticisms come from three quarters: conservative critics, apolitical critics and leftwing critics. Conservative criticisms tend to circulate around complaints that the NUS talks about “irrelevant issues” that students allegedly do not support. The York anti-NUS campaign, for example, expressed horror that NUS conference voted to oppose UKIP, ban police from campuses and support lecturers’ strikes. Other critics have attacked the NUS for talking about Palestine or for considering the idea of protesting against cuts. Conservative critics have also attacked the very concept of a collective union, arguing that unions can negotiate discounts, improve student welfare and stand up for students all by themselves, and that a single body negotiating discounts simply leaves unions at the mercy of “radical left wing students”.
However, less overtly conservative criticisms have also been made of the NUS. These often centre around a lack of accountability, a lack of democracy or careerism (and such criticisms can be made by the left and right). Such nonpartisan critics will often draw attention to a lack of published minutes, low turnout in NUS delegate elections, the cost of being in the NUS and the fact that most NUS Presidents (and many Vice-Presidents) have gone on to became Labour MPs and Ministers. At the same time, some apolitical critics are overt in their belief that student unions shouldn’t get involved in “politics” and that they should focus on coursework and bars. Of course, such criticisms ignore the political role of student unions as a collective force, and you’ll often find conservative students using such apolitical arguments to oppose the NUS.
But leftwing students have made many criticisms of the NUS too. Leftwingers like myself argue that it is too timid, that its policies are too moderate, that its leadership is dominated by Labour Students, that it focuses on discounts at the expense of political action and that it has become a career route for future MPs. In policy terms, the NUS has consistently refused to endorse free education (until this year), with senior NUS figures arguing that free education will harm the poor. Even when its conference endorses radical policies – like the 2014 conference did – its leadership tends to be dominated by moderate Labour Students who decline to implement them.
The NUS has organised demonstrations that ignored Parliament and led students to a field in Kensington, while refusing to support student protesters who have been arrested and disciplined for fighting for a public education system. The NUS also focuses excessively on general elections at the expense of other action, with the NUS leadership using every national conference as a platform to “build for the general election”.
However, left-wing critics of the NUS disagree on whether it’s better to work within the NUS to change it or to shun it altogether. Some point to the strong and radical liberation campaigns (Women’s, LGBT+, Black Students and Disabled Students) which do important work – leaving the NUS would exclude marginalised students from these campaigns. Others point to the argument that using the NUS allows the left to win collective victories, such as the fact that every student union in the NUS now gets its clothing through suppliers who are monitored by the Workers’ Rights Consortium.
It’s also worth pointing out that having radical voices on the NEC, at NUS conference and in the leadership, has arguably kept the NUS from being even more timid than it otherwise has been. And finally, it’s worth saying that even if those on the left ignore the NUS, it won’t stop existing and will still be the largest collective voice for students in the UK by far. It’s still worth being a member, still being able to send delegates to the various conferences and trying to make a difference in what way we can. But it would be a mistake to think that all our energy should be devoted to internal NUS politics, or to believe that the NUS can create a mass movement for a better education system.