by Alex Powell
Recent years, have seen a spate of referenda within students’ unions on whether they should continue their affiliation to NUS. One of the union’s most prominent critics, Tom Harwood, is running for NUS president this year. With all this going on, I feel like it’s a good time to throw my hat into the ring.
NUS claims to represent the interests of all students. Lately however they have been accused of failing to do this effectively, with critics claiming that they instead spend too long focusing on taking up irrelevant positions on national political issues, or furthering their own careers. Most recently, there has been controversy over their support for a boycott of the National Student Survey as a method of opposing fee increases introduced under the government’s Teaching Excellence Framework. All of this makes one thing very clear: the NUS is controversial, and if their only aim was to represent the views of all students, they would be failing.
NUS has been pivotal when it comes to ensuring that student voices are heard on the national stage
However, when it comes to representing the interests of students the NUS have achieved some notable victories, including playing a key role in the recent severing of the link between TEF performance and fee increases. Indeed, NUS has been pivotal when it comes to ensuring that student voices are heard on the national stage. For example, it was the NUS who brought together numerous voices from within higher education to ensure that student voices were heard in consultations over the HE bill. While it is arguable that students themselves could have ensured this without central organisation, it is hard to see that such regional and positional diversity could have been achieved without the input of a central organising body like the NUS.
Indeed, while the internal politics of the NUS can be, let’s say, questionable, with concerning statements coming from high ranking officials, and relatively clear political cliques working to advance themselves and their friends. NUS has worked to bring together students from around the country on numerous occasions, successfully organising marches and direct action to show the government that students oppose their changes to higher education. NUS offers legal support to those students who need it, which has been pivotal in the impressive successes of activists, such as those students taking part in the UCL rent strikes.
If more unions disaffiliate, and this central organising force is lost, the capacity of students and activists to gain national media attention will fall into serious doubt. And without the support of NUS, many students who choose to undertake direct action could find themselves facing substantial costs in order to protect their legal rights.
Taking this into consideration, it seems odd that those who propose disaffiliation from the NUS have failed to offer an alternative, focusing instead on pinpointing the issues with the current organisation. It is difficult not to draw parallels with the Brexit debate here. NUS, like the EU, is deeply flawed, but it provides numerous essential services, without which the lives of students would be materially worse. As with Brexit, those who campaign to disaffiliate from the NUS often make compelling arguments, calling out things such as the lack of the one member one vote system (though I would admit that their arguments are perhaps stronger than the case made by the Leave campaign). Sadly, much like the Leave campaign, they also fail to offer valid and viable alternatives which can mitigate for the loss of essential services. Instead, they simply disregard the positives that the NUS brings and mislead students as to the damage disaffiliation could bring.
For as long as those who back disaffiliation from the NUS fail to offer a valid alternative, it remains hard to take their critiques seriously. Ultimately, while the NUS is not perfect, the loss of the services they provide could materially worsen the situation of many students, and we cannot take this lightly. Times are hard for students right now, and we need solidarity and organisation more than ever. This is not the time to give up our main organisational body, especially without a viable alternative. While aspects of our present representation may be flawed, flawed representation is, in this case, infinitely better than the alternative: no representation.