Last year, the University of Glasgow voted overwhelmingly against joining the National Union of Students (NUS). Boasting to represent over 5 million students, the NUS claims to provide resources, training, and an influential national voice for those in further and higher education. But to us, it was an expensive, unrepresentative, politically motivated wste of money. After a 2007 NUS Conference described by one presidential candidate as ‘the most right-wing ever’, it’s understandable to question whether anything has been to answer the criticisms made about it.
Primarily, the NUS exists to represent students. The constitution provides for campaigning on its members’ behalf, education-related research, and training and legal advice for students’ unions: all aims which have “a direct affect [sic]” on education or students. But the constitution also provides for the sipport of any other causes that “in the opinion of the Conference, merit the support of students in general”. As long as this clause remains in place, the NUS will risk being used other than for students’ benefit. This year, for example, conference resolved “to support and work with the Stop Climate Chaos coalition and investigate affiliating to it”. Motions also concerned the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, potential wars in Iran and Somalia, and the “occupation” of the Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. Such discussions waste time and thousands of pounds worth of resources and distract from the areas the NUS should be concentrating on: education and students.
The most immediate reform concerns not bureaucracy, but affiliation fees. Each member Union pays around £40,000 per year to the NUS. A new method of calculation will see most member Unions paying around 10% less, a change made possible by the sale of the NUS’ share in the Endsleigh insurance company.But at a time when the NUS is desperately trying to reduce its annual losses of well over £1 million, it doesn’t quite seem to add up. A look at the 2007/8 budget, however, shows that parallel to the decrease in affiliation fees is a significant rise in income from the NUS Extra discount card. For £10, this card gives members access to ‘extra’ discounts and offers, whereas previously, all discounts were available for free with the standard NUS card. Directly or not, the NUS is shifting some of the financial burden from the member institution onto the individual student.
The Senior Management Team of the NUS has also been asked to make unspecified savings of £375,000 by April 2008. This cost-cutting will either see an increase in efficiency or a decrease in effectiveness. There is certainly the potential to make significant savings without affecting services, simply by streamlining the organisation and its methodology. Whether or not the management will have the courage to bring this about is not clear; some of the cuts will not be popular but may well be essential. If and how these savings are made will give a strong indication of how serious the NUS is about reform.
A review of NUS governance has been submitted for approval. It will not be presented until next year’s conference but could see the provisioning of a more representative governance structure, which is more responsive to members’ concerns. Actual proposals will be submitted next year, but this is definitely a step in the right direction towards quelling the bureaucracy of the NUS.
One change that is definitely going ahead is that the Vice-President Education’s role is being changed to Vice-President Higher Education. Both further and higher education sectors now have separate VPs elected by members from the relevant sector only. This change emphasises the degree to which the NUS has become increasingly involved in further education. Indeed, the vast majority of NUS members are from further education—a majority set to grow with the decision to allow Sixth Form Councils of schools to apply for membership. Does this go far enough to provide the representaion required? Arguably, the needs of FE and HE students are so different that separate unions working in cooperation would be more efficient and effecive. Certainly, a sixth form pupil and a final year student would not seem to share many of the same needs.
This example highlights the continuous contradictions in the NUS’ message. A similar situation exists with the representaion of individual universities. In a recent press release, the NUS asked employers to look beyond the “distinctly privileged” graduates of the “so-called elite” universities: hardly good representation od=f the students at the “elite” universities.
One matter addressed at both the Glasgow referendum and the conference is that of part-time students. In terms of voting rights and representation at the NUS, a part-time student is only worth 10% of a full-time student. Although it is true that part-time students spend less time per week studying, they are equally affected by the difficulties of student life. They need the same resources and as much support as, if not more than, full-time students, yet they are only given one tenth of the representation. A proposal was put forward to give part-time students equal rights but was opposed by the NUS Finance Committee and overturned. The cost of providing for extra delegates apparently outweighed the equal representation proposed. Part-time study enables the widening participation that the NUS advocates but is not prioritised by them and there seems no prospect of change.
This year’s conferencce saw significant changes and potential for a lot more. With a reduced affiliation fee and an improved governance structure, the NUS will undoubtedly be a more attractive option. Nonetheless, many of the organisation’s underlying problems remain. Time and resources will still be wasted discussing issues which do not directly affect students while equality and representation are being turned down on the grounds of cost. Peraps most importantly, the diversity of member institutions means that the NUS will never be able to speak with the united voice it claims.