Nathan Rogers and Terry Conway look at some of the recent developments amongst students:
Over recent weeks, votes have taken place in four University student unions as to whether to disaffiliate from the National Union of Students. There has been a fair amount of media coverage about the two that voted to leave – Newcastle and Lincoln. You are far less likely to have heard about the two that voted to remain – Exeter and Surrey.
More votes on the question of the relationship with the NUS are scheduled later this month; for example in Cambridge. There are more than 600 student unions that are part of the NUS, so the fact that there are disaffiliation campaigns driven by right wingers needs to be seen in that context.
The level of participation where the votes have taken place also bears analysing – both for its own sake, but also because the apparently ‘bureaucratic’ nature of NUS is one of the charges against it from those campaigning to leave.
In Newcastle, the student union website announces that the “No to NUS” campaign succeeded by a margin of 989 to leave compared to 486 to remain and then adds (67% voting to disaffiliate).Well, this is accurate as a percentage of those voting (assuming no spoilt ballots) but a long way short if you consider that the electorate is over 24,000. Challenges from students on the website asking for turnout figures haven’t met a response but it looks like it just scrapped over 5%
In Lincoln the student union did provide the turnout figures – so the details were as follows : 1734 : Total number of votes (12.6% of members), 49 : Spoilt votes, 804 : Yes – Continue to be affiliated with NUS, 881 : No – Disaffiliate from the NUS
At Exeter 5,334 students voted – just under 31% of those eligible. Of these: 2,546 voted in favour of disaffiliation, 2,690 voted to remain, 98 said they were neutral or confused.
At Surrey the decision was taken at the students union annual meeting – this tweet shows part of the debate SurreyStudentsUnion ?@SurreyUnion: Debating our current affiliation with @nusuk , while this announces the result: SurreyStudentsUnion ?@SurreyUnion Surrey students vote to stay affiliated with @nusuk
It’s certainly clear that the level of participation at Exeter, which voted to remain, was much higher than elsewhere. That’s despite the fact that there are clearly serious resources behind the exit campaign, as well as poisonous propaganda as evidenced by their website.
Supposed antisemitism is high on the list of targets, highlighted in their opening statement and then quoting witchfinder general John Mann as well as Wes Streeting in their piece on ‘radicalism’ And sabbaticals from Lincoln made clear that what they were talking about was actually campaigning in support of the demands of the Palestinian people when they explained why they were holding a referendum: …. In August (2015), we asked our Chief Executive to write to the Chief Executive of NUS expressing our concerns over the Lead and Change Higher Education training event in Keele and the political discussions that took place. This letter also mentioned our concern at the Students’ Union event 2015 where a BDS rally was held which detracted and diluted from the message of the event which is celebrating success and sharing good practice.(our emphasis) The delegates (which include all our Executive Officers) felt that this conference (the last NUS conference in April 2016) highlighted their concerns further as some of the motions passed, and the split national leadership team, will result in the current direction being continued which we do not think benefits our members….
The other main argument as already mentioned is around participation and supposed bureaucracy. Students against the union argue for one person one vote both to elect leaders and determine policy. The figures cited earlier show the hollowness of part of this argument – OPOV does not lead to high participation. It’s a Tory argument used against all forms of collective organisation – except of course sending them to Parliament. The claim that delegates don’t represent the people who send them is of course a different point – nothing to do with the NUS itself but whether local student unions have structures for mandating meetings and report backs – and not re-electing anyone who doesn’t follow a mandate.
Of course it is true that there are aspects of the way that NUS has been run over recent decades that do leave the union open to criticism – but these are exactly in the opposite direction. Many individual student unions and part of the NUS centrally puts more emphasis on running as businesses than as political campaigners.
Having student unions as convenient venues for relatively cheap gigs is great – but not at the expense of campaigning against fees, against cuts, against astronomical rents and the other things that affect the day to day lives of students. That’s the bread and butter of what the NUS is for in the same way that defence of jobs and conditions is the substance of what a trade union is for.
What is not needed to defend and build NUS are the kind of arguments put by NUS Vice President Union Development and Labour Student Richard Brooks in an article in the Telegraph in which he waxes lyrical about NUS extra cards as being the reason for supporting the national union in the way some trade union bureaucrats go on about cheap holidays as the reason people should join trade unions.
Hannah McCarthy, Campaigns Officer at Manchester Student Union, gives a powerful response to Brooks on the NCAFC website. Her critique of the way that calls for unity by the right are used to undermine the campaigning that the union needs to do to defend student’s interests and in fact defend the status quo bear emphasising.
Some Exiters are at pains to claim that their push has nothing to do with the election of new President Malia Bouattia. Lincoln said this for example in their statement explaining why they were holding a referendum: The delegates (ed to the last NUS conference) want to be clear, this has not been called because as a direct impact of Malia’s presidency or any other officers and their current or past views. But this is the same place where organising in support of BDS was cited as one of the reasons for moving to disaffiliate.
Indeed Malia is being attacked for her positions on Zionism – as here in a post which mirrors many of the attacks being made on Corbyn and his supporters in the Labour Party , or here on a post linked to by Student Against NUS’s twitter feed. It may be the case that some of the ways Malia expressed her criticisms of Israel were clumsy but they are not antisemitic.
The defence of the NUS needs to go hand in hand with consistently building solidarity with the Palestinian people, as well as giving voice to those many Jews including Jewish students whose voices are better reflected in statements like those from the Jewish Socialist group than on right wing blogs like this.
Malia is also being attacked for her general political positions – as in this article here. She is certainly to the left of the previous incumbent. However that doesn’t mean oganisations of the radical student left should hold back from explaining their views if and when they disagree with her.
In the context of the publication of White Paper on Higher Education on May 16, it’s clear that attacks on students will be stepped up over the months ahead. Malia’s call in the Guardian for free education is to be welcomed,
The White Paper sets out the government’s plans for the sector, with a focus on increasing competition between providers – which will inevitably have an extremely negative effect on both students and staff. Further it’s clear that the ‘Teaching Excellence Framework could include plans to further increase tuition fees in 2017-18. The need for a strong campaigning NUS has never been greater.