To say that the National Union of Students (NUS) has had some bad press in recent weeks would be an understatement. Any mention of it seems to elicit groans of dissatisfaction and rolls of the eye. The organisation has been plagued by accusations of anti-Semitism and consistent disdain for free speech.
Some of the criticisms directed at the NUS and its new president, Malia Bouattia, have been distortions of the truth – or worse – but some are justified. Referring to Birmingham University as a ‘Zionist outpost’ because of its large number of Jewish students is unacceptable. Yet to suggest Ms Bouattia is an ISIS supporter is to ignore the fact that she only opposed the condemnation of all Muslims for the actions of a few. Indeed the problems of the NUS are far deeper than the previous statements of its president.
A petition at Newcastle University Students’ Union (NUSU) reached the requisite 300 signatures to bring forward a triennial referendum on affiliation to NUS, scheduled for 9th May. Newcastle students should take the opportunity to vote against the NUS which, despite many well-intentioned individuals, has lost its way.
The fundamental problem with the NUS is that it shows no propensity to change. It fails on a very basic test of democracy: its officials are elected by a small number of delegates whose interests and motivations are not representative of the student body at large. NUS insiders have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.
There is no good reason why all members should not have an equal vote for senior executives in the organisation. Opponents of one-member-one-vote argue that it would dilute the influence of smaller universities and colleges, but individuals would vote on their own behalf, not as a bloc. Without direct election of officials, NUS cannot hope to begin to better represent all students.
And this – representation – is why so many students feel disillusioned or just downright not bothered by the NUS. Whilst it is true that the NUS does commendable work aiding certain groups, the majority of students feel like it has nothing to say to them.
Many NUS campaigns deal with important issues – mental health and LGBT rights, for instance. But many issues which affect a large majority of students seem to be brushed over. Moreover, the NUS has form for explicit partisan campaigning. Drug reform and housing barely get a look in, while NUS members’ money was used to campaign against the Liberal Democrats at the recent election. Whatever one’s opinion of the Lib Dems, we do not expect our money to go towards such national political campaigning.
NUSU is a very able union. It runs successful campaigns on a plethora of important issues. Union officials report that often the NUS is unhelpful. The £52,000 sent annually from NUSU to the NUS may just be 1% of NUSU’s budget, but it is not an insignificant amount.
Similar disaffiliation movements are gaining momentum in other students’ unions across the country. It may be that the only way to demonstrate the mass dissatisfaction of students with the NUS is for them to show that they can organise politically without it. Coordination between students’ unions is desirable, and perhaps the NUS will finally start to countenance reform if unions begin to walk out.