By Bradley Allsop, University of Lincoln
The National Union of Students (NUS) has not helped itself in recent years. For most of my time at university (nearly seven years now) it has remained a distant and obscure entity to most students, failing to mobilise and coordinate a radical student movement, instil much confidence in local students’ unions or make much in the way of progress on some of the biggest issues affecting students. The recent round of ‘reforms’ passed at the last conference, precipitated by a financial crisis of still murky origin, will likely compound these problems, stripping democracy back further from an organisation already struggling with its legitimacy.
Against this backdrop, my Students’ Union’s Board of Trustees has decided it has had enough and wants to leave – not my student body, just the trustees, many of whom are not actually students, or even elected by them.
There are, obviously, a lot of things wrong with this. Firstly, the decision by the Board quite clearly goes against our bye-laws, which make it clear such a decision is only to be made by referendum (the Board have countered that the Articles give them powers to overturn referendums, whilst ignoring the fact that the Articles also quite clearly bind the trustees by the bye-laws too – for a fuller discussion, see here). However, whilst obviously important that trustees are made to stay within the bounds of the union’s rules, such an argument shouldn’t be necessary – even if they could make this decision for us, this would still leave them a long way away from should.
Their defence rests on two planks, ones likely to be all too familiar to grassroots student activists across the country. Firstly, their decision was informed by a ‘consultation’ with students. ‘Consultations’ are always going to be a poor replacement for direct democracy – they allow the views and comments of students to ultimately be directed towards an agenda set by a few at the top, and to be filtered through a set of assumptions and opinions of that few too.
I do not doubt many students have expressed concerns and frustrations with NUS throughout this ‘consultation’ – indeed, I’m one of them. But I don’t want to leave. Much like that other controversial union, I think it’s better for us to stay and reform NUS – I believe, deeply, in its potential. The comments of frustration from myself and others have, however, been churned through this consultation and the desired result spat out the other side, all nuance gone. Even for those that do want to leave, how were the facts that precipitated this presented to them? What opportunity were these students given to hear the other side of the debate? How representative of the student body were those included in the consultation?
The second plank is truly staggering. The Board have, incredibly, suggested that continuing to pay the affiliation fee to NUS may be in breach of charity law, with ‘legal advice’ (that they won’t release) suggesting it is questionable whether paying it any longer serves their charitable objectives. Making this into an issue of finance and legality attempts to depoliticise an inherently subjective and political issue. The failures and benefits of NUS cannot be simply quantified or monetised – issues such as national representation, solidarity with other unions, learning from and networking with other officers (as I have done during my time as a PTO) can’t be bunged into a spreadsheet. How we choose to value them and the benefits they give to the student body are subjective, ultimately political judgements that the Board has no place in making (morally and constitutionally) and that no amount of ‘legal advice’ can help determine. The fact that the Board seems to believe legal advice in this matter is even relevant shows a deep misunderstanding about what NUS and Students’ Unions are is operating at the heart of my union.
This sadly belies a general trend in many students’ unions across the country to see themselves more as professionalised, corporatised feedback services, rather than radical, grassroots campaigning organisations. Practically, this means three things; decision making is increasingly concentrated into the hands of less people; legitimate avenues of action (we dare not call them protest) become narrower and new criteria deemed important for decision making are brought to the foreground of discussions, ones that wear a shroud of immutability and objectivity. In short, it’s the development of McUnions, where we’re all customers or service users, not genuine democratic participants. This move at my union is but a more egregious example of an illness afflicting our movement across the country – if allowed to pass unchallenged it sets a dangerous precedent for the sector that such centralising tendencies can succeed.
We need, as a movement, to wrest control of our unions from centralising, bureaucratic tendencies that constrain student protest and emancipation into a narrow set of tame, moderate actions that crawl at a snails’ pace as the world burns around us. We need too a programme of democratic reform at the national level of our movement, and a switch in focus to empowering unions to support radical grassroots activism that achieves genuine change. NUS is flawed, but it’s still worth fighting for.
Higher education is being transformed into a market run by an elite, fascism is creeping through western democracies and the planet is becoming more toxic for living creatures by the day – the world is on fire. Students have been and are at the forefront of fighting injustice, both within HE and wider society, but unprecedented threats mean we need to be firing on all cylinders – corporatised and undemocratic unions muzzle those efforts. It’s time to take back control of our movement.