Rather than a student movement, the NUS is an ideological clique limping towards oblivion. The new NUS President may be a marginal improvement on her anti-Semitic predecessor, but with a professed desire to ‘kick out the Tories’ she remains an emblem of an NUS unable to do its job. The role of the NUS is not to have political positions. It is not to support political parties. It is to support students.
Where the NUS belongs is at the heart of government fighting for improvements for students in areas like education, housing, public transport etc. It cannot do that job if it is shouting incoherent babble from the fringes of politics. The only time the NUS should be overtly political is as a facilitator of student campaigns. The whole point of a student movement is to be the mouthpiece of students, rather than telling them what they should think. If the NUS was an apolitical body amplifying the voices of all students, then it would be able to support the campaigns it does currently, but it would also be able to encourage those who feel marginalised within it to find their voices once more.
They claim to represent all students, they do not. They show students in the worst possible light. They are a major cause of apathy about student politics. Students on the ground don’t feel represented and, worse, know that whatever they do they cannot make a difference. So they don’t take part, they drop out of student politics, they stop listening, and the NUS continues to elect delegates who belong to the governing clique on ridiculously low turnouts.
The fact that someone elected on a ‘moderate’ platform is on record as having such a left wing position which will put her directly at odds with the Conservatives she represents is remarkable. How exactly a President with such beliefs will engage with Conservative Societies and the political campaigns that they may desire support from the student movement for is unclear. Perhaps she will follow the path of her predecessor, and not bother?
If the NUS believe that kicking out the Tories is a suitable agenda for the student movement, then they should hand back the money that Conservative-supporting students send them every year through their Unions. That’s my challenge to the NUS: if you seriously believe that you represent students with these sorts of policies, offer them the chance to prove it. If you won’t reimburse dissatisfied students, then perhaps the best way to show that you represent them would be by letting them vote directly, with a One Student, One Vote system. We all know that that is not something that you’ll do.
The time has come for a new movement. The student movement cannot be reclaimed from within the NUS – Tom Harwood’s fantastic campaign for real change securing only 35 delegates showed us that much. The systems and the structures simply prevent anyone beating the out-of-touch elite who build careers off the back of gesture politics and pointless protests. Outside the NUS though, there is a way.
Non-NUS Unions are much more capable of reform. Building a student movement that works for students is not a short-term process, but if we can show NUS universities that there is a better way outside of the NUS, then we can play an active part in facilitating a better student movement. So lets. Let’s set an example by building Unions which do not vilify you for having an opinion, but support you.
Unions should lend their resources, their expertise, and their support to student campaigns, even where those campaigns are conflicting. Most importantly, we should facilitate actual change, working pragmatically with local government and with any politicians who will listen to us to pursue an apolitical agenda that seeks to improve the outcomes for students in policy-making. If we can work in politics without being political, then we can ensure that our Unions do not alienate those who they represent, and by delivering real change we can show our members that there actually is a point to SUs.
SUs aren’t better together all of the time. The NUS is a formalised version of a set of relationships that should be much more informal. Its existence numbs the voices of individual SUs where they disagree with the overarching power structure – because it speaks for us, no one is interested in hearing us speak for ourselves. Yes, student unions should work together on important issues, but we don’t need a formal body to do that. The NUS hears the words ‘student politics’ and believes that the most important word is ‘politics’ – if they stopped playing politics and started representing students, we’d have a much better student movement.
One of the best things about university is discovering that not everyone agrees with you. That the NUS doesn’t reflect that is why it is no longer fit for purpose. One of the best things about Unions are their power to amplify the voices of their members and tackle apolitical issues on their behalf. That the NUS only tries to represent one small group of students is why it is not fit to represent all of them. The NUS is obsolete, the time has come for a new movement.
Let’s stop playing politics with students, let’s start listening to them.