Dear NUS | Matthew Cowley
I’d like to start this open letter by congratulating you on successfully building an organisation out of your echo chamber. For most people, that is merely a pipe-dream, but you have successfully transformed the Twitter feed of a member of the Socialist Party into an organisation of unparalleled incompetence. Whether you are arguing for the abolition of prisons, failing to condemn ISIS, or single-handedly attempting to overthrow the government, you are certainly consistent in leaving your main legacy: a student body largely disengaged with student politics. One of the highlights of 2017 so far has been your attempts to destress our exams by providing light relief in the form of a group representing students at UK universities bickering about the relative merits of Israel-Palestine.
As a student at a Students’ Union outside of the NUS, the motives behind this letter may at first be unclear (not of course, that I expect anyone at the NUS to read it, you’re probably too busy correctly asserting that Donald Trump is not, in fact, your President), but the problem with the NUS affects all students, whether we finance your grandstanding or not.
First off, you do not represent all students. That became abundantly clear last year, when several Students’ Unions decided to depart your organisation, but has also been the case for some considerable length of time: Southampton, St Andrews and Imperial are just three examples. You also do not represent all of the students over whom you govern. Only 731 people voted in the election in which Malia Bouattia became President of the NUS – while we cannot play with turnout in the fashion so often used after general elections to invalid the mandate of the group elected, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to assume this isn’t a particularly high percentage of your membership, given that your own website boasts of representing over 600 Students’ Unions. Additionally, turnouts for delegate elections seem (from a scan of Google search results) to be generally low, suggesting that you do not in fact represent many students in any real sense.
This is problematic, because your pretence of a monopoly on student opinions, and the fact that due to your position as the ‘National Union of Students’ you have the most recognisable voice, mean that when people look at you, they think that all students are like that, degrading the ability of other student campaigners to lobby the public and politicians successfully.
Secondly, and following on, your very existence makes student politics a joke. There are real, genuine, important student issues to be debating and discussing. Transport, accommodation, education quality. Important issues like equality and diversity, representation of minority groups and international students are vital areas that always need to be looked at and addressed. The problem is, when an organisation that pretends to represent students is busy talking about ISIS and prison systems, that takes time away from its ability to actually represent students, and it makes student politics even more of a joke than it often is already. The truth is, while you say that you exist because no one takes student issues and student politics seriously; no one takes student issues and student politics seriously because you exist.
When students look to their Unions, they want to see them representing them. That means all students. A Union which has representatives who actively talk about overthrowing the Conservative Party does not speak for Conservative students, and breeds on university campuses a mindset in Conservative-backing students that they should keep their heads down and not express the fact that they are Conservatives. The compounding of shy conservatism may not seem like a bad thing to you, but it is – it is a bad thing because it disengages a whole generation of students from participating in student politics and encourages them to adopt a mindset of not admitting what they believe in. That is bad for them, and it is bad for you, as the voice of the Left on student campuses, because if Conservative students won’t argue with you, then you will never be able to convince them of your position because you won’t understand theirs. While your construction of a monumental safe space for your views will be welcomed by yourselves, it just means that more people will be put off politics, and that more Conservatives will drift to a place where they will constantly vote against you, but you won’t know enough about them to convince them back.
Disengagement isn’t just reserved to politically-active students who disagree with you, but it also extends to those who were disinterested in student politics in the first place. Let’s put it like this: if you aren’t interested in politics, are you more likely to become interested by watching quiet debate and discussion which you can engage with, or by watching angry protests and gesture-politics? What all of this disengagement does is weaken your voice and strengthen your echo chamber. It also weakens all of our voices, as a student body, because there are fewer of us willing and able to stand up and fight for students.
Equally, your latest hair-brained scheme is to thwart the government by boycotting the NSS. As a student at a university which will not be boycotting it, I have a natural inclination to welcome this particular policy, as the likelihood is that my university will shoot up the league tables, but this is a policy which is deeply damaging for current and future students, and shows a level of muddled reactionary thinking which is (even by your own standards) deeply misguided. If students don’t fill in the NSS, then the value of their degree programme goes down, by simple merit of decreasing its position in the rankings. Additionally, the value of the degrees done by second and first years decreases, because the NSS is used by universities to make vital improvements to the way in which courses and programmes are delivered – failing to provide that feedback means you are inflicting second year students with existing problems in degrees. Finally, you are robbing future students of an opportunity to accurately assess their university options. As a body that claims to be for students, you are acting against them in this. Not only that, but it is amusingly ironic as an action. You don’t wish for the government to increase the cost of courses, so you are boycotting the NSS and thus decreasing the value of them instead – with either policy the cost per unit of the course goes up, you just feel better if it is the latter case.
If you want to overthrow the Tories, NUS, then set up a political party. If you want to abolish prisons, or not condemn ISIS, or have schisms involving Mossad, then please do them in your own time – I’m not saying that you shouldn’t be engaging in your politics, I’m asking you not to do it in the name of all students. As a student who is not in the NUS, I ask you not to degrade my ability to make a difference.
Stick to what you do best, facilitating grassroots campaigns and providing people with cheaper stuff. Leave the politics to the students.