At first instance, flagging up shortcomings on the NUS may appear out of date. I’m inclined to disagree. Silently yet efficiently, Sabbatical Officers are taking charge at Sheffield Students’ Union (SSU) and across the country. More pressingly, the term of our new NUS president, Liam Burns has begun. The last time I’ve heard from him was 18 April in a column from the Guardian. With our new elite we cannot forget why they are there: to represent us. The pressing issue the NUS faces is internal in nature. Despite early promises from Aaron Porter, the NUS still does not represent students, nor does it live up to the ideals with which it judges our government. The NUS does not provide a national, unified voice of the student movement. But it can, and so I would like line out firstly, it’s problems, and secondly, possible solutions.
The NUS has a huge democratic deficit that has engulfed it in critical problems. The Governance Review of 2008 is a case in point. Proposals deemed to make the NUS more ‘credible’ and ‘corporate’ were defeated by a slim majority. However, the then president had already decided to push ahead with the reforms anyway, calling two EGMs that passed and then ratified the proposed changes. Not only does the NUS leadership have no more than an indirect legitimacy, but they have even had the cheek to bypass the delegates! Why is it that in the 21st century we elect our NUS elite indirectly? We elect delegates to elect our president, who then bypasses its slim democratic input anyway. This issue was not a one off: enter Durham Union Society. A non-affiliated society wanted to have a debate on multiculturalism featuring two BNP critics in an affiliated venue. It was cancelled, due to pressure from the NUS and despite uproar from the student population. Durham Students’ Union withdrew their affiliation to the NUS shortly after this event. Two examples of many – the NUS is not democratic.
Nor is it accountable. Look no further than http://www.nusconnect.org.uk/. The website is intended to manage information on the electoral process and publish minutes. Meetings of the National Executive Council (NEC) are supposedly open, yet who actually knows about them? It was only through the pressure from They Work For Students (TWFS) that any kind of information was released. Debate on policy is non-existent for students. Democracy is a foreign word to NUS leaders. Accountability? Pah. The NUS cannot call itself a credible organisation, and shouldn’t have the cheek to announce itself as the voice of students. Their mission statement: “Our mission is to promote, defend and extend the rights of students and to develop and champion strong students’ unions”. It fails on all accounts.
Unfortunately, the democratic deficit is not all that face students the Union supposedly represents. Affiliated student unions, one of which is SSU, are forced to abide by NUS Services Limited (NUSSL) rules in buying and selling. NUSSL, the commercial arm of the NUS, restricts the number of companies SUs may place orders from – from alcohol to bread rolls. If it’s not on the list, no order may be made. It is said to have made £5.3 million worth of benefits for members. Good stuff, but firstly, imagine how much more money SUs could be making without restrictions; secondly, divide that figure for all members; and thirdly, subtract Sheffield’s affiliation fee. These rules are ridiculous, and the profits are hardly worth it. SSU knows how to spend its money, so why place rules on us? NUSSL is nothing short of a monopoly. All sorts of companies want a slice of the lucrative student market – NUSSL as middle man is no good to us.
Finally, let’s not forget that lovely blue NUS Extra Card. It used to be part and parcel of being a student. But now, people have to pay for it. The NUS homepage does not inspire students for a fight against cuts, but entices them to a lovely McDonalds and competitions to win some cash from the discount cards they ought to buy. It may generate money, but it hardly benefits students. And I do wonder, how many students actually carry one of these gems?
The NUS is unrepresentative of students. It does not further the interests of students, nor is it an open, competitive organisation. The NUS needs to change, fast. Political momentum is waning and Liam Burns must embrace a new democratic culture that enjoys the support of the student population in choppy waters for HE. The governance of the NUS is backward, indirect and provokes resentment. I urge it to reform, before more SUs abandon it. Our National Union of Students must become more democratic, accountable and competitive. I hope that our new Sabbatical Officers at SSU take NUS reform seriously.
If the NUS does not reform, Sheffield Students’ Union must disaffiliate. More on possible solutions next time.