Previously, I have blogged about the problems facing the governance structures of the NUS. They represented steep challenges to the democratic credibility of the NUS elite, the accountability processes of NUS meetings, and the economic viability of a monopolistic commercial arm. I want to make it clear that in principle, a strong national movement for the benefit of students must exist. I disagree with Laurie Penny and her claims that we don’t need an NUS to work for us at all, even less leaders and even parliament. Concerted, collective action can work in the context of a vibrant national movement. Penny forgets the fact that her role has become one of leadership. So then, we need a national movement. The NUS, in its current form, cannot even hope to amass a vanguard, let alone enjoy the support of students across the country. Liam Burns, NUS president, ignores this in his appeal for more action against cuts. He needs to sort out the NUS before he can try to sort out the government. If a Union demands £50,000 from Sheffield Students’ Union (SSU) every single year, we deserve to have an organisation committed to helping students. Below, I have outlined five key proposals that the NUS must enact with a great sense of urgency.
Direct Elections. The first change that Burns and the Block of 15 need to instil is a new democratic culture. Our leaders must be elected directly by its membership. Paying NUS members should have a democratic voice. NUS delegates provide a middle man, a nice solution to the NUS problem of democracy. It was useful in an age when we did not have a digital media. But I concede the point to Penny that Twitter and Facebook have given us fantastic opportunities for involvement. The internet is an opportunity for direct policy consultation, leadership and action. Only, the NUS has chosen not to use it. This is the first problem that the NUS needs to confront. Direct elections and a direct voice to students it says it represents.
Student Consultation. This notional right to democracy is not enough. We need a more substantive sense of deliberative decision-making, lacking across many national organisations. But even the current government manages to launch consultation programmes. Think tanks promote commissioned research projects. The National Executive Committee (NEC)? They meet six to seven times a year to discuss policy. NUS Connect has been challenged in my previous article. The NUS fails to promote its message through any concerted action with the people it supposedly represents. This will be an important change. It needs to consult, survey and question the student population. It needs to offer innovative policy proposals subject to scrutiny by students before it is adopted national policy. The internet, again, provides a platform in which this could happen. It could work like Jolitics, or 38 Degrees, or even adopt a more formal approach to research, like the Wilberforce Society. There are even possibilities of working with YouGov to consult student opinion, as YouGov@Cambridge has started to do. This would also ensure that the NUS line is constantly open for debate. The NUS can be an open, transparent organisation whilst maintaining serious support for students.
NUS Liaisons. Every single NUS affiliated body must have an elected NUS Liaison. Major consultation must be handled by this elected individual, who would be the facilitator of debate and ensure that the new qualities of democracy and consultation are further entrenched within each affiliated SU. Liaison officers would work in partnership with the NUS – it would be their role to liaise between the NUS and the individual SU.
Student Issues. The NEC needs to be entirely reformed. Student Select Committees must come into existence in order to promote the following interests: (i) gender and sexuality equality, (ii) mature and postgraduate student options, (iii) ethnic minorities representation, (iv) international student issues, and (v) community relationships. Each would be headed by directly elected Officers, and committees themselves made up of NUS Liaisons and NUS permanent support staff. The NEC would be made up of these Officers, plus a national president and three vice presidents who would further: (i) student finance and fees, (ii) student welfare, and (iii) student educational well-being.
Freedom of Choice. NUS Services Limited (NUSSL) needs to be either overhauled or abolished. It cannot work as a serious organisation to the benefit of the student population. Admittedly, economics is not my strong point, but even I can see that NUSSL is a ridiculous monopolistic enterprise. It could be reformed: adopt flexible policies, ensure local and independent businesses are included, promote competition and freedom of choice.
The internal structure of governance needs reform. This has become clear with the above policies. Only through direct elections, substantive consultation and freedom of choice can the NUS deliver on its promise to be a national voice of the student population. Without a clear plan of reform, Sheffield Students’ Union must disaffiliate. SSU does not benefit from NUSSL, nor from the NUS that is closed and undemocratic. To say that SSU would be part of a national conversation is a total mistake – the NUS closed conversation in 2008.
If the National Union of Students does not reform, it risks a systemic crisis of confidence. Do not let that happen, Liam Burns!