The NUS is in crisis - students need a new kind of leader
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At student unions across the country, it is once again election season. Campus walls fill up with posters, Facebook timelines are cluttered with candidate endorsements and videos, and the common areas on campus are packed with candidates and their teams, all jostling for the student vote.
A similar mood will soon prevail across campuses as the race to the top of the National Union of Students begins. Candidates were announced just last week, and I have no doubt that the phones of politically active students everywhere are buzzing with WhatsApp group chat notifications. The election machines of the NUS’s various factions, old and new, are awakening from their year-long slumber, and they are raring for a fight.
This year, the stakes are higher than ever before. The NUS, facing a £3.5m deficit, is in a fight for its future. Full-time officer positions and campaigns, which represent students from marginalised groups and sections, are being cut - eight full-time officer roles will not return in the 2019/20 academic year, including officers representing the international and trans student communities. The NUS is also selling its headquarters in London, and has confirmed that 54 staff are leaving or have left the organisation. A Reform Motion, which is going to be voted on at this year’s National Conference, will potentially see an end to the National Executive Council, all Liberation Officers and two-year officer terms with no possibility of losing an election.
Students, of course, are fighting back. A “Defend Liberation” campaign has been started, calling on the NUS to stop cuts to its liberation campaigns, while another campaign has been started by a group of international student sabbatical officers to oppose cuts to the International Students’ Campaign, which no longer has a full-time officer. Student unions, disillusioned with the chaotic state of affairs, are attempting to disaffiliate, with the University of Plymouth Students’ Union voting to leave last December.
With the future of the NUS hanging in the balance, delegates to this year’s National Conference should consider what, exactly, the NUS needs from its leadership. It is often said that most non-political students only know of the NUS because of its NUS Extra card; with even that being rebranded as the garishly-coloured TOTUM (“powered by NUS Extra”, in small print), it is entirely possible that the wrong set of leaders will almost completely alienate students from their only form of national representation. This could lead to an intensification, in 2019/20, of the trend of disaffiliations and disillusionment, costing the NUS valuable income and diminishing its ability to fight for students on a national level.
The question for this year is not what the NUS has done, but what it hasn’t done. I remember the UCU strikes from last year. I kicked off a UK-wide campaign for a strike refund, bringing angry students together and gathering over 100,000 signatures on petitions across the country. Student anger was also channelled into a wave of demonstrations, occupations and pickets at affected universities in solidarity with their striking lecturers, and there was a strong student bloc at a UCU march through London.
Throughout this whole process, apart from a lukewarm joint statement with the UCU, the NUS was disappointingly silent. Despite the overwhelming support for both refunds and lecturers from lay students, often at the same time, there was no official support for a strike refund (which may now soon be a reality), or support on the picket lines.
This year, whilst the NUS has made big strides in fighting for student welfare, many of the same problems persist. Where the NUS is making itself felt is where it engages with the concerns of actual students - rent, mental health, LGBT+ healthcare and safety, racism on campus - rather than fighting on high-level boards for esoteric policy changes that students don’t hear about or feel.
The NUS needs to be the voice for students, instead of speaking over them, and this means savvy leadership that actually knows how to engage students, not just student union officers and salaried staff. This means exceptional leadership that disrupts the tired, cliquey politics that seem to rule the day at NUS, and goes straight to students where they are on campuses and social media. This means fearless leadership that’s unafraid to take innovative and entrepreneurial action to secure funding for the NUS so it can serve the needs of the students and unions it represents.
To the delegates headed to Glasgow this year: the wrong leaders might sink the NUS, but the right leaders will use the next year to reshape it from the ground up, bringing new ideas to the forefront, and build something brilliant from the ashes of the old.
It’s up to you now.