The State of the NUS is a bit like Blackpool

Nick Miao (cover photo taken on his Nintendo DS during his trip to Blackpool)

One question I found asking myself and my fellow delegates after our three-day trip to this year’s National Union of Students (NUS) National Conference in Blackpool was, ‘What the hell were we doing there?’

The NUS, the national body representing the collective interests of students in higher and further education, is supposedly the bastion of student activism in the UK. They lobby the Government on issues that matter to students and support students’ unions across the country in their collective organising efforts.

However, I certainly didn’t feel that I was a part of such an organisation when I walked into a sparsely filled conference hall in Blackpool Winter Gardens earlier this April. There was no energy in the room. The speeches were read off the script. People were leaving halfway through. More time was spent lecturing delegates on dull democratic procedures and using hand signals. At one point they started trying to get us to do ice-breaker activities akin to Michael Spence’s ‘disagreeing well’ obsession. It all felt like a primary school assembly rather than the beating heart of Britain’s national student movement.

This isn’t normal. NUS National Conference used to be a space for student delegates from up and down the country to gather and organise collectively, whether by electing the next leaders of the student movement, discussing and deliberating on policies, or voting on them on behalf of the students we represent. But NUS Officers, in their infinite wisdom, decided to move two out of three of these functions online: the election now takes place before the Conference, and voting on policy happens after. This leaves the Conference itself looking like a really big focus group, where students complain about the state of the NUS, but nothing actually gets done.

Shortly before the Conference, I spoke to Alex Stanley, the Vice President-elect of Higher Education at NUS England, to better understand exactly what has gone wrong with the NUS. He told me that ‘The biggest issue facing the NUS is a crisis of engagement […] We need a Union that’s mobilised, that’s campaigning, and that wins. And we currently don’t have that.’

It’s incredibly ironic that this year’s National Conference is held in Blackpool because, in many ways, the state of the NUS is a bit like Britain’s least favourite seaside town. Like Blackpool, the NUS has seen better days. At its peak in the 1990s, the NUS had a real influence on national politics. It had great relations with the Government and institutional actors who would consult the NUS on student policies while supporting students’ unions up and down the country with the vast range of services and resources it offered.

National Conference at Blackpool in 1979, back when Blackpool was actually a nice place and when the NUS actually mattered.

Today, the NUS is a ghost of its former self, having lost those key relationships, half of its workforce, and even its headquarters following years of financial mismanagement. Alex tells me that, ‘the NUS hasn’t done enough to get itself on national media and into those conversations in higher education; when it has, it’s been for the wrong reasons.’ Indeed, in recent memory, it seems like the only time students ever hear about the NUS in the news has been because it had embroiled itself in a fresh scandal. Headlines such as ‘NUS president ousted over antisemitism allegations’ or ‘NUS faces bankruptcy over £3m deficit’ hardly instil confidence.

For all intents and purposes, the NUS is a sinking ship whose members are desperate to get out of it. In the past five years alone, the NUS has seen seven disaffiliations, meaning it was losing an average of 1.4 member students’ unions per year, with good reason too. Currently, the affiliation fee for the NUS stands at 2.5% of a students’ union’s annual block grant. For example, here at UCL, our SU sends the NUS £30,000 a year for membership fees alone. However, with the increased funding from the Student Life Strategy, the Union would be expected to double its annual contribution to some £60,000 by 2028.

Nonetheless, I voted to remain in the NUS at UCL SU’s affiliation referendum last year, alongside the 59.4% of students who voted in the same way. I wanted to believe in the student movement, and the idea that a national collective body like the NUS, for all its faults, remained ‘the best vehicle for students to make change’, as Alex puts it. I am not sure if I could say the same today.

Alex insists that there is still hope in the NUS, pointing to the structural reforms passed at National Conference as a ‘real opportunity to get us back on track.’ These reforms would see the decentralisation of the NUS via the creation of NUS England, which NUS Officers argued would open up more space for regional representation at a local level. For Alex, ‘The biggest piece of work for the NUS is to get itself sorted out internally.’

Unfortunately, this year’s Conference did anything but. While the delegates eventually voted through the reforms with 57% in favour, the reforms faced fierce criticism on the Conference floor when NUS Officers told delegates that they were not allowed to suggest amendments to the fine print, as they had already been approved internally before the Conference. There was also significant doubt cast over the legitimacy of the ‘member consultation’ process which, according to UCL SU sources, amounted to an email invite to students’ unions to fill in a ‘rigid web form’.

Across the hall, repeated attempts by NUS Officers to water down a policy expressing solidarity with the Palestinian people saw heated discussion descend into chaos, with police being called into the Conference floor as backup. As one delegate passionately put it, ‘we are not being listened to […] It should not be controversial or risky to stand up for Palestinians and stand up for human rights and speak out against genocide.’ This policy was also voted through, although many delegates told me they had done so reluctantly as it was ‘better than nothing.’

I left Blackpool more sceptical than ever of the NUS’s ability to represent the force and opinions of Britain’s diverse student movement. It worries me that NUS Officers refused to take seriously the delegates’ widespread concerns over the devil in the details, forcing through policies that no one seemed to be happy about. Alex says that the NUS needed to get itself sorted out internally, but what does it say about the National Union when this is done by bulldozing through dissent?

It’s also worth remembering that the majority of delegates simply did not vote. As voting took place online, less than half of those who attended the Conference managed to cast their ballot in the end. The reforms, for example, were passed by a mere 205 votes, which still accounted for 57% of those who voted. For reference, the NUS claims to represent 4.5 million students across the UK through its 426 member SUs. As one UCL delegate put it, ‘I’m sorry, but the NUS is a joke.’

Perhaps I was being too harsh on Blackpool. Looking back, I must admit that the struggling seaside town does have its moments of sheer brilliance, especially its Wetherspoon(s). I cannot say the same for the National Union. Britain’s student movement is alive and well, but it is not found in the NUS, a relic of a time when national student institutions held real influence in society. Its demise is a lesson to those who come next, but that is the extent of its value today.

It’s time to leave the National Union of Students.