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The NUS ‘governance review’ was presented to us as some great piece of social democratic reform by the union’s Labour-affiliated leadership, but in reality they seek to sideline the union’s elected officers and demolish the last remnants of political pluralism within the NUS. The rhetoric says that the union will somehow still be ‘led by students’, but this is patronising at best. The basis and vision for the review was provided not by students, but by non-student union managers. And the main proposal involves the transfer of ultimate power and veto within the union to a ‘trustee board’ made up of ‘external’ individuals such as lawyers and accountants.
What does that mean in practice? When I was elected equality and diversity officer at Leeds University student union, I became a trustee on a new board. I was asked to sign a contract stating that, as a trustee, I would not make any decisions to the union’s financial detriment. In one swift stroke, my right to campaign for the removal of the NUS’s multi-million pound contracts with unethical manufacturers was ripped from my grasp.
The trustees also had the power to overrule any decisions made by students if they were deemed to ‘jeopardise the union’s reputation’ – a phrase interchangeable with ‘having a non-mainstream political opinion’. I was informed that sitting on such a board would require me to take off my ‘student officer hat’ – I would not now be looking after the interests of the ‘minority’ students that you would expect an equality officer to represent, but those of the student body as a whole. Any suggestions that such a structure was a root cause of discrimination were dismissed as the ramblings of a renegade.
One year later, an almost identical review, conceived by a steering group that includes the brains behind the Leeds proposal, has been rolled out for the national union. This time it is suggested that the board will have no officers to represent minorities at all, hat or no hat.
The proposal effectively erodes the already limited democratic structures remaining between ‘ordinary’ students and those at the top. It works to centralise power, reaffirming the view that the union is nothing more than a playground for bureaucrats en-route to a career in Westminster. It is a plan to destroy a mass-membership organisation and create in its place an elitist, monolithic lobbying tool – a kind of student think-tank.
The union’s leaders seem to think that the huge losses students have suffered – the right to free education and the giant leaps made in its marketisation – would not have transpired had we adopted this way of working earlier. That is nonsensical: the reason students lost their right to free education was because the union was begging for scraps inside the minister’s office rather than throwing its energy and resources into mobilising students across the country.
Blaming the shaky governance structures is an easy way out of NUS’s failure to secure the interests of its core members. The union will continue to fail so long as it keeps moving towards becoming nothing more than a consortium of student unions, headed by union managers, that puts profit before students. The union certainly needs to change – but the current proposals have taken a dangerous wrong turn. n
Hind Hassan is one of 12 part-time officers on the National Union of Students executive. She is a member of Student Respect, but writes here in a personal capacity
The battle for the union: a timeline
April 2007 A motion is passed at the NUS annual conference in Blackpool, calling for reform of the union’s governance structures
Summer 2007 The NUS pays a management consultant £100,000 to write a ‘white paper’; a ‘consultation’ then opens. The union is criticised for holding the consultation over the summer, when most students will not be at their universities and so cannot be involved. Left groups realise that the reforms will remove their positions within the union, and set up a campaign against them
December 2007 An ‘extraordinary’ (emergency) conference to pass the reforms is called by the national leadership – at such short notice that delegates from most universities are simply appointed by their unions, not elected by students. Controversially, the chair refuses to count the vote, declaring that it is obviously more than the required two-thirds majority
April 2008 The reforms passed in November go to a ratification vote at the union’s annual conference, but the left mobilises in the form of the Save NUS Democracy campaign and narrowly wins the third of delegates’ votes needed to block the new constitution. NUS president Gemma Tumelty breaks down in tears as the result is announced
Summer 2008 The ‘consultation’ is restarted. New NUS president Wes Streeting says that despite the ‘setbacks’ there will be ‘no turning back’ on reform
November 2008 There are plans for another emergency conference to try to pass the reforms again