By Fiona Edwards
At this year’s forthcoming NUS National Conference the number one task for the left is to ensure the re-election of Malia Boauttia as NUS President. Malia’s election last year was a historic victory, the first Black woman and the first Muslim to win this position in NUS’ history. Malia was elected on a platform of supporting free education, fighting the cuts, championing liberation and equality, fighting all forms of racism, opposing war and tackling climate change. Securing her re-election is the priority for the left.
Also at this year’s conference there are proposals being put forward to change NUS’ internal democratic arrangements. There is some confusion, including on the left, about the character of the suggested changes. So it is necessary for the proposals to be given serious examination. Should these proposals be implemented NUS’ capacity to defend students would be significantly weakened, so they need to be rejected.
The context for all these discussion in NUS is that the Tory government, that hopes to be re-elected on 8 June, is planning to intensify its attacks on students and the education sector. Further and higher education will come under increased assault – with deeper cuts to education and student support. This is all part and parcel of the Tories’ hard Brexit and austerity framework.
Students will want to fight these attacks. So the priority for the right-wing is to ensure NUS becomes a docile and ineffective union – that means replacing both its left wing President and weakening its current democratic arrangements.
The undemocratic governance review
The motion, misleadingly titled ‘Strengthening NUS Democracy’, is in reality the vehicle for an attack on NUS democracy. If implemented it will make it significantly more difficult for the left to win control of NUS in the future and lead NUS as a campaigning and fighting union. It proposes constitutional changes that would roll back the advances the left has been progressively making at the last five years of NUS Conferences. It would also further reduce the, already much diminished, power of FE students within NUS.
NUS’ right wing factions want to make NUS less democratic, because they understand that the left overwhelmingly represents students’ views. The changes the review proposes would aid the NUS’ right wing factions and harm the left.
Students need a national union structure that can generate the maximum unity around the political campaigns required to defend education and students from the growing attacks. Any changes to NUS’ internal democracy need to be judged against whether they facilitate or hamper NUS being a more effective union.
The core effect of the governance review proposals would be to weaken, not strengthen, NUS’ capacity to lead a collective, united, fighting student movement.
The right wing would like NUS to become an inert, inactive, docile network of individual students. The review in effect proposes that NUS takes some significant steps in that direction.
Support progressive amendments – but still reject the review
At NUS Conference there will be a number of helpful amendments proposed to the main motion. Most of the amendments delete some of the worst aspects of the proposed governance review, so should be supported. The exception is amendment 601e, which weakens collective discussion by accepting an online ballot as a replacement for students participating in the discussions at NUS National Conferences under certain circumstances, so should be opposed.
However, even if the main motion is amended as above it would still significantly undermine NUS democracy, so it should still be voted down.
This coming year it is important NUS faces outwards and focuses on fighting cuts, fees, rising hate crime and defending students’ interests within the Brexit negotiations. NUS should not be diverted into a misguided internal discussion about its governance and rules.
How the review proposes to weaken NUS and its democracy
Some of the more undemocratic aspects of the governance review’s proposals are set out below.
FE students are currently under-represented in NUS – this governance review proposes to worsen this
Contrary to the its misleading rhetoric, the governance review proposes to further reduce FE representation. This represents a serious attack on FE students’ voices within NUS.
FE students make up two thirds of NUS’ membership, but only wield approximately 25% of votes at NUS National Conferences (219 FE votes out of 782 total votes in 2015 and 163 FE votes out of 720 total votes in 2016).
Only 20% of the current NUS National Executive Council are FE students (9 out of 45).
Correcting these huge degrees of under-representation of FE students should be a priority. Instead this governance review proposes to make these problems worse.
When it comes to the NUS National Executive Council, the review proposes to abolish five guaranteed FE places by scrapping the Block of 15. This would increase the under-representation of FE students not decrease it.
There are of course various ways that the gross under-representation of FE students in NUS could be addressed. NUS National Conference could easily be made more representative. Currently FE students only cast approximately 25% of the total votes cast, when they are representing around 4.5 million FE students, twice as many as the number of HE students.
In effect each FE student member of NUS has 1/8 the level of representation at conference as each HE student member. This lack of equality has political implications. An unrepresentative conference can in effect defy the views of the majority of students. For example in 2013, a proposal from FE colleges that NUS should campaign to “bring back EMA” was voted down by HE delegates, even though the overwhelming majority of FE delegates supported the proposal.
If it was possible to remedy the under-representation of FE students by just increasing the number of FE students attending NUS National Conference, that should be done. But this is incredibly difficult to achieve. The UK education system provides greater funds to HE than to FE for student representation. So there is a very different capacity within FE. Well-funded Students’ Unions with full time Sabbatical Officers are the exception not the rule. The opposite is the case within HE. These are real material difficulties to which there are no quick fixes available to NUS.
FE Students’ Unions need more support and resources to develop, so NUS should lobby the UK government for proper funding for FE representation and creating full time Sabbatical Officers in every Students’ Union.
But, whilst the number of delegates at NUS conference does not reflect the actual numbers of NUS members in FE and HE, the under-representation of FE can easily be address in another way. The reduced number of FE delegates can be compensated for by giving a different weight to FE delegates’ votes, so that the overall FE vote reflects its real weight amongst the NUS membership.
With twice as many FE students represented by NUS than HE students, but only 25% of Conference delegates coming from FE, an FE vote could have a value of 8 times that of a HE vote. That would be a significant democratic advance. Ensuring the voting strength at NUS National Conference reflected the actual numbers of students, NUS could simply worked out year by year the respective weight of FE votes at the close of delegate registration.
Other less fundamental, but basic, changes, such as ensuring NUS National Conference takes place outside of FE term time and saving money by pursuing partnerships with Students’ Unions and Universities to host NUS National Conference on a campus rather than at expensive corporate conferencing centres, would save lots of money, which could be used to subsidise the travel and expenses for some more FE student delegates to attend the Conference.
To be effective NUS needs to be united, not a divided – with no undemocratic dominance by England
The 7 million students that NUS represents are under attack by a strong, determined unified UK government. In order to maximise the strength and capacity to fend off these attacks NUS needs to be a movement that brings students together on a UK level, as well as respecting and supporting the NUS Nations.
It is already the case that NUS National Conference Higher and Further Education policy proposals and motions as well as Welfare policies are dominated by a focus on England at the expense of Wales, Scotland and the north of Ireland.
Unfortunately the review proposes to weaken the situation in relation to the Nations by removing responsibilities from the NUS UK Vice President Further and Higher Education Officers and Welfare Officer for taking forward the fight to defend Scotland, Wales and the north of Ireland sectors. This will simply increase the dominance of England at the expense of the Nations.
Bringing students together on a regional level can be a valuable way of training activists, sharing best practice, coming up with actions and developing NUS campaigns. But decisions in the student movement should be made at the appropriate level. Most campaigns against the UK government need to be directed by NUS at a UK level, or by NUS Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland where that is appropriate. A decision making regional England Conference is not necessary and could prove counterproductive by fragmenting the movement instead of building unity.
Most important is the need to strengthen the UK wide decision making bodies, as these are central to any fight against the UK government – whether that be campaigns to end austerity or stop a hard, reckless Brexit. Undermining NUS’ capacity to lead a UK wide fight, by creating unnecessary layers of division, can only benefit NUS’ opponents in government.
The NUS Executive ensures representative decision making between NUS National Conferences
The proposal to abolish the Block of 15 in practice is a proposal to abolish the NUS National Executive Council, leaving the NUS National Officers to make all decisions in between NUS National Conferences. This is an affront to democracy.
The role of the Block of 15 on the NUS National Executive is crucial in making decisions and also in holding NUS National Officers to account.
The Block of 15 is elected through STV , which strengthens NUS and its ability to unite students, because a wide range of voices are represented in national discussion between conferences, including minority views. The left is a beneficiary of such a democratic proportional voting system. For the best part of 20 years only a minority at NUS National Conference supported free education. The only voices that spoke up for free education on the NUS National Executive came from the Block of 15 or were NUS Liberation Campaign Officers during this period. Whilst in a minority, the left did have a base in NUS thanks to the Block of 15 which served as an indispensable launch pad for winning NUS over to supporting free education.
The review proposes to replace the NUS National Executive Council with toothless focus groups – unelected “networks” whose role will be to “feed into” NUS National Officers rather than cast votes and participate in decision making.
Abolishing the Block of 15 would will make decision making less democratic.
NUS Conference agendas should be determined by what is important to students
The review proposes that NUS National Conference not discuss an issue where there is already a consensus. Instead of students discussing the most important issues they face, priority for discussion would be determined on the basis of absence of agreement. So if the government plans to increase tuition fees to £100,000 per year and there is a consensus amongst students to oppose this, it is possible the National Conference would not even discuss this huge attack. No doubt the government would be very pleased, but this is not an effective way for NUS to determine the political priorities of its agenda.
Even where there is broad agreement on a particular issue, debate elaborates the discussion and can help build understanding of the issue within the student movement. Collective discussion is integral to an effective campaigning union.
There is no such thing as a ‘neutral’ chair of Conference
The review proposes to remove the power of the democratically elected NUS National President to appoint the chair of Conference, as has been the case for decades. In this attack on the left it is proposed that the power is transferred to the Democratic Procedures Committee – a highly politicised body within NUS on which the right wing currently have a majority. It is disingenuously suggested that the Democratic Procedures Committee would find “neutral” students to chair the Conference instead. No such students exist – this is simply about taking power away from a left wing President of NUS and giving it to the right wing.
For a campaigning, collective union – Against the online atomisation of students
NUS would be weaker if student politics becomes more atomised. It maximises NUS strength when students are brought together and decide collectively how to act. That is an important aspect of NUS’ democratic events such as the National Conference, which would be undermined by online Xfactor style voting at home.
The advantage of NUS’ democratic meetings is student representatives participate in and influence actual discussions before decisions are made. Denying students that right to collectively participate does not make for better decisions. Instead it separates those making the decision from each other, in effect atomises them, and disconnects the issues under discussion from the process of making the decision. The campaigns that NUS needs to prepare in the coming period can only benefit from thorough collective discussion. Only the government stands to gain if NUS politics becomes more atomised with its decisions taken by students acting in isolation.
No undemocratic Extraordinary Conference to change the NUS Constitution!
The proposal that the final changes to the NUS Constitution and Rules should be made at an NUS Extraordinary Conference, rather than at NUS National Conference, is undemocratic. NUS Extraordinary Conferences are well known to be highly unrepresentative and involve even fewer FE students then attend NUS National Conference. The proposed conference would see FE students given an even smaller say, than at an ordinary NUS National conference, over a proposal that will further reduce their influence in NUS. The ordinary NUS National Conference is more representative and more likely to scrutinise issues than the proposed Extraordinary Conference.
For a campaigning union that defends students
The proposals the review puts forward, and their likely consequences, need to be examined seriously. If the review proposals are agreed NUS will become less democratic and weaker as a result.
NUS is far from perfect and needs to be improved, but that cannot be achieved by a review that would worsen the situation. The NUS will be more able to defend students if it rejects this review at the forthcoming conference next week. It will be less able to defend students if this undemocratic review continues to proceed.
Additionally, for NUS to be an effective campaigning union, it needs left leadership. Retaining Malia Boauttia as NUS President is the priority for the elections at the forthcoming conference. Her campaign should be supported and its material, which can be found here, widely promoted.