Over the past few weeks, a lot of people have suddenly become very animated about the NUS – ostensibly as a straightforward reaction to the election results at 2016 National Conference. However, I would suggest that students need to take a long, hard look at the various issues at stake here before making up their minds, since this decision cuts much deeper than mere reaction to the election of a given candidate.
The ensuing aftermath has seen truth and fiction liberally blended together in national media. The simple fact is though that, while the NUS has its faults, leaving does not address them. Instead, it will make the Students’ Union weaker and more isolated – it is, in actuality, an explicit rejection of the notion of effecting positive change from within.
First up, some facts. We are better off to the tune of £37,000 for being affiliated with the NUS. How? Warwick SU pays £51,000 per year to affiliate. In return, we save £61,400 on the bulk-buying of food and drink from NUSSL, the NUS purchasing consortium. Without NUS membership, no Warwick students would be able to buy NUS Extra cards - so no discounts for Topshop, Spotify, Pizza Express and many more. The SU gained a total commission of £26,000 from selling these, all of which is reinvested back into vital student support services such as the Advice Centre, Student Activities, and our Democracy and Education departments.
Without this amount, your SU would be substantially weakened. We are a charitable organisation - everything we do, and everything we invest in, is for the betterment of students. That may not be you – and it may not even be now. But it will be someone you know, and it may be a service you are likely to require at some point in the future. £37,000 is the equivalent of two Sabbatical Officers, two members of sports and societies’ administrative staff, and 70% of the total annual grant budget awarded to all SU societies. We don’t want to have to cut services or put prices up, but these are two stark possibilities if we leave the NUS.
Secondly, there can be no denying that this is a crucial time for higher education. A Higher Education Bill is about to be announced which will float plans for universities to charge higher fees if they perform well in the new Teaching Excellence Framework (or TEF for short), together with other dramatic proposals. Students’ voices are only going to be powerful if they are united, and the only tangible way they can be united is through the NUS. Warwick SU is one of 600 other SUs that are members of the NUS – let’s not give that up without being very, very clear about what the benefit is of doing so.
Thirdly, I’m still not quite sure what is meant by the ‘average student’. In some ways this is a hugely patronising label given that so many students are award-winners, be that through societies and sports clubs or their individual academic achievements – so please don’t feel you have to accept that label! I suppose, though, that ‘average students’ are considered those who are least affected by the NUS’ liberation campaigns on behalf of women, students from ethnic minority backgrounds, international students, disabled students, and LGBTUA+ students. If you’re not directly affected by any of the NUS’ liberation campaigns, then yes - some of their work will not “represent you”. Maybe you’re not directly affected by their work on tackling sexual violence, the BME attainment gap and consent workshops - but that doesn’t mean it’s not important. If these aren’t issues relevant to you, they will represent and empower your friends, hallmates or people on your course. Don’t just vote for yourself: vote for those who may also benefit from empowerment.
The NUS is not perfect. It does need to become more transparent and more relevant, and we do need a national organisation that can win more battles with the government on students’ behalf. However, the key question is this: what do we actually gain by leaving? All we do is lose our opportunity to make the NUS better – and I can guarantee that any disillusioned voices will simply then be complaining from the sidelines, where we will have no influence whatsoever.
Two drinks suppliers have already written to us to say that we would get a worse deal – so how are we going to keep prices low by negotiating better deals with suppliers in this context? How will we make sure Warwick students can buy NUS Extra cards? What about the thousands of students who need support from the NUS liberation campaigns? Are we just now going to present the Warwick view on higher education’s future individually, rather than link up with unions around the country as part of a collective? Are we just going to stand alone, or have Exit campaigners already thrashed out some kind of makeshift alliance with the small number of students’ unions that are unaffiliated with the NUS?
Leaving the NUS doesn’t answer any questions: all it does is create new ones. While the grass may sometimes seem greener on the other side, I would urge you to consider all that we could be losing when you make your decision. Leaving might seem like a glamorous way to protest against the imperfect organisation that is the NUS, but it is far easier to pinpoint problems than to suggest tangible solutions. Regardless of your own party-political persuasion, students are stronger together - and stronger in the NUS.
Photo: Flickr / beglen