Much ink has been spilled on the NUS, Malia Bouattia and the surge in Student Unions seeking disaffiliation from the body as a consequence of her election. OUSU’s own Becky Howe stated in the heated debate that preceded the decision to hold a referendum that the controversial new president was not in itself a reason to leave the NUS. She is fundamentally correct. This vote should not be about a personnel issue, but the structures that underpin it. Seen from this perspective, the conclusion is clear: the election of Bouattia was not an accident of history. It is the logical consequence of an organisation that has failed to comply with its mission, swapping genuine representation of students for narrow factional interests of student activists.
“For an NUS that works for you!” This was the ambitious slogan for my campaign to be elected NUS Delegate at my alma mater King’s College London in 2013. At the time, it captured my faith in the NUS: accommodating roughly 600 Student Unions across the United Kingdom, I felt that this was an organisation with a stunning capacity to deliver tangible benefits for students on every level – be it on fees, costs, equal access, tenancy rights, welfare, career and not least academic services. It was in this spirit that I fought and won the campaign and travelled to Liverpool for national conference in April 2014.
The reality of NUS Conference was rather sobering: the lion’s share of the motions presented to delegates focused on political issues of marginal relevance to the everyday experience of students at university, such as public ownership of banks, the condemnation of UKIP, and the obligatory motion on Palestine. Topics such as improving contact hours, guarantor schemes for international students, the expansion of soft skills training provision for students and the abolition of re-sit fees were drowned out as conference heatedly debated everyday politics. This was amplified by the infamous political factionalism that underpinned the conference, pitting representatives of organisations with such sonorous acronyms such as NCAFC, NOLS or AWL against one another while vying for seats on the National Executive Council or the Block of 15. One of the principal candidates for NUS President even managed to hold a candidacy speech without mentioning the word “students” once. An impressive, yet telling feat. While the eventual re-election of moderate Toni Pearce saw the convention end on a cordial note, the overall experience left non-factional delegates disillusioned.
While many may find these tales typical of the shenanigans of modern student politics, there is a more troubling reality behind them: the NUS has for long been structurally unable to properly work for students. It shuns accountability and democracy by rejecting a “One Member, One Vote” system to elect its President. As a result, factional infighting prevails within its executive bodies whose members primarily seek to advance narrow partisan interests irrespective of whether they improve the lives of the more than two million students they represent. These officers are in turn elected by delegates returned on minimal turnouts in local SUs, supported by coordinated fringe activist groups. Marred by this infighting and detached from the lives of the people it is supposed to represent, the NUS has long ceased to be an effective and powerful national voice for students. This is lamentable since there is a need for effective and constructive national student representation, particularly in an age where academia is evolving as rapidly as today. Today, the NUS is as, if not more, dysfunctional as during my undergraduate years – while demanding more than twice the affiliation fees from SUs. Bouattia’s election is the logical conclusion of this development.
The NUS, as it is now, is not working for students. It has not done so for several years, if not decades, and there is little hope for this state of affairs to change in the near future. Students should send a clear message and reject the failed institution that is the NUS – and with it the self-seeking politics that have led to the loss of the national student voice in Britain.